I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Beth Bernobich’s first book, Passion Play, a combination of having received it unasked-for and its romance-like cover. While it had its flaws, I found the main characters, Ilse and Kosenmark, intriguing and captivating both individually and with regard to their burgeoning relationship. In the end I gave it four stars and said in my review that I looked forward to its follow-up. That sequel, Queen’s Hunt, recently arrived in my mailbox — expected this time, but unfortunately, still a bit of a surprise upon reading as I found it a disappointing continuation of the story.
Ilse and Kosenmark continue to work for what they see as the benefit of their country, Veraene, though it puts them at odds with their king and especially his mage advisor. It also makes them adversaries of Veraene’s enemy, the centuries-old and quite powerful King Dzavek. The source of his power, and of their contention, are the three Jewels of Lir, powerful magical tools which were lost long ago. Dzavek is in possession of one and Ilse’s search for the others brings her into contact with Valara, a stranger from another land who has somehow come into possession of Lir’s emerald. Ilse continues to seek the third jewel while trying to determine if this new player is friend or foe. Meanwhile, Kosenmark continues his shadow politics back home and has his own stranger to deal with — a new hire who is not at all what/who he purports to be.
To be honest, I found it a struggle to finish Queen’s Hunt. Whereas I enjoyed the slow unfolding of Passion Play‘s plot and character relationships, here the plot’s slow pace detracted from the reading experience, with characters either too static or traveling from place to place only to decide to travel somewhere else, with too little happening besides the travel itself. While I had a sense that the relationship between Ilse and Valara was meant to replace the tension created by the growing relationship between Ilse and Kosenmark in the first book, it failed to deliver on that score.
As for Kosenmark and Ilse themselves, separated as they are for the vast majority of the novel, their relationship fails to add much to the story and even when together it feels more perfunctorily referenced than conveying a true sense of heat or passion.
The conflict in terms of finding the jewels and preventing Dzavek from doing the same is at first too removed and abstract, and in the end resolved far too quickly and easily, making me wonder what the fuss was all about in the first place. The same holds true for their other major enemy, their king’s advisor-mage, who makes only a brief appearance and is pretty ineffective before being pretty much sidelined for the rest of the story. With the two villains pretty toothless, the quest for the jewels needed to really ratchet up the suspense and excitement but did not. These problems were compounded by a backstory involving past lives, with all these characters interacting with each other in various prior incarnations (one for example, was another’s brother, one another’s lover). The concept itself isn’t a bad one, but it rarely felt an organic part of the story and only occasionally enhanced the emotional impact of a scene. (On a sidenote, see Katharine Kerr‘s DEVERRY series for an excellent execution of this idea).
The end result of all this is that Queen’s Hunt had many of the same flaws as Passion Play but unfortunately lacked the strong points in the first book that more than compensated for its weaknesses. It was, as I said at the outset, a disappointing read, though not to the point where I won’t give Bernobich’s next one a try in hopes that she returns to the strengths of Passion Play while avoiding the issues that have plagued both books so far. At this point, I’d recommend holding off to see how this series plays out.