Review: The Blacksmith Queen (The Scarred Earth Saga #1) by GA Aiken

NB—I received a free copy of this book via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

It’s been a while since I thought this was necessary (and the violence in this book is far milder than that in The Poppy War) but The Blacksmith Queen includes strong language, and physical and sexual violence. There’s also mentions of racism and slavery (towards fantasy races, but the content warning still applies). If you’re sensitive to any of the aforementioned themes, The Blacksmith Queen (which despite the trigger warnings is a generally light-hearted book) may not be for you.


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The cover is good: eye catching and interesting, with an actual item from the book. If I saw it in a bookstore I’d pick it up

When a prophesy brings war to the Land of the Black Hills, Keeley Smythe must join forces with a clan of mountain warriors who are really centaurs in a thrilling new fantasy romance series from New York Times bestselling author G.A. Aiken.

The Old King Is Dead
 
With the demise of the Old King, there’s a prophesy that a queen will ascend to the throne of the Black Hills. Bad news for the king’s sons, who are prepared to defend their birthright against all comers. But for blacksmith Keeley Smythe, war is great for business. Until it looks like the chosen queen will be Beatrix, her younger sister. Now it’s all Keeley can do to protect her family from the enraged royals.
 
Luckily, Keeley doesn’t have to fight alone. Because thundering to her aid comes a clan of kilt-wearing mountain warriors called the Amichai. Not the most socially adept group, but soldiers have never bothered Keeley, and rough, gruff Caid, actually seems to respect her. A good thing because the fierce warrior will be by her side for a much longer ride than any prophesy ever envisioned …

This book was fun. I was expecting a more traditional fantasy, and if you assume the romance is the main plot of the book (as is somewhat implied in the blurb) you could be disappointed. I, on the other hand, was quite pleased with the goals, values and decisions made by Keeley independant of her interest in, or relationship with, Caid.

Keeley is a refreshing heroine among the self-conscious, physically weak or otherwise vulnerable women that typically populate fantasy novels. Her family—loud, boisterous, fully realised and alive are likewise unusual. There are no convenient orphans in The Scarred Earth Saga, and the entertaining, meaningless violence and rivalry that is rife among Keeley’s family (and Caid’s for that matter) will be instantly familiar to anyone with a close, involved extended family.

I loved the way women in this book were allowed to be unashamedly sexual creatures. It’s not done in an exploitative way, it doesn’t seem crass or overbearing, it just reads as though some of the women in the book enjoy sex, a distressingly rare character trait in most fantasy women, who despite being Not Virgins when they meet MR Right, they have usually only slept with one or two men, and never truly enjoyed sex until they meet the magic penis man who can change that.

The matriarchal Amichai were also a nice touch, and it was great to see a race developed without lazy stereotypes or long, complicated backstories. Worldbuilding touches were added here and there, in a way that brought the world to life without weighing down the fun, not too serious plot with unnecessary information. Case in point—the demon wolves. Every scene involving them was hilarious, and Keeley’s interactions with them really allowed her to shine as a character.

Keeley’s family in general was another highlight of the book, particularly Keeley’s cousin Keran and sister Gemma. I look forward to hearing more about Keran’s time as a fighter, and her new role at Keeley’s side. Gemma was a great foil for Keeley; I’d love to know more about Gemma’s faith, how she came to practice it, and the role she now fills in the world and within her organisation, especially given the revelations within the novel1.

I should have realised GA Aiken was Shelly Laurenston’s alter ego as soon as the sister fights began. I haven’t read any of the Dragon Kin novels, though I believe The Scarred Earth Saga is set in the same world. I had no prior knowledge of the world, however, and followed the storyline just fine.

One of the low points of the book for me was the relatively two-dimensional nature of the antagonists. We got a few scenes providing motivation for their behaviour, but nothing that really gave a sense of urgency to the book or drove the plot. I understand The Blacksmith Queen is only the first book in The Scarred Earth Saga, so perhaps the antagonists will get stronger motivations and more of a backstory in future novels.

I also wish there had been a little less sexual assault/harassment to show who the bad guys were. The book had so many strong female role models, and varied female antagonists, and then half the feminist points got thrown away with the fairly heavy use of gendered slurs, and mentions of rape.

There were a few developments in this book that seemed introduced a little abruptly (the grey mare); though presumably they will be built on in future Scarred Earth books.

I know the warnings/complaints seem like pretty extreme issues with this one, but I assure you they don’t dominate the book as much as their inclusion in this review might make it seem. I just make a point to point put high and low points in the book I review, and the high points of The Blacksmith Queen are fairly non-specific and sweeping, not requiring much explanation.

All in all, The Blacksmith Queen is a quick, fun read for anyone who enjoys fantasy, and doesn’t mind a little fun being poked at the genre in general. Readers who enjoyed Ilona Andrews’ The Edge novels will probably enjoy this book, and no doubt Shelly Laurenston/Ga Aiken’s long term fans will also find plenty to enjoy.

 

 

1I know I’m being frustratingly vague, but spoilers ruin things for everyone and the book only came out in August, so I’m doing my best not to give anything away.

 

 

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