Let’s start with some disclaimers: while Lisbeth Campbell and I have never met, we’ve been mutuals on Twitter (you should follow her) for long enough that I don’t remember not following her, and I saw a very early draft– like, pre-alpha, where there were bits that said things like <and then cool stuff> here and there, and I’m mentioned in the back of the book in the acknowledgments, which will never ever stop being cool. I suppose technically I also got a free ARC, but my hardcover has been preordered and will be here on the 18th when the book actually releases.
The first sentence of The Vanished Queen is — spoiler alert — When Karolje became king, he ordered rooms in the library to be mortared shut. That is an admirably well-chosen first sentence, because it does a lot of work, and really sets up the events of the novel impressively. The book takes place in the capital city of the nation of Vetia, a nation ruled over by Karolje, a despotic king moving into the twilight of his life and the end of his rule. The book revolves through several POV characters, but the two most important are Mirantha, the titular “Vanished Queen” and the mother of Karolje’s two sons, and Anza, a young resistance fighter who finds an old diary of Mirantha’s in the first chapter of the book. Karolje’s two sons are also POV characters along with a couple of others, but this is mostly Anza and Mirantha’s story, with Anza’s taking place in the present and Mirantha’s taking place through diary entries, although her presence is cast over the entire book. She has disappeared by the time the events of the novel begin, and while there is an official story explaining her disappearance, everyone (including the princes) assumes Karolje has had her killed.
While The Vanished Queen is going to be shelved and categorized as a fantasy novel, it’s very low-fantasy, with only occasional hints at magic (the king’s interrogators have abilities that can’t be easily explained) and has serious elements of a political thriller and even a bit of a ghost story to it. While there is a single organization that is called “the Resistance” in the book, they’re not exactly monolithic in their goals, and both of the princes and Anza herself have different ideas about what should happen to Vetia once Karolje is gone, assuming they are still alive to see it. Karolje himself is an interesting villain; he’s not personally a physical threat, of course, and in half of the scenes where he’s present he’s literally in bed. But no one is ever sure where anyone else’s loyalties lie, and the threat of imminent discovery by or betrayal to Karolje hangs over nearly every conversation in the book, particularly once Anza and one of the princes happen to meet after Anza is arrested early in the book. There are scenes where the people talking to him reflect on how they could kill him on the spot if they wanted to, if only they had any idea what the guards might do afterwards.
There’s a great atmosphere of dread and paranoia throughout the entire book, and while fantasy books where the line of succession is a kingdom is unclear aren’t exactly rare, I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of them where there’s a debate as to whether there should even be a new king once the current one dies. Simply replacing the current king with a “better” king isn’t necessarily what everyone wants, and even the princes are repeatedly shown as being unsure about who and/or whether they want to take up the crown. Beyond the plot, the characters are all well-drawn and interesting, and the utterly casual reaction by everyone to Anza’s bisexuality is refreshing. It’s clear that her sexual orientation is completely normalized in this setting; at least one previous girlfriend is a character and their relationship doesn’t get any different sort of attention than anyone else’s.
Plus, my God, that cover. Look at that cover.
I enjoyed this a lot, y’all, and I think I’ll have an interview with Lisbeth on the release date. If I quietly never mention it again assume we couldn’t get it scheduled, but we’re working on it. 🙂
The Vanished Queen is Lisbeth Campbell’s debut novel. It releases on August 18.