The Broken Crown by Michelle West. ★★★★
Trigger warning for sexual assault
The Broken Crown is the start of a six book epic fantasy series by Canadian author Michelle Sagara West. While The Broken Crown does have some sword fights and so on, the majority of it is political intrigue. It might appeal to the same audience as Game of Thrones, although it is less grimdark and more traditional. However, what really made me love The Broken Crown was the strength and presence of the female characters, of which there are many.
The Broken Crown tells of two countries – the Dominion and the Empire. Most of the page time is spent on the Dominion, which is ruled by a hierarchy of war lords who gain honor on the battle field. But the current ruler of the Dominion is weak, and his war with the Empire was a disaster. Some of the men who vowed to serve him embark on a conspiracy to overthrow him, and caught in the middle of all of this is Diora, a girl who grows up to be the Flower of the Dominion, the most beautiful and graceful woman of all. Yet this is not all, for the Lord of the Night and the demons who serve him have their own plans concerning these affairs…
The Dominion is extremely patriarchal. A woman’s place on society is based on who her father is and who she marries. Women have few choices and no legal rights. No woman of the Dominion wields a sword on the battlefield. They have to find power in other ways, such as with Serra Teresa, Diora’s paternal aunt. Serra Teresa is bard born – her voice has the power to influence or command others, and her song is enchanting. However, to Teresa this is as much a curse as a gift, for it means that she was considered to valuable to be married off and leave the family. Thus Teresa is not able to have control of a husband’s harem and friendships among sister-wives. Diora was born with the same gift and curse, and Serra Teresa will do everything within her power to see that Diora has the life that Teresa was unable to have.
“There are battles that are fought in this world in which no sword is raised.”
Teresa and Diora are not action heroines. They do not lift swords or go to battle, but they fight in their own way, with words and gestures. Diora in particular endures immense difficulties, keeping face schooled into a careful mask of politeness. It takes a long time for her to act, but when she does, it is noteworthy. They are not the only female characters of note. The Empire is much more egalitarian, and many of the female characters we see there are involved in military pursuits. The Kalakar, a female general, is a particular favorite of mine. There’s also a girl Chosen One who is likely to become pivotal.
I will warn you, the first seventy pages at first appear to have nothing to do with the plot. And for the most part, they are not directly relevant to the events occurring in the rest of the novel although I believe they will become critical in later volumes. However, both passages also involve something that I see as an essential theme of The Broken Crown – choice. In these pages two women are offered hard, difficult choices for which they are unlikely to be remembered or gain any glory. Yet both accept, knowing that their difficulties have the possibility of leading to gains for humankind. Choice or lack of it underlines all of The Broken Crown.
Although I do believe the events of those seventy pages to be important thematically, does it really taken seventy pages to cover this material? Like most epic fantasy books, The Broken Crown is long, measuring out at somewhere over seven hundred pages. For the most part it is slow going, especially in the beginning. I don’t think it really starts to pick up until after page three hundred.
I encourage anyone who likes epic fantasy to pick up The Broken Crown, particularly if they are looking for some epic fantasy where women play a large role. It may be long, but I found it ultimately worth the time involved. I certainly intend to read the sequel.