Review: The Councillor by E.J. Beaton

When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.

Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.

Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.

In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.

Rating: 4/5

Review

The Councillor is a Machiavellian inspired fantasy set in the fictional kingdom of Elira. Well, sort of. There’s a definite Renaissance-influence in the world-building, with a series of city-states all banding together against those that surround them. (Oh, and they produce a lot of wine, and olives). The main character, Lysande Prior, also shares a lot of her history with Niccolo Machiavelli himself: both serve roles as political understudies and advisors, both write treatises on the subject of power, and both are shrewd, cunning and intelligent.

But where Machiavelli was known for the ruthless that gave Machiavellian political philosophy his name, Lysande is a much more likeable character, concerned about the welfare of her community and her friends, and willing to put her smarts to good use to protect them. The result is a compelling character arc.

I should note here that Lysande is also an interesting character because she’s unlike so many others we see in fantasy. She’s mildly addicted to a drug that has effects not unlike cocaine (so I’m told), and she has a strong sense of sexual desire, even about those she intellectually knows it’s not a good idea to get involved with. None of this is ever justified or excused, it’s just a part of who Lysande is – and we get to see how she grapples with the consequences. I don’t enjoy reading about drug addiction as a general rule, but I did appreciate that this book is more in line with actual drug use in society (i.e. high functioning individuals you’d never expect) and that we weren’t treated to a sermon or a pity party about it. This is also a good place to note that Lysande is bisexual (and there are flashbacks to a past f/f relationship) and it’s entirely unremarkable.

As for the plot, don’t expect too many battle scenes or clashing armies (though there are a few). The battle for Elira is mostly one of wits. Lysande is a scholar at heart, and we see her puzzle her way through events, calculatingly cultivate alliances, and rethink everything she thought she knew about former Queen Sarelin. A lot of this book is spent second-guessing the motives of the city-state leaders Lysande is ostensibly meant to choose between. It’s compelling stuff, and I love seeing a quieter, more intellectually focused fantasy that shows off a different set of character traits and exudes a different kind of intensity and energy.

I did have a few small issues. The pacing was a little slow in the middle (not helped by the giant chapters, with nowhere good to take a break). I also thought some of the big reveals about the villain and the true extent of magic in this society came a little late given this is a standalone novel: the last hundred pages were riveting, but they also had to do a lot of work to wrap up all the plot threads and create a compelling rationale for what had come before, and it didn’t always pull it off. I haven’t seen any news of a sequel, but I really hope there is one, since I think this world is ripe for a follow up that revisits some of the characters from this book and maybe gives us a glimpse into some of the other city-states we spent less time in.

This was an excellent debut. As I said, I’m really hopeful we’ll see something else set in this world, but if not, I’m still looking forward to seeing what Beaton writes next.

Note: I received an ARC from DAW Books in exchange for a review. The Councillor will be released on 2 March 2021.

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