As part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013, I recently finished reading Shadow Queen (The Binding #1 — first published Allen&Unwin 2009), a fantasy novel by my good friend and cafe writing buddy, Deborah Kalin.
It’s the story of Matilde, a young woman groomed to rule over a seething conglomeration of houses all vying against each other, who shows just how far she will go to keep herself alive, after the rest of her family and retinue is struck down by a bloody coup. Matilde — despite her youth, inexperience, and extreme naivete — shows herself to be a survivor as she makes play after play in an attempt to win back her ‘throne’.
There’s stuff to think about while reading this book, as Kalin explores the power of psychological manipulation as a key theme — and reader sympathy gets tugged to and fro with Matilde’s. Other themes include trust (and its antithesis), power, friendship, family and self-preservation.
As Matilde digs herself and her people into a deeper and deeper hole… the reader is left wondering whether her people might actually be better off without her. But the truth of that will no doubt come to light in the sequel, Shadow Bound (The Binding #2) — in which we hope Matilde might manage to redeem herself.
I enjoyed the novel a lot. As is important in a first-person narrative, Matilde’s voice is strong and I certainly undertook the emotional journey at her side, even while disapproving of many of her actions. She isn’t heroic, which is in many ways what makes her so believable. Nor is her journey through the course of the novel predictable, which gets a big tick from me. I love having my expectation subverted.
The writing is smooth, the supporting characters well drawn and likable — even the antagonists, to an extent. (Don’t they say every antagonist is the hero of his own story?) The tension comes from conflicting objectives and ambitions. I truly don’t have much of an idea what’s going to happen next — which means I’ll have to read on to find out!
I recommend this for readers who like their fantasy a little gritty and political, not to mention psychological. The first book probably isn’t for those seeking a great love story — although who knows what’s going to happen in the second?