I put off reviewing this a lot longer than I should have.
I’d like to say “This was a great book!” or “This was an okay book,” or even just go wild and shred it in another of my more venomous book rants. You know, the ones that are majority of the reason I blog under an alias.
I…can’t do any of these.
I’m so delighted you asked. Brace yourselves, friends, for–
A Realm at Stake by K.C. Julius, narrated by Chris Walker-Thomson
The Drinnglennin Chronicles, No. 2
Genre: YA/New Adult High Fantasy & Adventure
Content: mild and occasional strong language, heterosexual and homosexual lovers, rape (twice), slavery, beatings, prostitution, “lessons in seduction,” touching a minor without consent, incest, murder murder murder (depicted and somewhat graphic including the murder of an infant and a young child), “conquests” of females, nudity, underage drinking, suicide, drunkenness, innuendo, obscene hand gestures (not described), kidnapping, drug use, xenophobia–did I catch it all?
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this audiobook in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own, because few are they who may tell me what to write and live to tell the tale.
A word of warning–this isn’t technically a review so much as it’s me hitting the highlights. The “good parts” version, plus warning you what you’re in for, (i.e., good characters, but get ready for some trauma). You can read the plot synopsis on Goodreads.
That’s not what I’m here for.
If you read the content warnings, I probably don’t need to repeat again that this is most certainly not a book for kids.
I’m going to say it again anyway.
It’s easy to get confused, with the protagonists being so young, dragons being the stuff of so many MG fantasies–look, if I got it mixed up, it’s clear it can happen. Julius was kind enough to rush in and correct me after reading my review of Portents–this was never intended for a young audience.
It’s worth repeating because I can just see some tenderhearted, crestfallen tween crying over this book, confused and absolutely crushed by a world where everything doesn’t turn out alright in the end, where rape, slavery, and war are the regular order of the day. I don’t want to see that happen.
So once an for all: adult book.
The good news is that the second book is much more obvious about what kind of story you’re getting right out of the gate. While we started Portents with chapters and chapters of what could easily be middle-grade Chosen One fluff, there’s a scene with lovers and councils of dark wizards smack in the opening prologue.
Now that we know what we’re about?
…I kind of devoured this thing. I listened to a fourth of it in one evening without my attention flagging. If anything, I had to take little breaks to let it settle in my head and breathe because did you really have to switch POVs there after that happened?
That’s just something I do, I think. If something especially important happens in a novel, I have to get away from it for a while, mull it over, take a walk, listen to the music of characters’ lives, hopes, and dreams shattering like the most delicate glass.
(Ending scenes of The Two Towers, I’m looking at you. Tolkien knew what he did.)
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story of A Realm at Stake is almost exactly what you’d expect after reading Portents of Chaos:
- Dragonriders ride dragons,
- King still needs to choose an heir from the four contenders presented in book 1,
- Wizard rides pony over entire continent and leaves kids unattended to get into their own trouble because he has bigger problems at the moment even if they do set the house on fire.
- There’s also a sniper assassin (but that isn’t really resolved in this book, so…I probably should not talk about it. Cue bookmarkedone refraining from cheering “yay sniper assassin for the drama!”)
- ominous ominous ominous in preparation for Book 3.
You thought you could get comfortable with six POV characters? No, no, no, no, no! You’re not starting the book with Maura or Leif or even Borne–Julius is presenting a brand-new character in a completely different country!
To be fair, this was one of my favorite choices that Julius made in A Realm at Stake. Why?
Because for an entire novel, we’ve heard nothing but demonizing propaganda about the Helgrin warriors, and Julius opens the sequel with a fluffy wholesome scene as a boy (Helgrin) waits breathlessly for his father (more Helgrin) to return from sea.
Not only does the affection they show one another this throw everything you thought you knew about the Helgrins out the window, it’s deeply humanizing. Monsters? No, not here. Just ordinary people trying to live their lives and protect their families…and occasionally raiding seacoast towns to keep the economy running.
Bold move, Julius. Bold move.
Helgrinia itself? Oh, to be sure, it has its deep and horrific social flaws as much as Drinnglennin. But with names like Ragnar and Snorri, with longships and mead and braided blond hair? With maypole dances and occasional rape?
…It’s just Viking culture.
Like I mentioned in my review of book 1, there’s pros and cons when it comes to worldbuilding like that, deriving locations from real-world places. It’s a choice, and it’s a clear choice.
And besides. Male characters with long blond braids remind me of happy days in Rohan. It’s nice to have some variety of hairstyle.
What I do love?
The relationship between Fynn and his brother.
