The Queen of Ieflaria
by Effie Calvin
Princess Esofi of Rhodia and Crown Prince Albion of Ieflaria have been betrothed since they were children but have never met. At age seventeen, Esofi’s journey to Ieflaria is not for the wedding she always expected but instead to offer condolences on the death of her would-be husband.
But Ieflaria is desperately in need of help from Rhodia for their dragon problem, so Esofi is offered a new betrothal to Prince Albion’s younger sister, the new Crown Princess Adale. But Adale has no plans of taking the throne, leaving Esofi with more to battle than fire-breathing beasts.
I am actively in search of more LGBT+ fantasy, particularly LGBT+ fantasy featuring queer women, so when I came across a novella that promised an arranged marriage between two princesses I snapped up a copy immediately.
Unfortunately I didn’t love this one as much as I hoped I would, which you can probably tell from my rating, but it’s not an awful story by any means either.
Princess Esofi of Rhodia has been prepared for marriage all her life. Since she was three years old she has been betrothed to the Crown Prince of Ieflaria, Albion, with the hope that their alliance will bring safety to Ieflaria with the help of the mages Esofi will bring with her.
When Albion dies unexpectedly, Esofi agrees to marry his sister Adale, now the Crown Princess, but Adale has no desire to be queen and Esofi’s future happiness relies on her ascending to the role she has been prepared for since her infancy.
There’s a lot to like about this novella. First and foremost, I adored finally coming across a fantasy world with completely different attitudes to gender. There are men, women and non-binary people in this world and no one thinks anything of it, nor does anyone think it unusual that two women or two men might marry, even in a political match. Women are able to go through ‘the change’, which is never fully explained in this story but, from what I gathered, seems to be a process in which a priestess can potentially change the biology of a woman so that she and her wife can create an heir. Not all women can do it, however, while men can’t do it at all and must rely on surrogates.
Even if neither Esofi or Adale can go through ‘the change’, however, it’s still not a huge problem. Most royal families have many siblings and cousins which would make it possible for a same-sex couple to choose a successor from a favoured family member, and I loved how normalised same-sex relationships and gender neutrality were in this novella.
Calvin has also created a fascinating pantheon of gods, and it was so interesting to see the clash of cultures between these two princesses with Esofi hailing from a country that relies heavily on religion and magic while Adale hails from a country that encourages science and medicine and the princess herself appears to have no religious belief at all. I actually would have liked to see a lot more about the clash between religion and science in this fantasy world, a world in which gods, magic and science all exist together, and I think that was my main problem with the novella as a whole. I wanted more.
I saw another reviewer on Goodreads sum up my own thoughts on this perfectly when they said this novella reads like a film adaptation of a longer and better novel. I couldn’t agree more. It feels like there are scenes missing that would flesh out the story and its characters and that’s a real shame from a world that has so much potential.
The romance between Esofi and Adale developed a little too quickly for my tastes. I loved that even though they had never met, Esofi knew Albion fairly well because the two of them had been writing letters to each other since their childhood knowing that they would one day be married. While Esofi wasn’t in love with Albion by any means, the two of them had essentially been pen pals and even if Esofi couldn’t expect passionate love from her marriage, which wasn’t something she was looking for anyway, she at least knew that she and her husband could be friends.
Esofi and Adale, however, seemed to go from not knowing one another to suddenly trying to impress each other very quickly. Fair enough this story is a novella and things do move faster in a novella, but the speed of this relationship meant it didn’t feel as organic as it could have with two women mourning someone they both cared for in different ways. Adale not only loved her brother, she feels a lot of guilt surrounding his death and feels completely unprepared to fill his shoes. When she discovers Esofi has letters with her that Albion sent to her, it was a wonderful moment for them to bond, which they did, but bonded so quickly that they had their first kiss and Adale was too busy thinking about how pretty she thought Esofi was to go into any detail about how the letters written by her brother made her feel. In fact we didn’t even get to see any of the letters either Esofi or Albion had written to each other, and considering the hints of an unhappy childhood we get from Esofi in this story those letters would have been a wonderful peek into her life up until the point that we met her.
Adale was sad, then she started falling in love with Esofi and the character work here wasn’t quite developed enough for Adale to feel more than one emotion at once. I would have found their relationship far more interesting if Adale had perhaps also began to feel guilty for not only (as she feels) playing a part in her brother’s death, but also in filling his shoes in every area of his life from the role he was going to take on to the woman he was going to marry.
Some of the language used in the story bugged me a little, too. Every now and then one of the characters would use a word like ‘dumb’ which pulled me out of this fantasy world and made me feel as though I was reading about a high school drama. There were also instances where other characters spoke to the two princesses in a way that wasn’t believable; one of Esofi’s ladies-in-waiting, in particular, was constantly complaining and putting Esofi down at every opportunity she got. I don’t doubt for a second that it’s possible for a member of a royal family to feel as self-conscious as anyone else, perhaps even more so because they’re in the public eye, but I found it hard to believe that someone who had been trained her whole life to be a future queen would let someone get away with talking to her like that all the time.
I think I’m being particularly harsh in this review and I don’t mean to be because, as I mentioned above, there are parts of this novella I really liked – the world-building, in particular, I thought was superbly done for a novella – but I think because the story was a shorter story the character work had to suffer so that there was enough room for the world-building, and that’s so frustrating in a story with an f/f romance at its centre. If this were a fully-fledged novel, with more room for all of Calvin’s ideas, I would have liked it a lot more.
I think there are some more books set in this world, I believe there’s at least one more novella, and I’m interested in checking them out at some point because I think Calvin is a fantasy writer with a lot of potential and I’m hopeful that she’ll continue to write f/f fantasy that will get better and better with each book.