Elisa, Queen Regnant of Joya d'Arena, has defeated the invading armies of Invierne. However, she finds ruling her new nation difficult. An outsider from another land, her commands are not respected and she faces challenges from both the nobility and the masses, whose taxes must pay for the rebuilding of the country. Elisa must also face down a renewed threat from Invierne. Defeated on the battlefield, they now play a game of misinformation and intrigue, with assassins stalking the rooftops of Elisa's capital. In the midst of this Elisa discovers a vital clue to the origins of the magic of her Godstone, but dare she leave the capital in the hands of her rivals to pursue this quest?
The Crown of Embers is the sequel to Fire and Thorns and is the middle volume of a trilogy. Like its predecessor, the book is an easy, light read but is unfortunately rather less successful. Whilst the first book featured a solid, eventful plot which unfolded with focused conciseness (a relief from the too-many flabby epic fantasies around), this second book is comparatively uneventful and repetitive. There are several assassination attempts, which are foiled. Elisa angsts over how to rule her kingdom more effectively, to no conclusion. She angsts who whom she should marry for the good of the kingdom, to no conclusion. She moons over a potential love interest, even in the middle of a dire assassination attempt. Rinse and repeat.
These problems are confounded by regressive characterisation of the lead: Elisa evolved, in a standard but nevertheless reasonably-well-handled way, from coddled princess to warrior leader in the first book. In this second volume she seems to lose all of the confidence and skills gained in the first book and becomes a lame duck ruler, unable to assert her authority. This would be more convincing had we not seen Elisa already weld a band of desert villagers into a fearsome guerrilla army. No real explanation is given for Elisa's fall from competence in this volume save it was necessary for plot purposes. Some of the secondary cast get some decent character development (such as Tristan, one of Elisa's potential suitors), but overall the characters are less interesting than in the first book.
Where the novel does spring to live is in its depiction of the unusual magic system and the revelation that a lot of what is assumed about the world's backstory may be untrue. But these moments where character (and reader) assumptions are overturned are fleetingly brief. Otherwise for the bulk of the novel we are subjected to pretty standard YA fantasy fare, with the added irritation of an undercooked love story that utterly fails to convince.
The Crown of Embers (**) is a serious letdown after the first novel in the sequence. There are flashes of inspiration and interest, but overall this is a book that is content to rest on its laurels rather than build on the successes of its predecessor. It is available now in the UK and USA.