They have every reason to hate each other, the older to ignore the younger, the younger to envy the elder, to fight jealously for their father’s attention. But they don’t. There’s a sweet brotherly affection between the two of them, wholesome, playful and sweet. Fynn has only awe for Jared, and Jared–I think he loves his little brother, as impossible as the plot makes that out to be.
They’re forever looking out for each other, throwing their arms around one another’s shoulders, stealing one another’s mead or ale, admiring one another’s strengths (You’ve grown taller! You’re a mighty man of war!).
All hail the fluff, basically. And, as it turns out, I am very much here for sibling relationship dynamic fluff.
I almost find it more wondrous and remarkable than the dragons.
More of this, Julius, if you please!
And while we’re on the topic of the good stuff…
If I’m being honest with myself, between the Maypole dance, the spirit of good fun, food and fire, song and dance–and yes, a few too many pirates itching to get drunk–the Helgrin festival (while the sun was still up and everyone was happy, mind you) felt just a little a bit like faires I’ve been to. Felt a bit like home.
And while Fynn isn’t a sweet kid in the same sense Leif is, he still loves everyone he knows. He loves his mother, his half-brother, his father, his friends, even his brother’s friends–well, okay, he doesn’t like the lord’s wife, but she’s mean, so nobody’s going to blame him for that one–he’s just a good, wholesome kid.
So even though they’re Viking types and have ridiculous moral problems in their society–I still liked them.
Julius, I liked them. I hope you’re happy.
This is also the point in reading the book that I look into the middle distance and think “You’re going to stab this poor kid’s heart out like a ripe fruit.” When a day is too perfect in the world of some writers, we readers cower under the cliffs and trees because we know, we know better.
There’s a lot that goes on in A Realm at Stake. After being introduced into Helgrin culture, Julius drops back into Morgan the Wizard’s POV…which is when I realized that there is no recap of book 1. It’s just off to the races with Fynn in fantasy Viking land, getting ready for Midsummer, learning the intrigue of another court, listening to an old man talk about that time he had a wild dream after doing mushrooms…erm…great times, right?
I think it’s great, but if you aren’t reading one book on the heels of the other the way I am, or even worse, reading the second book without the knowledge of the first–yeah, you’re not going to have a clue who any of these people are.
And then it’s back to Whit’s POV, the most irritating and arrogant focalized character…who starts reminding us how charming he is by snapping at Morgan for not serving him to his satisfaction and finding a dryad girl hot.
Don’t love Whit.
The stakes seem higher this time. Or maybe I’m just sinking deeper, falling into the story, needing to know what happens to the characters as the stakes climb higher and higher and–
New POV chapter.
Okay, I know it was structured this way in book 1, but Julius.
Julius. You’re giving me whiplash here.
I just wanted to know what happens with the magic tree.
I say this, but it’s really half a compliment at least. It means she’s improved her writing because I want to know what happens. It matters now.
So I take a deep breath, pay the compliment, say okay, let’s read about Maura. This is fine.
And then Leif is back.
(muffled sounds of bookmarkedone screaming my boy is here! as Leif bumbles around poking and fidgeting and being a literal ray of sunshine, bouncing on the cushions, eating all the food, and talking with his mouth full–thank you for that convincing munching voice, Walker-Thomson, it was perfect)
You may continue.
And of course we get both a joust and Mob-Ball this time. Really, Julius, you spoil us.
And yes, I am required to be a Renaissance faire kid here for just a minute because, well, I’ve been to jousts.
We don’t…actually care that much about the score.
It happens in a blink, and if you aren’t watching, you could miss a near-unhorsing. If it’s a five-point hit or a three-point hit–that’s for the herald to remember, not the casual fan.
But she got the rules right, and the way the crowd reacts, the shouting and the breathless silence. So I can’t complain too much.
It’s a little reminiscent of Ivanhoe. And the voices for the vendors hawking their wares, that’s perfect.
But where there’s jousting, there’s also Borne, one of my un-favorite characters from the first book, appearing just when Leif isn’t around to smack him for getting too close to Maura. Or at least distract him! Noo, Maura, don’t get lost in his eyes, he’s a total creep, please, you deserve so much better–
If you’ve already read the book, you may have noticed that I left out a lot of stuff that happened in the second half.
I’m not going to talk about the slavery and prostitution. I’m not going to talk about the lessons in seduction or how annoyed I am by the trope of guards not stopping to wonder what a Hot Girl is doing inside the jail. The concept of a woman’s sexuality as a weapon. The rape(s).
It’s all there. It’s not my type. It’s rough enough that I probably wouldn’t have finished the book if I hadn’t promised to review it. But here we are.
There’s good and bad. I’m trying to chin up and look for the good.
If you read the book, good luck to you. All I can say is that now you know what you’re in for.