This is one thick book that I just couldn’t put down! An upper-young-adult fantasy novel, this story follows Yelena, a young woman with a rough past. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that she killed a man who abused and raped her. Since he was the son of a ruler, she was sentenced to death. On the date of her execution, however, she was offered the chance to be the king’s food taster instead, tasting each meal to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. Of course she accepts the offer and lives under the supervision of Valek, a man slightly older than her who is close to the king. He is shrewd, and at first it’s not clear whether he’s out to help her or hurt her.
Throughout the novel, she reveals bits of her past slowly. We learn about her adoption, her talents, and the reason she became a murderer. We also learn that several factions are out to kill her. Wanting to protect the new food taster, Valek gives her a room in his suite. It’s clear, through a subtle romance, that the two of them are falling for each other, but the romance never takes over the storyline and never becomes cheesy. There’s also the problem that in the northern kingdom where Yelena lives, magic is outlawed—anyone caught using it will be executed–no exceptions. Unfortunately, Yelena learns that she is from the south—a place where magic is much more common—and her magic seems to manifest itself when she is concentrating on a fight.
The story is told through first-person point of view. Yelena has a likeable voice, and her story and tone make her a sympathetic character. The romance with Valek is never over-done, but it adds a compelling element to the story. There is also a great deal of political intrigue woven in. Factions against factions, undercover dealings, spies, poisons, and mind control—a reader must always be alert for the next deception, and just when a reader begins to trust a character–well, I won’t give any more away.
This is the first of a trilogy, which I plan on finishing. It was a long book but a quick read—I read it in two days! I recommend it for anyone liking fantasy without being overwhelmed with description or explanation of magic elements (all the things that frustrate me about fantasy were missing from this book!), enjoy political intrigue with romance, or like a strong female protagonist.