I know, it’s a strong statement to say I have a new favorite, but honestly I have tons of favorites. I think this is my new favorite for whatever this subgenre is – fantasy is my guess, but I just don’t think that really fits.
Anyway, the basic plot is that Kestrel, the protagonist, lives in a colony of her native country that was conquered 10 years prior. Now her people have enslaved all the native peoples, and one day she goes to a slave auction and ends up paying a very high price for a slave who is said to be a singer. Her father (the commanding general), and culture at large, are highly militaristic and see things like art and music as frivolous. She loves to play the piano and has no urge to enlist (though her father pressures her) but is a highly skilled strategist. She also has always questioned the morality of her country’s imperialistic endeavors, we see this most through her relationship with her old nurse, whose freedom she bought as a birthday present from her father and then used some of her inheritance money to build her a cottage on her estate.
The slave she buys, Arin, turns out to be a spy placed in her household, along with others throughout the aristocracy and military figures throughout the colony, to gain information about the general and their military plans to aide in a rebellion to take back their country. Arin was part of an aristocratic family before his country was conquered and surprises Kestrel with a thorough understanding of her language, as well as his obvious intelligence. The two of them have a tight relationship to start, Arin despises her for her nationality and father, while Kestrel is filled with guilt every time she thinks about her part in purchasing him. Slowly they start to spend more time together, playing games of strategy – in which the winner gets to ask the loser a question, and getting to know each other outside of their stereotypical first impressions. Kestrel likes his honesty with her – even though it’s ‘inappropriate’ for a slave to talk and act the way he does with her – and his intelligence. And Arin is intruded by Kestrel’s love of music, feelings towards slaves like her nurse, and her obvious intelligence that she uses to manipulate people.
Eventually they both start to fall for each other, while trying to deny it to both themselves and each other. Of course right before the uprising takes place they open up to each other and all hell breaks loose. Arin ‘claims’ Kestrel as his war prize to protect her from his military leaders who would quickly kill her for her connections, while maintaining loyalty to his people and country. Kestrel can’t decide if she should escape him and believe everything between them to be a lie or stay with him and betray her people. Both are basically stuck between a rock and a hard place.
They kind of have a Romeo and Juliet romance, but with more realistic reactions to all of their relationships challenges, and its a slow fall in love for both of them, and they have a hard time loving each other because they are torn by loyalty to their people. So maybe its not like Romeo and Juliet, but its definitely a love on the same level. We get a slow re-building of trust between them until an embrace forces Kestrel to acknowledge that she can’t stay with Arin without letting her country and her father down – and Kestrel has a serious need to receive her fathers approval. So she runs away to negotiate with the emperor, saves Arin and his people from being obliterated by he fathers army by agreeing to marry the emperors son, and returns letting Arin think she has left him for good and will now act as the envoy between his independently governed colony and the emperor. So a lot of drama!
Besides the romantic element, which I think was done really well – not overly done, but still a central part of the story. The political detail is really interesting. The whole thing questions the motives and attitudes of imperialism, which every one of our major countries actively partook of to gain it’s global standing today. And the fact that the conquering of Arin’s country is so recent adds a very interesting element as well. It’s all still very new and delicate, and that’s part of what causes such issues with Kestrel as she tries to represent her own moral instincts while simultaneously acting as she believes her father would want her to – calculating, strategic, without feeling.
I’m Really looking forward to the next book, the ending of this one is such a cliff hanger as to the relationship between Kestrel and Arin, the state of the new political relationships, and Kestrel’s relationship between her father and her new betrothal (I don’t really want to see a love triangle emerge so I hope we either hate him or they are just friends). Basically, I can’t wait!