To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo is a young adult high fantasy novel that I discovered at my library recently (seems to be the trend this year) and picked up because the cover caught my eye and I remembered that it was a title circulating around the book-blogsphere as of late. I know, SHOCKING! I actually picked up a hyped book after going on a rant about how much I tend to dislike them. But you know what, this was a damned good book, and I feel the hype may be warranted. SHOCKING… again… I know.
To Kill a Kingdom is about a siren named Lira, who is a vicious killer of royalty, and next in line for the oceanic throne. However, one evening Lira makes the treacherous mistake of killing one of her own. As punishment, the vile and evil Sea Queen banishes her to live with the humans as one of them. To redeem herself, Lira is given one week to obtain the heart of a very special prince, or face being trapped as a human until her demise, all without the use of her siren abilities.
Okay… where do I begin with this book? Honestly there are so many qualities to it that made it an absolute thrill ride. We’ve got world-building, diversity, spiteful banter, intrigue, action, a gradual romance, and exploration of some serious psychological themes. Oh, did I mention that it is a stand-alone, so there aren’t any pesky little sequels to deal with?
World-building is something that seems to always be lacking in young adult fantasy novels and is the most off-putting part about the genre for me. When I read An Ember in the Ashes, I seriously threw it against the bloody wall when I was done out of sheer frustration. But To Kill a Kingdom not only did an admirable job of pulling me directly into the book with its sensational descriptives of the atmosphere and setting, whether we are deep below the ocean, sailing on a pirate ship, or trekking through foreign kingdoms, but it left me wanting to learn more about the kingdoms and lore. Seriously, if Ms Christo wrote an entire book that was nothing more than history and lore of the world that she has so wondrously crafted, I would throw my money (or library card) at it.
Another part that goes hand-in-hand with world-building, at least for me, is action. I feel that action goes along with this because it requires an engagement of all the senses to fully help you escape into the narrative, especially when you consider the locations of the action sequences. They can have a major impact on the outcome or even the progress of said fighting and swashbuckling antics. There isn’t a whole shit ton of ass-kicking all of the time, but whenever it does sprout of up, it balances sensory reactions as well as suspense and tension exceptionally.
Diversity is another aspect that took me by surprise. While I could infer some of the cultures and ethnicities that inspired many of the kingdoms created, I loved that it didn’t appropriate anything at all. It took inspiration from those groups of people and that inspiration was then used to formulate wholly original cultures unique to the book. It is an excellent example of how to weave fantasy with unfamiliar cultures that are interesting without playing in the pool of offensive and harmful stereotypes. There were so many PoC (people of colour), and even the non-PoC weren’t straight up blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Also, a female-female relationship ends up happening, and it’s never treated as a gross or out-of-the-ordinary thing, bless.
The romance is gradual and doesn’t fall into the insta-love traps, which is something else that I tend to loathe, particularly in the fantasy genre. There are two characters, both with twisted tendencies and aspirations, both who are used to being in positions of authority, and both of them execute deadly, flirtations with fluid precision. I found myself chuckling along with them or rolling me eyes with them whenever it called for it. This leads to their interest in one another being quite steady. I like how they question their feelings and the effects they have on one another. For me, it felt a bit more authentic because I know that when I have feelings for someone, I question the hell out of it in the ways that they did. This then plays into some very important decisions that they have to make, which I also felt was portrayed quite well.
The writing is splendid. I don’t believe the world-building nor the romance would be as pleasant if the writing was crap. But it isn’t. It sweeps you away from the first page as you get a taste of Lira’s personality as a predator, then it continues to pull you into the depths when we meet Elian, the prince she’s ultimately tasked with killing, and the struggles he faces between his obligations and his personal ambitions. Even though they have traits about them that make them inherently magical and dreamy (more so if you’re sadistic at all, like me), they are people that I found myself easily empathising with due to how much they reminded me of the conflicts and challenges that many of my friends, and even I, have faced.
A good example of this would be the prolonged effects of psychological abuse. Lira’s mother is a vicious and brutal bitch who has taught her daughter that trusting in others is beneath her and a sign of weakness. So, she instils in Lira the same passionate mentality of killing that the Queen herself possesses. This makes Lira distant and oft times quite frustrating, even unlikable. But it also indicates that many of the flaws and shortcomings that she has are due to her environment and level of compassion (or lack thereof) that she received as a child. I don’t think people ever really take the time to contemplate how much such negative and mentally exhausting homelives, like Lira’s, can mould the individual as they start to bloom into adulthood, not considering any traumatic events that may have occurred. The very same things can be said about Elian, whom I related to more than anyone else. His parents, mostly his father, has very specific ideas of what they want him to become and what they expect of him when they are no longer alive. This hit home with me so much because my mother is someone who has very strict expectations that when not met, make me out to be a failure and a disgrace in her eyes. It is a hurtful and destabilising burden to bear, of which we see the effects rather spectacularly with Elian.
If I had to pick any facet of the book that I did not care for, it would have to be the climactic fight scene at the end. It was just too similar to The Little Mermaid (Disney) in many ways and ultimately left me feeling bored and unimpressed. I also felt that some of the plot points were rather predictable, but to be perfectly blunt, these elements may be entirely due to how much I fucking read and nothing to do with the writing itself.
Overall, I highly recommend To Kill a Kingdom to all readers—young adult and adults alike—as it’s a swashbuckling bag of twisted allegiances, superb fantasy, marvellous world-building and diversity, and supremely well-rounded storytelling.