A World of Severus Snapes
There is a line these days in fantasy, between unabashedly European settings (often with outdated racial and sexual politics) and those that try to get farther afield (for example, Django Wexler or Ken Liu). Ever since Robert Jordan codified the European setting Tolkien popularized, it’s been hard to write a Europeanesque setting without falling back on tired tropes—but Jeff Wheeler pulls it off in The Queen’s Poisoner. Historically based on the War of Roses (also Martin’s worldbuilding muse for Game of Thrones), the book boasts a deeper political history than you often see (especially with young protagonists), a unique (if nebulous) magic system, and a narrative focused enough on the internal life of the protagonist that the externally-familiar setting doesn’t steal too much from the story’s appeal.
So what's the story about, if not a gallant knight/farmboy/hobbit going to defeat a dragon/Forsaken/undead warlock? It’s about a rebel nobleman’s son getting sent as hostage to an upstart king, and learning to survive (and eventually, to vindicate his politically-imperiled family) in a hostile castle. The protagonist is young, and though he gets a lot of help from the book’s namesake poisoner, as well as a plucky female friend reminiscent of Scarlett from Steamboy, much of the delight in this story is his gradual coming to age and confidence in his difficult setting.
Wheeler has a delicate feel for character, and there are good-on-the-inside Snapes of various sizes in The Queen's Poisoner, from outwardly-evil to minorly-sinister to just-annoying, all of whom end up being trustworthy in one way or another. Of course, there are a couple actually-evil characters too—and the hero’s journey here is learning to decipher who is who, beneath the mask, an internal journey his friend the poisoner helps him with (and seems to be tied to his burgeoning magical skills). It’s a fairly unique character arc for a fantasy novel, and the drama that comes with him reacting to, then burrowing beneath, the skin of variously antagonistic characters to find their true colors makes for a fun read.
That said, TQP still falls flat in a few places. While Owen’s hijinks and coming of age around the castle is fun, the plot feels fairly episodic until the last quarter, which sort of forces a climax and resolution on an unwilling protagonist. That is the other weak link in the book—though young protagonists (see early Harry Potter) can’t be expected to get everything done under their own power, Owen spends the book quite withdrawn, shy, and reactive, relying almost entirely on friends to help him out of trouble, and to drive him to action. Coming-of-age stories often start this way, but to our tastes TQP stayed that way a little too long.
So, Queen’s Poisoner, worth a read? Yes—the pacing is quick, the characters fun, the worldbuilding deepish, and the story unusual among fantasy novels. Check it out especially if you are a fan of younger protagonists or coming of age stories; if heroic/active characters and tight plotting are more your wheelhouse, though, you might want to read the kindle sample first.
: Not to mention those that change the field so thoroughly it’s hard to place them as anywhere (see Brandon Sanderson or NK Jemisin)
: Or a fan of audiobooks--this one's 1.99!