The Councillor: Strong writing balances out familiar plotting

The Councillor by E.J. Beaton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Councillor by E.J. Beaton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Councillor by E.J. Beaton

E.J. Beaton’s The Councillor (2020) is a political fantasy whose smooth prose carries one smartly if slowly through the well-worn grooves of the genre. And therein one can see both the novel’s strengths and its weaknesses, which together result in a solid if somewhat overly long and overly familiar story.

Lysande Prior — commoner, orphan, and scholar — has risen to become advisor and friend to the warrior Queen Sarelin, who recently put down a nearly-successful attempt by the White Queen to restore elemental magic users (a currently persecuted minority group) to their former ruling position in Elira. When Sarelin is assassinated, though, Lysande finds herself named Councillor, and thus tasked with choosing Elira’s next ruler from amongst the rulers of its four major regions. A job made more complicated by their inherent sense of rivalry, the impending war with a newly-resurgent White Queen, and by the fact that Lysande suspects one of the four city leaders of working in concert with the White Queen.

Beaton’s prose, a clear positive here, is rich, precise, clear, and fluid throughout. Descriptive passages are vivid, internal monologues are thoughtfully meditative, and dialogue rings true, as well as doing a nice job of conveying underlying tension between characters.

Characterization is a bit more mixed. Lysande is a complex character for a variety of reasons. Her love for Queen Sarelin, for instance, is tempered by her moral issues with Sarelin’s brutal treatment of the Elementals. Her concern for stability in the realm is at odds with her desire for change: change in the persecution of the Elementals, change in the structural issues of class and inequality, change in the administration of rule and law. Her personal life is also complicated by various relationships (past, present, potential ones) and by her addiction to a drug made of chimera scales (a rare drug given that chimera are extinct). While her portrayal is multi-layered, it also felt not fully tapped, as if it skated a bit along the surface rather than delving deep enough. Her anger at the status of the Elementals or poor, for instance, felt a bit easy, coming as it often did when she is face to face with them in ways constructed to evoke the greatest amount of pity — a group of people so starved their bones are prominent, a group of Elemental prisoners locked in a cage awaiting execution, etc. I would have liked a greater sense of where her sense of injustice came from.

As for the relationship questions, honestly, I think I’ve cumulatively just gotten tired recently of novels spending so much text on characters fixated on another character’s hair or lips or throat, etc., often at times that seem implausible to me. It’s also hard for me to get invested in a character’s alleged intensity when that same level gets shared amongst more than one recipient. But while I was annoyed by this throughout The Councillor, it’s possible Beaton is just the victim of all the other novels I’ve read recently that have annoyed me in the same fashion. In other words, your mileage may vary.

Beyond Lysande, the characterization is somewhat weaker. The other rulers never seemed fully three-dimensional. Two especially felt pretty thin, an even greater issue given that their relationship, which I was told but never felt, is a major plot point. Another of the rulers is more interesting, but in that sly, secret, good-guy-or-bad-guy way that one sees so often. He isn’t a bad character, just a pretty stock one.

That sense of having seen things before is also an issue with the plotting. It feels like several plot points are teased out as if they were meant to be either ambiguous or a complete mystery (such as the traitor), but some of the teasing went on way too long as I thought the reader was pretty clear on the things being “hinted” at, while two of the plot turns that I think (and, to be fair, I could be wrong on this — if so, apologies to the author) are meant to be surprises are, I’d say, pretty easily predictable and worse, from an early stage of the novel.

Pacing is slow, exacerbated by those too-long teases and too-frequent reveries on a bit of flashed skin, and at times I’m not sure why we’re journeying places or why we’re waiting on certain events. The novel is much more focused on politics and character, which I enjoyed, and as noted in the intro, it’s a smart focus. I always enjoy novels that have lots of intelligent people and The Councillor is certainly one of those. Beaton presents us with only a handful of real action scenes, but unfortunately one felt more than a little perfunctory, while a big climactic battle scene had some issues with logistics and plausibility. And world-building in general felt a little thin; I certainly had a sense of the society and the land’s basic history, but similar to Lysande’s characterization, it felt a bit too surface-level, with it not quite clear to me how some of it actually worked, particularly in relation to the Elementals. There were just a few too many nagging questions I had; small ones, granted — this is not a book that employs idiot plots — but still enough to detract from my enjoyment.

The Councillor resolves several major issues while the major narrative arc remains. Thanks to Beaton’s prose, the focus on politics and social issues, and a reliance on smart characters doing and thinking intelligently, I’ll pick up the sequel. But I’ll also be hoping the author breaks away from the familiar genre plots and characters and moves a bit more fully into something that feels a bit more freshly original.

~Bill CapossereThe Councillor by E.J. Beaton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews


The Councillor by E.J. Beaton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsI listened to Brilliance Audio’s edition of The Councillor which was exquisitely read by one of the best in the business: Moira Quirk. Her performance is sublime (as always) and I highly recommend this version for anyone planning to read The Councillor. This book is 19 hours long in audio format.

As for the story itself, I completely agree with everything Bill said above. Beaton’s prose is the highlight of this long, slow novel. Simplistic political intrigue and a slow-burning will-they-or-won’t-they slightly kinky romance drives the plot. Readers who love this sort of content will surely be won over. I never lost interest in Beaton’s story, though I often wondered why it was taking so long or why it wasn’t as “Machiavellian” as the publisher promised.

A stumbling block for me had to do with characterization. For a character-driven novel, it wasn’t quite as believable as I’d like. Many of the characters are just a little too clever, too beautiful, too sexy, too badass, or too whatever. They’re just too.

Beaton gives Lysande a combination of traits that didn’t meld perfectly in my mind. Instead of feeling like a real person, I got the sense that she was created by checkboxes:

  • brilliant and precocious scholar
  • quiet, reserved, and careful
  • orphan lacking social standing and self-esteem
  • bisexual
  • drug addict
  • dominatrix
  • social justice warrior

It’s not that these things can’t go together — sure, they can — but they didn’t feel organic and cohesive in Lysande. They all felt like separate parts of her that didn’t congeal. Like Bill, it annoyed me that she frequently obsessed about another character’s throat (so weird) and while she said she was concerned with prejudice, hunger, and other injustices in the land, these protestations were not convincing. She tells us that they exist, but we don’t really feel it.

Lysande makes a few reckless mistakes that didn’t feel consistent with her personality traits and when she gave up, after just a few sentences, of trying to convince the council that they should cancel an event that was obviously dangerous, I lost my belief in her. The plot needed that event to occur, no matter what Lysande thought, and I felt that Beaton was unfaithful to her in that case.

Other parts of Lysande’s character are well done, though, especially her struggles with addiction and her struggle to accurately perceive the faults of the queen she loves so much.

I’ve been a little hard on The Councillor, so I’d like to emphasize again that, even though it didn’t live up to the hype for me (nearly 5 stars at Amazon and GoodReads), it did entertain me for 19 hours (I wish it had been a few less). Beaton’s writing is superb and I never lost interest in her story. I wasn’t able to lose myself in it, for the reasons Bill and I mentioned, but I enjoyed it and am willing to try a sequel. I’d also like to promote the audiobook again. Moira Quirk’s performance is wonderful.

~Kat Hooper

Published in March 2021. This Machiavellian fantasy follows a scholar’s quest to choose the next ruler of her nation amidst lies, conspiracy, and assassination. When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic. Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival. Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about. In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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