To Kill a Kingdom by Alexandra Christo
ARC kindly supplied by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Lira is a siren, born to the lethal, ruthless Sea Queen, and destined to take her place when she comes of age. To prove her worth, she must be just as vicious, stealing the hearts of human princes under the guise of the Prince’s Bane. With the hearts of seventeen in her collection, she is both feared and revered in every corner of the world. At least, until she sets her sights on her next target: Prince Elian, heir to the most powerful kingdom in the world. But after Lira kills a mermaid trying to steal her prize, the Sea Queen punishes her in the most brutal way she can think of– by turning Lira into a weak, defenceless human. Lira has only one option open to her– steal Prince Elian’s heart or remain a human forever.
Prince Elian is not entirely comfortable in his role of heir. He’d rather be on his pirate ship, the Saad, hunting down the vicious sirens who kill his people. When he rescues a girl floating in the middle of the sea, with no wreckage around her, and no sign of a ship, he can’t help but wonder at her origins. She offers to help him track down an ancient key which will destroy the sirens and the Sea Queen for good, but he begins to think he might be out of hid depth. Everything comes at a cost, even trust, and saving his kingdom might turn out to cost even more than a prince can pay.
Mermaids and sea tales are fast becoming a YA trend. There are several books coming out this year with a focus on the ocean, including Daughter of the Siren Queen, The Wicked Deep and Sea Witch. To Kill a Kingdom is not only riding that wave [pardon the pun] but wonderfully surfing it.
“Could it really be such a bad thing, to become a story whispered to children in the dead of night? A song they sing to one another while they play?”
It’s not often that a book hooks you from the first few pages, but that’s what happened this time around. I was nestled into my cosy reading spot with a bit of chocolate and a cup of coffee and then all of a sudden I was being hauled along by the first few chapters, so intrigued that the coffee went cold and the chocolate sat forgotten for a little while longer. There’s a special kind of magic to Christo’s writing, a sort of lyricism that doesn’t sound too different to that entrancing melody the sirens are equipped with. The presence of fairy tales is never too far away, and perhaps that’s what kept me turning pages so rapidly; although it isn’t The Little Mermaid retold [and if that’s what you’re looking for, this book will not be your cup of tea] there are elements of that story woven into the depiction of the characters and the world. Lira, the supposedly ruthless siren known as the Prince’s Bane, is the daughter of royalty, and her beautiful red hair is whispered about in taverns the world over. There are also clear resemblances between the Sea Queen and Ursula, with her tentacles and manipulation. But really, this isn’t a retelling. Which is quite refreshing, since as much as I love them, I think we have quite enough of those to be getting along with for now.
What is To Kill a Kingdom then, you might ask? Magic, as I’ve already said, and a relentless pace that will keep you awake at night with that reader’s curse known as just-one-more-chapter. The world building is gorgeous and intricate, with mountains and seas and pirate ships and underwater cities. Very rarely, did I forget where I was geographically in the novel, since the descriptions of each scene were so well woven into each chapter and page. Plot-wise too, it was a winner, with the characters hurtling from desperate situation to desperate situation, sometimes pausing long enough to joke, or to wonder who is going to try and kill them next. And that was really the clincher for me, although I put it down in the sad face of performing adult duties such as cooking and doing work, I was very reluctant to leave it, bringing it with me into the kitchen while my boyfriend made dinner and mumbling replies as I devoured the story. It felt consistent, and although the pace was really quite reckless, I never felt as though there was a lull in my anticipation. Perhaps the only negative I could say about the plot [if we were going to be nit-picky] was that I preferred the dramatic tension surrounding Lira being a siren in human form on the pirate ship of a prince who wanted her dead, much more interesting than the actual plot of them going to try and find the ultimate weapon against the sirens. I know the two go hand in hand, but I just felt like it was a book that was more character-driven than plot driven.
“The Prince of Midas wears the clothes of royalty in a way that seems neglectful. His shirtsleeves are rolled up to the elbows and the buttons of his collar are undone so the wind can reach his heart. He doesn’t look much older than I do, yet his eyes are hard and weathered. They’re eyes of lost innocence, greener than seaweed and constantly searching. Even the empty ocean is prey to him, and he regards it with a mix of suspicion and wonder.”
Yes, it’s the characters who really stand out here for me, and they leap out from the page in such intricate and startling detail. Both of the protagonists, who switch POV throughout the novel, are incredibly three dimensional, with so many habits and quirks and feelings that you really just want to wrap them up in a warm blanket and hug them. Or y’know, sometimes you also want to kill them. I haven’t actually made up my mind yet, but I think it says a lot that Christo has made them so lifelike that I’m this conflicted. I haven’t felt this invested in characters since I read Six of Crows and The Raven Cycle, so awesome were the inner-workings of Lira and Elian. Elian is interesting because he seems to be the typical knight-in-shining-armour prince. Though he clearly feels uncomfortable at the thought of inheriting the crown, since it means giving up his wonderful pirate life, he meets the inevitable duties with honour and dignity, proving himself loyal to his country and his people before anything else. He’s also the kind that rescues random stray girls from the middle of the sea and then throws them in a cell belowdecks until he feels he can trust them. Clearly, he’s not the idiotic Disney Prince type that crops up every now and again, for which I can only applaud. Instead, he’s equal parts charming and roguish, witty and reckless. He’s similar to almost a dozen YA heroes I can name off the top of my head, and yet he’s just different enough to pass as interesting. He’s got his own hopes and dreams, and I loved seeing him interact with both Lira and his loyal pirate crew, who spend all their time being sarcastic and drinking rum, in typical pirate fashion. You’ve really got to love it.
And then there’s Lira. She’s another amazingly detailed character, with the potential to come across as hugely unsympathetic and yet she’s definitely relate-able. Kudos to Christo for being able to walk such a narrow line and give readers a kick-ass female protagonist who is sure to win people over with her merciless humour and ever-churning thoughts. I suspected all along where her loyalty was going to eventually lie, and I wasn’t disappointed, but I thought it was great to see that development along the way. Lira initially comes across as something of a monster, ripping out the hearts of princes to appease her mother, but very early on we see a glimpse of a more tender side to her, as she struggles to protect her cousin from the Sea Queen’s wrath. That strange mix of wonder, hope and ruthlessness is transferred to her human form too, with Lira trying to decide if she should follow her mother’s wishes and kill Elian, or if she should explore the possibilities of life as part of the Saad’s crew. She’s described in wonderful detail, and I had a very strong image of her throughout To Kill a Kingdom, as some wild, untamed creature, with a constant smirk and eyes the same colour as the ocean she hails from. Christo paints quite a picture, and stroke by stroke, she’s created a minor masterpiece I’ll be delighted to return to. For those who aren’t too keen on sequels, fear not with this book. The ending could potentially lead to a second novel, but it wraps up in a way that is satisfying even as a standalone.
All in all, I’m happy to award To Kill a Kingdom a rare 10/10. You can order a copy on Amazon [UK] here, or you can buy from Waterstones here. Keep in mind this book is rumoured to be appearing in numerous book subscription boxes close to its release date, which is: 6th March.
And if you can’t quite get enough of the wonderful world of To Kill a Kingdom, here are some recommendations to keep you inspired:
For swash-buckling adventures try:
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Scwab
For gripping friendships you’ll never want to leave, try:
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
For ruthless heroines you can’t help but love try:
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
And for beautiful descriptions and flawless worlds, try:
Even the Darkest Stars by Heather Fawcett