My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Length: 384 pages
Release date: 6 March 2018
Princess Lira is siren royalty and the most lethal of them all. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea. Until a twist of fate forces her to kill one of her own. To punish her daughter, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into the one thing they loathe most—a human. Robbed of her song, Lira has until the winter solstice to deliver Prince Elian’s heart to the Sea Queen or remain a human forever.
The ocean is the only place Prince Elian calls home, even though he is heir to the most powerful kingdom in the world. Hunting sirens is more than an unsavory hobby—it’s his calling. When he rescues a drowning woman in the ocean, she’s more than what she appears. She promises to help him find the key to destroying all of sirenkind for good—But can he trust her? And just how many deals will Elian have to barter to eliminate mankind’s greatest enemy?
“Reflections of each other in a different kingdom and a different life. Broken pieces from the same mirror. There are worlds between us, but that seems more like semantics than tangible evidence of how dissimilar we are.”
I’m not going to lie here, I fell in love with To Kill a Kingdom at first sight thanks to its cover and its synopsis. Then I saw the sales pitch: “For fans of Sarah J Maas.” And immediately my wariness shot up. Because while I’m partial to an SJM twice a year, I have complicated opinions about her books and really did not want to read an imitation when I had been expecting something so much better. Halfway through, I got worried when the novel seemed to skirt too close to Maas territory. But then! But then. Christo takes her story in its own awesome direction. To Kill a Kingdom doesn’t need (and shouldn’t have, if you ask me) SJM as a selling point. It’s a dazzling standalone high fantasy with lovable characters and heartwarming themes that can more than stand on its own two feet.
The siren mythology is elegant and beautiful. I like this take on it. Since this book is a self-contained story, we’re given only what’s needed, which prevents the lore from becoming needlessly convoluted as various YA fantasy series do. Nothing is wasted–if there’s a Chekhov’s gun, you can bet that it will be fired (oftentimes in glorious fashion).
One of my favourite things about To Kill a Kingdom is that all the various backstory and plot elements culminate in a message that free will can triumph over any façade of destiny. That we can choose to be different, better people than what we’re supposed to be. This, in my opinion, is where Christo’s novel departs most obviously from SJM, who loves her fates and prophecies. Sure, the protagonists are both royalty, but part of the novel’s point is that they don’t have to remain in those roles if they wish otherwise.
Christo also executes the dual perspective in a way that adds to our appreciation of both characters without either becoming a weak link. As narratively equal protagonists, Lira and Elian split the chapters about 50/50 in terms of POV. There are quite a few similarities between this enemies-to-lovers pairing and that of Kate and August in This Savage Song, in fact, but other than the central relationship they’re entirely different books. To Kill a Kingdom is on the whole a lot more optimistic, bucking the recent trend in YA fantasy to go darker and edgier. For such a gruesome premise, it’s a remarkably uplifting feel-good story, yet never to the point of appearing naive.
Lira is convincing. She’s well-crafted to seem irredeemably monstrous at the start before that perception is slowly stripped away as we find out more and more about her past and her motivations. Elian feels a little like the stereotypical SJM male lead at the start (swagger, unrealistically competent and good-looking, inexplicably powerful etc.), but the people around him don’t put up with his bullshit at all. So, like an ordinary person who isn’t protected by hero plot armour, he cuts it out. And reveals that he’s actually a normal, flawed guy once we see a bit more of him. These two have chemistry in spades. Which is very good, because this book would faceplant faster than a siren drowning a sailor if they didn’t.
Then there’s the writing style, which strikes a great balance between descriptive and succinct. Christo nails the essence of “show not tell”–she lets her writing speak for itself. No embellishments, no overdramatic prose trying to be deeper than it is. The plot and plots make sense, with a good deal of scheming and intrigue that are conventional enough to believe and fresh enough to surprise.
The high fantasy universe, too, has got a few things going for it. In a turn that’s subtle but nice, the society completely egalitarian as far as I can tell. It’s refreshing for a change to not see gratuitous misogyny and homophobia everywhere just because it’s a fantasy novel, when gender politics are largely irrelevant to the themes and focus of the story. The technology imbalance is a little flaky–it seems like Efevresi have the equivalent of planes while the rest of the world is stuck in Golden Age of Piracy times. That shouldn’t really happen in a society that presumably has free trade and movement of people, but then you could make the case that technology doesn’t factor in as much because of magic.
Either way, it’s better to simply close your eyes and enjoy the story. To Kill a Kingdom is a perfect example of a book that isn’t life-changing and doesn’t blow all your preconceptions out of the water, but writes the monomyth so well that you want to give it five stars anyway. That it’s 100% a standalone makes it all the more impressive in a YA scene swamped with trilogies and epics. Wherever Alexandra Christo goes next (IS THAT A GANGSTER FANTASY I SEE ON GOODREADS), my need-to-read list has just gained a new author.
*Thanks to Bonnier Zaffre and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*