Jodi Meadows’ The Orphan Queen has everything I look for in a book: political intrigue, magic, supernatural threat, and kickass heroines. Wilhelmina, or Wil, is the heir to the throne of the conquered kingdom of Aecor, and a member of the Ospreys, a group of children and teenagers who escaped after their country’s destruction. She enters the palace of the king of the Indigo Kingdom as a spy, determined to find the information needed to restore her country’s independence; while there, however, she learns that the omnipresent threat of wraith, a form of magical residue, is growing, and if she doesn’t do something there might not be a kingdom to retake.
Although the world of The Orphan Queen has all the hallmarks of a mediaeval fantasy world – magic, warring kingdoms, a distinct lack of gunpowder – it has a rather nineteenth-century feel to it: nobles waltz in vaulted ballrooms festooned with chandeliers and gilt mirrors, women wear high-waisted frocks while men wear shirts and trousers, and there was even a magical railroad before magic was banned to prevent the growth of wraith. With magic forbidden, however, none of your typical steampunk elements exist. The result is an utterly unique world that falls firmly into high fantasy without suffering from some of the clichés of the genre.
My biggest criticism of this book is the length, or rather, the projected length of the series. It’s the first in a duology, but there is so much going on in this book I feel like we’d need at least a trilogy to see everything concluded adequately. As it is, this novel seems to end with the conclusion of one of the major plotlines (as well as a cliffhanger that makes me want to scream!) but, while it was a satisfying conclusion for the first book in a series, if that plotline is truly concluded it seems to fall a little flat, given the depth of backstory given to that plotline. I’m sorry, this is really vague and might not make sense, but I don’t want to give away the ending! If you’ve read the book, and aren’t sure what I’m talking about, highlight the whitespace below:
Wraith has been a threat for over a century, yet Wil manages to fix it by … telling it to coalesce? I’m really hoping that the fact it formed into the shape of a boy means that it is not finished wreaking havoc, but I also don’t know how one book will manage to handle that and involve Wil and the Ospreys taking back Aecor.
One of my favourite parts of this book was the depth Meadows gave to the antagonistic characters. The king whose army invaded Wil’s homeland and slaughtered her parents, it transpires, had good reason to send his army there; even their execution is arguably understandable given their, from his perspective, enormous betrayal of a former friendship. Similarly, Black Knife begins the book as a terrifying vigilante who would turn Wil into the police, but, the mystery of his identity notwithstanding, is shown to be more nuanced and well-meaning than he at first appears. Even Patrick Lien, leader of the Ospreys, who is in many ways an antagonist while still being the leader of the group to which Wil is uncompromisingly loyal, is given some depth, in that he, like Wil, wants to save the people of Aecor, but he has a different notion of how far it is acceptable to go to achieve those ends.
Similar depth is given to the relationship between Wil and her best friend, Melanie. I really loved that Meadows showed a close friendship between two girls, something we don’t see a whole lot of in YA, and more than that, it’s a genuine friendship. Wil and Melanie love each other, that much is clear, but they’re also not blind to the other’s faults; they argue, and fight, but ultimately support each other. It’s the kind of friendship that’s rare in YA in that not only are there two girls who are close friends, not backstabbing or conniving frenemies, but also that that friendship is not universally supportive on the part of the secondary character. Melanie has thoughts and dreams and desires of her own and they don’t always align with Wil’s, and that makes their friendship real.
Overall, I absolutely loved this book. It’s an ideal read for anyone looking for a complex world inhabited by vivid characters, and I can’t wait for the sequel!