Book Review: Queen of the Unwanted by Jenna Glass, Book 2 in the Women's War series, a feminist fantasy novel

Book Review: Queen of the Unwanted by Jenna Glass

Title: Queen of the Unwanted

Author: Jenna Glass

Publisher: Del Rey

Publication date: May 12, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Summary: Alys may be the acknowledged queen of Women’s Well—the fledgling colony where women hold equal status with men—but she cares little for politics in the wake of an appalling personal tragedy. It is grief that drives her now. But the world continues to turn.

In a distant realm unused to female rulers, Ellin struggles to maintain control. Meanwhile, the king of the island nation of Khalpar recruits an abbess who he thinks holds the key to reversing the spell that Alys’s mother gave her life to create. And back in Women’s Well, Alys’s own half brother is determined to bring her to heel. Unless these women can come together and embrace the true nature of female power, everything they have struggled to achieve may be at risk.

(I usually write my own summaries, but I felt it better I take it from Amazon this time)

You know that feeling of, when you come into a conversation in the middle, you kind of know what the others are talking about, but not really? That’s how I felt while reading this entire book. It makes sense, though, because I did not read the first book. It’s my own fault, really, as I wished for it on Netgalley and was approved for it months ago and probably assumed I’d read the first book before the second one published. Oops. That never happened. Still, I did manage to enjoy this book, it just feels harder to review.

The Characters: Men vs. Women or Women vs. Men

Considered a feminist fantasy, this trilogy pits women against men. Or is that men against women? Anyways, it’s centered around the kings, queens, and sovereign princes and princesses who rule the various kingdoms that make up the Seven Wells, though there are a number of non-royal characters, like a scheming abbess and a charming young lady who happens to be able to only see magical elements.

I think there are some characters who were meant to be hated and others the reader is supposed to sympathize with. At least, that’s how it felt to me. So many characters were distasteful, especially in their treatment of each other whether or not the other person was male or female, while others seemed to be counterpoints with how sweet and morally good they appeared to be.

The one thing I found interesting was that men had clearly been the dominant sex, but that didn’t keep them from being manipulated and used too differently than a woman usually was. As a female reader, I felt myself identifying more with the female characters, but it didn’t stop me from disliking those who were just as cruel as the men. And the men! Most of that lot seemed downright loathsome. In a society where women are subservient to men and considered property, I found it strange that more people didn’t run away to the newly created Women’s Well kingdom where women were viewed more as equals.

I’d like to name particular characters, but none of them and all of them feel highlighted in my mind. None of them were paragons of virtue and some of the women were just as bad as the men. There were plenty of awful characters. Still, they were painted as being human with their own morals and beliefs, and watching all of that be stirred together created a fascinating story.

The Setting: Absolutely Fascinating

I have to admit I’m not too clear on this world because, as I mentioned, I haven’t read the first book. I did gather that this is a world where there are seven wells (hence the name Seven Wells for the entire region) that spew out magical elements that are male, female, or neutral and each kingdom is based around one of these wells. The newest, eighth well is Women’s Well, which is ruled by Sovereign Princess Alysoon, who also happens to be the half-sister of the King of neighboring Aaltah, who definitely doesn’t want his sister on any kind of throne.

Most of the kingdoms are ruled by men, of course, except for Women’s Well and nearby Rhozinolm, where a young queen reigns because, I suppose it happened in the first book, every other heir before her perished. Much of this world came into focus for me through the various trade agreements these kingdoms had with each other. Considering there are two women in power, the court politics and the economics of this world painted a world that’s, overall, quite bleak for women as unwanted women are thrown into an abbey where they are little more than prostitutes, and women are only considered useful if they can marry well and bear and heir. Anyways, the negotiations the male and female rulers found themselves in helped to really highlight this battle of the sexes. The women were demeaned and the men felt like they had all the power, but the women still had some power over other things.

Overall, I found this world to be intriguing, not so much in terms of landscape, but just in how the society had been built and how it was actively evolving, albeit slowly. The magic was also fascinating. Magical elements are spewed from the wells and people can see a different number of them. There are feminine, masculine, and neutral elements that seem to fall along the gender lines, so men can’t really see feminine elements. They are used to activate spells and I think they’re also used to create potions and spells, but I’m not too sure. However, it sounds fascinating and quite different from most other fantasy I’ve read. I like how the magic is just floating around in the air, waiting to be used, instead of needing to be drawn from the individual.

The Plot: The Story of an Abbess

This book is a continuation from the first book. I have no idea what happened in the first book, but, from what I gathered, it didn’t seem to be any less manipulative than this second book, but perhaps it was a bit more deadly. After all, several people that were mentioned were no longer living, so I am surmising they perished in the first book.

This second book felt more like Mairahsol’s story than anyone else’s. A Sister in an Abbey of the Unwanted, she’s power hungry and vengeful, but her character showed a surprising amount of growth that really helped drive this book forward. It was about her rise and fall and how her actions will lead to whatever happens in the third book.

This book also followed several other characters, notably the many rulers of the Seven Wells and those close to them. There was a great deal of court intrigue and politics. Some of it was hard to keep up with because I missed out on the first book, but a lot of it was easy to figure out. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling of walking into a conversation halfway through. I spent most of this book confused, but still enjoying the characters, world, and story. It was a strange feeling.

As hard as it sometimes felt to follow the story, it did move along. Sometimes it felt unrelenting because I was trying so hard to figure out what was going on, but, once I decided to just stop and enjoy the story, it was a lot of fun to read. I became torn between whether I liked or disliked the characters and found myself screaming in my head for one thing or another to happen. There were times when I thought something would happen, only for it to not, which was always a pleasant surprise because sometimes what I thought would happened turned out to be quite sexist!

Overall: Enjoyable, but Read the First Book First

Overall, this was an enjoyable read despite the lingering confusion. I found myself enjoying and hating the various characters and enjoyed being swept up in the court politics. There were so many underhanded things going on and so many machinations. It was so hard sometimes to figure out who to trust, but the characters seemed to have been crafted from certain molds that held true, so it was mostly easy to figure out whether they were trustworthy or not. I loved that they each had their own motives and that they felt like real people. While the characters were fun, this felt more like a plot-driven book, but the characters and world worked so well with it that I didn’t even notice most of the time. All three elements worked in perfect harmony, making this a pleasure to read even though I didn’t understand pieces of it.

How many cups of tea will you need?

4 cups should do

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Thank you to Del Rey and Netgalley for a free e-ARC. All opinions expressed are my own.

Head over to the Bookshelf to enjoy more of my book reviews or check out the things I think about while reading.

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