I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
My first impression of this book after reading the first few chapters was that it’s very busy. I didn’t particularly have a problem with the stories or characters, it’s just that things were flashing by so fast I didn’t have time to get absorbed into the story. For example, when Maud arrives in Port Brisa, she must have had half a dozen confrontations, all squished into one chapter. Every time she takes a step random people are popping out and attacking. It feels like an on rail shooter rather than a character in a new city.
I think it would have been better and more meaningful to have fewer confrontations, but flesh them out more. And have characters react more realistically to the fact that, though she is a woman, she’s quite a bit larger than them and obviously well muscled.
There was also so much use of the “ess” endings that it was distracting. On page one, “warrioress”, “lioness”, “tigress”… There’s six on the very first page, which isn’t including anything else that ended with ‘ess’ like “huffiness” or “breathless”. I especially didn’t think “warrioress” was necessary. It sounds very awkward and was overdoing it. This happens throughout the story with things like “archeresses”. We already know they’re a clan of female-only warriors, so it doesn’t need to be reiterated with every word they use to describe themselves.
There are many characters, and while I got to know the main ones relatively well I did get lost with side characters. Maud is a warrior who comes from a clan of all-female-only warriors. She’s large and enhanced using magic to make her even larger. She’s only 19, but she has been training her entire life. She’s sent on a training mission outside of her home with a veteran leading her.
As it turns out, Basil, the son of one of the warlocks, has a disfigurement that could have him thrown out of the warlockry and have his magic removed, in something akin to receiving a lobotomy. His father has summoned the two warriors in order to find a double for his son, in a desperate attempt to save him. His son is sheltered and finicky, but is rightfully angered that his brain will be cut up, so he runs away while Maud and her superior are still looking for his double.
For a while the stories are split, with Maud finding Basil’s body double, Jurgis, on her own and Basil fleeing with a pirate friend of his, only to end up captured by some more loathsome pirates. Maud is forced to take control of the mission when the veteran she was with passes away, and she and Jurgis end up taking another path entirely than what was originally ordered. Eventually they all meet up and have a series of adventures, uncovering secrets and finding out what truly happened to cause a war 100 years before.
Probably around 60% into the book, another two main characters are introduced: Wargall and Wemawee, both Kells. For me, the introduction of Wargall brought a lot of problems in the book. Throughout the book male Kells are constantly described as weak. Other characters compare it to the way female characters are treated elsewhere. However, when we finally do meet Wargall, a male Kell, as it turns out they’re not weak at all and they’re just not quite as strong as the women (who are enhanced by magic). It hardly feels like there’s any real challenges towards Wargall becoming a warrior. He’s not actually weak, he almost immediately picks up a sword and is able to kill a bunch of people, he doesn’t receive much resistence save from a character who had been set up as troublesome and abusive…
It made the entire comparison with how female characters were treated fall apart, as well as made almost the entire setup about how weak male Kells are feel like lip service. I was expecting male Kells to be small and soft like Basil or Jurgis were, especially considering how Maud had been attracted to them, but it ended up being a cop out.
There’s a part where he’s introduced where they discover a trap they have to disarm, and the woman who drags Wargall around, Wemawee, forces him to help disarm it because he’s expendable. After it’s disarmed, Jurgis tells Wemawee that Wargall was braver than her because he helped with the trap. I would have liked to see more of that, but after that it just turns into telling the big strong guy that he is a big strong guy. There were no real obstacles. I would have rather they ran into one of the “whores” they mention from Jurgis’ place and she became a warrior, because a character like that would have had to face much more discrimination and challenges. But, more than that, I would have liked for the male Kells to be weak as they were described, not “they’re slightly smaller than us and didn’t get enhanced with magic”.
Even when Wargall first fought I didn’t feel the struggle. He’s temporarily frightened by a large battle mage who is sending snakes at him, but then he just stabs him and it’s fine. Things like this could have been changed to make it feel a lot harder for him than it does. Like, when he runs into the mage, he could have trembling with fear and jabbed the sword forward while trying to step back from the snakes. He could have even fallen over while trying to back away. He still would have killed the battle mage, but in that scenario it would actually seem like it was something new and frightening for him.
It does serve a second unfortunate purpose as well. If the whole book has been spent telling us how weak Kell males are, and the first Kell male we bump into can pick up a sword and, completely untrained, take out several enemy soldiers and one of their giant battle mages, then how intimidating is this enemy? Send some children after them, that ought to take care of it. For the other characters their skills coincided with the lives they led.
The sex between Wemawee and Wargall bothered me, too. Not because I think that writers shouldn’t write about rape, but because of the way it seemed to brush aside the fact that it was rape. It is clearly stated that she would use him, and he didn’t want to, but then later that’s softened up with him saying he didn’t mind sex with her and that he’d have gladly done it if she just asked. It’s like it sets him up as someone who has been raped for years, and then backs off from that and tries to make it less horrible.
I liked Weamwee’s character growth for the most part, save for the fact that I didn’t feel like the sexual abuse was taken seriously enough.
As for the rest, there was still a lot happening quickly, but I did enjoy the story. I liked Maud’s and Basil’s growth. Maud starts out as a rookie, and her progression into someone who leads felt natural. She doesn’t go straight into knowing how to do everything. At times she looks back at her choices and realizes she could have done things better – she neither ignores the faults nor obsesses over them, but learns from them and moves on.
Basil himself goes from a shut-in with an ego to an adventurer with an ego. Though the relationships seemed to progress very quickly, I did like the way he was introduced to Yarwan. He’s attracted, and he spends a long time discussing how they figure out their location on a ship using measuring tools. It was good to focus less on the initial attraction – though attraction is certainly there – and have them actually talk. Not only that, but in a way that would interest both, since it’s something Yarwan loves and Basil is interested in learning. It worked.
I didn’t think Maud and Jurgis’ beginning worked out as well as theirs, with the way Jurgis got huffy and angry the second she refused to sleep with him.
I did like the main characters, and I felt like they were different from each other.
There were some pretty good parts. I particularly liked one where a rival merchant has trashed the shop of Yarwan’s mother, and the guards are demanding answers since the rival is the son of a noble. In response each character starts announcing their titles, with Yarwan now a captain, Darquine (his friend) the daughter of another prosperous merchant, Basil the Spellwarden, and Maud the ‘lioness of the Kell Queen’. It finally gets around to Jurgis, who had lived his life in the streets:
Jurgis opened his mouth, but then he shook his head. “I’ll not boast to the law of my status.’
I like the way they call back to Yarwan and Basil’s meeting later, and measure the direction an enemy flew away from two different points to determine where he was hiding.
Although I already said what I disliked about Wemawee’s part of the story, I like that when she was captured she was obstinate, even tossing and turning in her cage purposely to create noise and prevent the guards from being able to sleep.
I also liked that this was a complete story. Everything was wrapped up at the end, and while it could be continued if the author wanted, I wouldn’t feel like anything was missing if it was left as is.
There were a few errors, but not enough that I found it particularly distracting.
If the book sounds interesting to you, I would say go for it and realize a lot of stuff is going to happen almost immediately. If you can get through the opening and understand that a multitude of side characters will flutter in and out, you will probably enjoy it. The characters are overall enjoyable to be around, and I liked some of the revelations in the plot. Although it’s called the “Lioness of Kell”, there are several characters who play large roles. I would say I started out worrying that it was going to be a very long read, and ended up enjoying it in the end.
I give it a 8/10.