Jules Watson’s The Raven Queen is a historical fantasy based on the ancient Irish legends about Queen Maeve. Red-haired and fiery-tempered, since childhood Maeve has resented being used by her father, King of Connacht, as a political tool. He has sent her as a peace-bride to acquire alliances with various neighboring warlords, but Maeve doesn’t tend to actually foster peace anywhere she goes. In fact, she has just returned home to her dying father after running away from her third husband, the powerful King Conor — an action that will surely bring Conor’s wrath against Connacht at a time when they do not have a strong leader. As expected, when her father dies, Maeve, her brother, and other relatives begin vying for the throne of Connacht as they simultaneously brace for an invasion by King Conor.
Despite her admirable independence and courage, Maeve is not a likable heroine. You might argue that, based on the legends, she is not meant to be, but even a villainess can be a great heroine if the author can persuade the reader to believe it (and I’ve been persuaded many times). But there was no reason to sympathize with Maeve. For most of the story she was whiny, petulant, impulsive, mean, and bitter. She complains that her father used her body to make alliances, but then she offers her body when she needs an alliance. She hates men and marriage, but she uses men and marriage to get the power she wants for herself. And why does she want this power? She tells us she wants her people to be free, but it’s hard to believe that when we see her behave so selfishly and ruthlessly. I thought she’d make a terrible queen and likely a worse ruler than at least one of the alternatives would, so I couldn’t route for her, which kind of ruined most of the plot for me. Maeve became more likable by the end of the book, but by that time it was too late for me to start cheering for Maeve.
The Raven Queen might have gotten away with such an unpleasant heroine if its style had made up for it. Unfortunately, this was not the case — there was little beauty in it. Short choppy sentences and paragraphs became irritatingly rhythmic, and word usage that was slightly “off” jarred me out of the story occasionally. As just one example, I found the constant use of the word “rutting” to be ugly and coarse (e.g. “She had gone too long without the release of rutting…”). Sounds like animals, not people. A bit more attention by the editor could have easily fixed this small but insidious problem.
Readers who don’t mind an unlikable heroine (who does get better by the end of the book) and can overlook some editorial negligence will enjoy The Raven Queen more than I did. The story is fast-paced and includes some lively characters and plenty of action. Readers might also like to know that Jules Watson’s novel The Swan Maiden is a companion story — it tells that tale of Deirdre and Naisi.