Published by Carolrhoda Lab (R)
Published on 7 May 2019
Genres: Fantasy & Magic, Young Adult
Source: Walker Books Australia
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Thelia isn't in line to inherit the crown, but she's been raised to take power however she can. She's been friends with Princess Corene her whole life, and she's scheming to marry Bayled, the heir to the throne. But her plans must change when an army of elves invades the kingdom. Thelia, her cousin Parsifal, and Corene become trapped in the castle. An elf warrior, Sapphire, may be Thelia's only hope of escape, but Sapphire has plans of their own. Meanwhile, an ancient magic is awakening within the castle, with the power to destroy the whole kingdom. Can Thelia find a way to protect her future--and her life?
I received a copy of this book from Walker Books Australia in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
So when I first read the blurb for Kiersi Burkhart’s Castle of Lies, I got really excited. I was super excited to read a book where a conniving, ruthless female protagonist had to change her plans for world domination because of a elven invasion and subsequent release of uncontrolled magic in a castle they were all trapped in. So I requested it without checking the reviews.
Then when I went to add it to my Goodreads, I noticed the community rating.
It only had a 2.75 average community rating.
So I read some reviews.
And oh boy. I started to get nervous.
There were so many bad reviews.
So many negative things said about this book.
That it’s nothing new, or special. That it’s derivative. That it’s gross, with Game of Thrones wannabe incest clashing horribly with alternative words for cursing. That it succumbs to stereotypes. That the representation was poor.
I think that all of these things are inaccurate and quite honestly I don’t understand why so many people disliked this book so much. Another reviewer called this “Game of Thrones meets Cruel Intentions” which I completely agree with.
I mean sure, if you read a lot of YA fantasy, which I think might still be in vogue (but I don’t follow trends so it’s hard for me to judge), then you might think that this doesn’t offer very much that is new or unique in that genre. In my opinion, that also means that it’s very standard and you know exactly what you’re getting in to. I mean, we can’t all be super special snowflakes, right? Not every book is going to change the world.
And yes, it is derivative. It’s genre fiction. It’s YA high fantasy. It’s about a ruthless, ambitious young woman, her snobby cousin, the adopted Heir to the throne, and the invading elves who want to control the magic the castle sits on. The non-binary elves all the colours of the Pride Flag have companion wisps to light their way, skin like metal, and are seven feet tall. They reminded me of the bastard child of Warcraft Night Elves and the elves from The Dragon Prince. At least it doesn’t have dragons.
To be honest, when I heard about the incest, I was intrigued about how gross it could possibly be. After all, in the first episode of Game of Thrones we all went View Spoiler » ‘Ewwww, incest!’ and by the final episode in season 7 we were all cheering, ‘Yaaay, incest!’ as Danaerys boned her nephew.
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And also to be honest, it wasn’t that gross. Although Thelia had previously been hinted as asexual, she’s clearly looking for some kind of comfort from her cousin, and at least he seems to believe he’s in love with her. And between the four main characters, three of them were LGBTQI+, so I don’t see why so many people are complaining.
I also don’t think there are any stereotypes – except for maybe Princess Corene who seemed to be a typical dumb blonde without being blonde, and she just clings to whomever she thinks is going to save her, which is why her loyalties and motivations change so flippantly.
- Thelia grew from being this ruthless, social climbing manipulative, ambitious harpy, overcoming her deep fear of elves to almost fall in love with one of them and feel compassion and be brave, and kicking a lot of butt along the way (and while still remaining utterly ruthless). And no, it doesn’t take ‘dick’ for her to do this – her developing character growth very clearly happens before she bones her cousin.
- Parsival started out as this snobby, wine-drunk lech and developed into a wise, caring young man, while still being a complete lech. I don’t see him as promiscuous, as others have said. He has had sexual encounters with both men and women in the past, and we meet one of his former lovers. I think calling him a ‘stereotypical bisexual’ is insulting, to be honest. As is ‘slutty’. The exact same readers who demand more diverse representation are slut-shaming this beautiful, confident character. Is it wrong to have more than one sexual encounter?
- Bayled grew from a boy desperately in love with the Princess but not wanting to rule the kingdom, to getting over his love for Corene and taking up the mantle to lead his decimated army… while still not wanting to rule the kingdom.
- Sapphire is a non-binary elf falling in love with two humans most other elves think of as pets… and remains non-binary.
I really don’t see any stereotypes there. It’s complicated, each character ending up different to how they started due to growth but still retaining their essential characterisation, and not necessarily becoming particularly heroic or likeable, but I liked that. I firmly believe that you don’t have to like a character to like a book.
As for the representation, at the risk of triggering people for using labels (sarcasm), Thelia seemed to be asexual but still participated in love and sex regardless of gender (polyamory! Thelia’s basically building a harem, and I am SO for that), Parsival was bisexual, and Sapphire was non-binary. Each of the characters had good aspects and negative aspects, like good characterisation does. None of them were perfect, and it was their flaws that made them interesting. Each of them grew and developed through the book. So while you might to want to read about an ace having sex and falling in love, or a bi person having multiple partners, it happens, and it’s part of their characterisation. Just because they didn’t end up when you want them to end up doesn’t mean this is a bad book.
So plot-wise, the elves have invaded to conquer and colonise this castle. They literally want to tear it down and rebuild on top of the magical well so they can harness the magic that keeps them long-lived and healthy. And of course that’s a much more corrupted version of the cover story than noble Sapphire realised. And they keep Thelia and Parsival like cute little pets – which, when you think about it, makes a weird sort of sense…
From a technical standpoint, I feel that Sapphire’s story wasn’t resolved. I also found that the frequency of the POV shifts (sometimes only giving 2 pages to one POV before shifting) meant that tension didn’t get enough time to build. I felt like rather than trying to follow all of the POV in real time, some scenes could have been longer to build more narrative tension. Some of the shortest scenes had little point to make and they could have been skipped entirely in favour of building tension from not knowing what the characters were up to.
Yes, this is a weird book. I liked it. It wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t terrible. It offered something a little bit different while presenting a lot of familiar fantasy tropes. I don’t recommend it to everyone, because clearly everyone’s taste is going to vary on this book, but if you’re a) a mature person and b) curious about this, I encourage you to give it a shot. It might just be the weird little book you’re looking for.