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The Hundredth Queen by Emily R. King

The Hundredth Queen by Emily R. King
Book Name: The Hundredth Queen
Author: Emily R. King
Publisher(s): Skyscape
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Release Date: June 1, 2017

Emily R. King’s debut novel, The Hundredth Queen, had been gathering digital dust in my Kindle library for months, when something inspired me to finally check it out. That something being $1.99 Audible narration. And an empty audiobook queue.

Despite the miserly roots of my inspiration, this epic story was well worth it. Set in a second world version of India/the Middle East, it follows Kalinda, a sickly orphan raised in a temple, who is chosen by an obsessive rajah as his hundredth queen.

Though the first part of the story felt predictable with several common tropes, it kept me engaged through the creative worldbuilding and Kalinda’s compelling narrative voice. Then, about halfway through came the first brilliant twist; and toward the end, the second, even more mind-blowing surprise. As someone who can usually sniff these things out (I guessed the twist of every M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, or at least, the good ones), I could only marvel at King’s storytelling ability. Both twists had been hinted at from the start, so that when they were revealed, I could only slap my forehead for missing them. On a scale of, “‘I am your Father’ COOL” to “‘L+R=J’ MIND BLOWN,” I would rate it “‘The forgetful wizard is really a god’ WOW.”

If my fanboy excitement is not enough to make you want to drop $4.99 for an ebook, and $1.99 for Audible narration, then let’s get back to the worldbuilding. The Tarachand Empire feels like a fusion of ancient India and Arabia, and the culture is highly influenced by the semi-fictional Parijana faith.

Within this mythology, four gods hold sway over four elements. The Sky Father; his consort, the Land Goddess; their children, the Fire God and the Water Goddess. Though we don’t learn that magic even exists in this world until about a fifth of the way in, the gods have imbued some humans, known as Bhutas, with power over the elements. They reminded me of Benders in the Avatar series: Galers are like Airbenders, Tremblers like Earthbenders, and Aquafiers and Burners should be self-explanatory. In the Tarachand Empire, they are pariahs: hunted down and executed with extreme prejudice.

Growing up in a Land Goddess-ordained temple for female orphans, Kalinda is just a lanky young woman suffering from daily fevers, which are suppressed by an herbal tonic. Because of this infirmity, she lags behind her temple sisters in martial training.

You read that right, martial training. In our own world, the difference between martial arts and marital arts is more complex than where you put the “I”. However, in the Tarachand Empire’s court, they might as well be synonyms.

As one of the benefactors of the temples, the empire’s ruler, Rajah Tarek, can claim any temple ward as a wife, courtesan, or servant. Because of a legend about gods’ squabbles over nuptials, he is only allowed a hundred wives, and he’s already on number 99. At the start of the story, he’s scouring the temples for his Hundredth Queen. Imagine a modern day creepy stalker, projecting his twisted concept of an ideal woman on the object of his desire. Give him wealth and a crown, and you have Rajah Tarek. He picks Kalinda as his last wife, and her rival Natesa as one of his unlimited number of courtesans, setting in motion a skillfully layered plot.

Kalindah’s position is not secure: upon return to the capital, she must participate in a rank tournament, and face challengers from the courtesans who wish to improve their station. Catty does not begin to describe Tarachand’s harem culture, unless the cats wielded daggers and swords, or stuffed the occasional scorpion or snake in a rival’s bedroll. Unprepared, Kalinda brings a slingshot to this veritable Hunger Games: Bollywood Edition, with Rajah Tarek enjoying each second as he counts down to his own end game. All the while, the element-wielding Bhutas aren’t particularly happy about their persecution, and plan to hit back with an unholy text that could cast the world into darkness.

The story shines through Kalinda’s first person, present tense narrative. What she lacks in martial prowess and magic, she makes up for in strength of spirit and principle. Like a certain character from the Hunger Games, whose name also starts with Ka-, Kalinda is driven by devotion to protect someone. And unlike Katniss’ monotone, pessimistic voice, Kalinda’s pops off the page with its hope (and, in the audiobook, Lauren Izzo mesmerizes with her narration). She drives the story, and I could not help but to empathize and root for her.

At first glance, secondary characters fill common roles: Jaya is Kalinda’s best friend, playing the role of Primm to Katniss; soldier Deven is the on-again, off-again love interest, exchanging mixed signals like Katniss and Peeta (only he can’t bake bread). Kindred Lakia, the rajah’s first queen replaces Natesa as main rival among many, many rivals. All stand out through their characterizations.

If I were rating The Hundredth Queen only by the compelling main character, intricate worldbuilding, and incredible plot twists, it would be a slam dunk 10 stars; however, the late introduction to magic and relatively slow start warrant a mild deduction. On my unquestionably objective scale, I give The Hundred Queen a 9.626 (rounded to the last four digits of my social security number), ranking it as Second Wife.


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