The Queen's Bastard

by C.E. Murphy

Cover image

Series: Inheritors' Cycle #1
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 0-345-49464-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 432

Buy at Powell's Books

Belinda Primrose was raised believing herself an orphan. She was a lonely child raised by a nurse with no family except rare visits from her believed uncle. She craved those visits and he rewarded her with things her nurse shouldn't know about, such as a small dagger she received at the age of two. He taught her subjects unusual for a young girl: history, philosophy, and even horseback riding and swordplay once her nurse was retired. And throughout her childhood, she practiced emotional control: stillness, control over her reactions, absorbing pain or embarassment and never letting it touch her features. A safety against loneliness.

When she was twelve, she was brought to court to supposedly marry. And, on the secret orders of her uncle, to kill, discovering what she's been trained for her whole life.

The Queen's Bastard is a very uneven book. Some things Murphy does exceptionally well; others are clunky, or just didn't work for me. There are moments that had me fully engrossed in the story, but unfortunately it isn't maintained through the whole book.

The good parts: Belinda is an actress, an infiltrator, and a player of roles, able to make herself at home in a huge variety of situations and with remarkable control over her physical reactions. Murphy writes this exceptionally well. My favorite section of the book comes about a third of the way through when Belinda is establishing the character that she'll keep for most of the book and first meeting a circle of friends. Murphy describes the body language and interplay of roles in detail, the reader gets extensive insight into Belinda's thoughts and plans, and the whole scene is engrossing and delightful from beginning to end. I could feel the balancing act and the skill with which Belinda pursued it. Murphy avoids cheap tension, just shows the reader a character who is exceptionally good at her job doing her job, and makes it completely believable.

There are a few other moments like that in the book, including several that salvage the ending of the book from typical "everything is in peril" drama. Those are the moments when Belinda stands out as a remarkable protagonist, one about whom I want to read more.

Unfortunately, the underlying fantasy element of the book undermines its strengths. We learn over the course of the book that there is a sort of very rare mental magic in this universe, condemned by people as witchery. Belinda, of course, has a substantial share and predictably gains increasing control over hers. But the magic is very sex-focused, driven by emotion, and despite theoretically reinforcing her stillness, tends to make her do stupid and dangerous things.

This is standard material for a coming of age story, of course. Learning great magic usually comes with screwing it up and getting in deep trouble. But this is not a coming of age story, or at least it isn't when it's at its best. It's an assassin story, a secret agent story, and it shines when Belinda is at her most competent, taking on challenges that test her full abilities but not losing control in the middle of them. Having the central magic of the story turn her into an occasionally nasty person and a frequently foolhardy one undermined what I liked best about her character. It also led to rather prolonged and boring sex scenes, most of have little to do with the plot.

The sex in Murphy's universe is hard-edged and realistic, and when Belinda's at her best and the magic isn't in play, it's just another tool. She uses it with little remorse, just as she uses any other tool of emotional manipulation and disguise that comes to mind, and doesn't dwell on it. At times, such as near the end of the book, this can be breathtaking in its sheer audacity and deception. That's where The Queen's Bastard clicked for me. When sex turns to magic, it gets dragged out at too great a length, and while Murphy mostly (but not entirely) avoids the obvious paths of melodrama, watching Belinda sexually tease people for no good reason except the magic is beneath her. (The scenes with the soldier, for example, I found obviously doomed and just painful to read.)

The other thing that bothered me repeatedly about this book was the tense shifts. Murphy writes most of the book from a conventional tight third-person past, focused on Belinda, which works just fine. The scenes following other characters, however, are inexplicably written in third-person present. Present tense, particularly third-person instead of first-person, is hard to pull off even when you're very good at it. Changing tenses between present and past is even worse. It's an inherently artificial thing to do to a story: is it happening now, or is it in the past? I never got used to this. The tense shift whenever the scene changed away from Belinda was jarring every time.

The Queen's Bastard felt to me like a book the author was reaching a bit to write. It never settled into a consistent level of writing; it jumps throughout between scenes I thought were brilliant and scenes that I found annoying. I think the good parts are more than worth the bad parts, but I didn't want the distraction and let-down of the bad parts. It also puts its worst foot forward, starting with a pained present-tense introduction and then a description of Belinda's birth that I found badly confusing. I spent half the book waiting for Belinda to discover the truth until I realized I'd thought there were more layers to the introduction than there actually were.

That said, there are some fantastic moments. If you're giving it a try, stick with it until Belinda meets Marius's friends, and only put it down if that scene does nothing for you. If you're like me, that scene and others like it will be worth reading the whole book.

To warn, this is definitely the first book of a series. It reaches something of a climax but certainly not a conclusion, leaving Belinda to head off into the second book. And, in the sort of mixed feeling that typified the book for me, it ends on a wonderful bit of characterization and deepening of the basic tension of Belinda's life, but also on an emotional anti-climax. If that sort of thing bothers you, you may want to wait until the whole series is available before starting.

Followed by The Pretender's Crown.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-12-29

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