Series Title: Wraith Kings
Author: Grace Draven
Date Added: May 12, 2016
Date Started: May 21, 2017
Date Finished: May 24, 2017
Reading Duration: 3 days
Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal Romance
Publication Date: February 2014
Shares Paradigms With: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy X, Beauty and the Beast, Norse Mythology (near the end), Welsh Mythology (during the Epilogue), ASOIAF
THE PRINCE OF NO VALUE
Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.
THE NOBLEWOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE
Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.
Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.
It’s been a long time since any book instantly engaged me and refused to let go. Even with books I instantly buy based on sample, I find something to stumble over, some aspect to balk me, or some piece that just doesn’t sit well. Not only did I fly through this novel, but the I instantly bought the second installment and read that in an even shorter time. I almost utterly ignored the final book in The Raven Cycle in my frenzy to absorb every word of this narrative, and I will now have to revise my prior declaration that Ms. Stiefvater’s books would be favorite series of the year. Oh, there’s no doubt I still hold them in high acclaim, but this quiet, self-published, paranormal romance with political intrigue has risen like cream to the top.
The story opens with Ildiko, a Gauri noblewoman and human (that detail is important) preparing for her wedding ceremony with no joy. She is the daughter of the king’s deceased sister and therefore the by law niece of the monarch and critical queen. She is, as the blurb states, “a noblewoman of no importance,” at least in terms of agency. She’s too highborn to be married to a commoner, but not royal enough to warrant a regal engagement. The young woman has known this her entire life, and it’s given her a keen, practical viewpoint without the trappings of pretension or frivolity. This is not to say she’s humorless. On the contrary, her wry, acerbic wit more than like grew from knowing and accepting her position. Ildiko was always aware she’d be married off in order to secure some political alliance and had no delusions that she was anything more than a clever pawn, but the young woman never suspected her bridegroom wouldn’t even be human…
Brishen, “the prince of no value,” is of an ancient people known as the Kai. They’re an elder race that’s existed long before humanity, and while they’re humanoid, they have an entirely different appearance and culture. With dark grey skin and luminescent eyes lacking both iris and pupil, the Kai are a people of the night and nearly blind by day. They also have long, black claws on their fingers and deadly fangs for teeth. I’m not clear on whether or not their entire mouth is filled with fangs or if they just have extremely sharp canines, but from certain contexts, I believe it’s the former. Both claws and teeth are more than capable of tearing through living flesh. *spoiler* At one point, it’s revealed that the Kai did once hunt and eat humans, but Brishen is very careful not to mention that to Ildiko. *end spoiler*
Both humans and Kai find the other absolutely repulsive, and I was impressed with Ms. Draven flipping the script to focus more on the Kai perspective In most stories with a Beauty and the Beast vibe, the emphasis is on the other, but Radiance more than adequately portrayed how strange human features would look to alien eyes, and the author concentrated more on this in an almost gentle ribbing to her readers, as if to say, “Really look in this mirror I’m holding up.”
The biggest factor for Kai revulsion is human eyes. Since the older race has neither pupil nor iris, their eyes appear as one, uniform, nacreous surface, generally yellow in prime, turning whiter as they age. The appearance of eyes whose movement is easily discerned is both shocking and sickening; the way Brishen describes it is as though we have parasites or puppetry in our heads moving our orbs around. Every Kai is quite disturbed by Ildiko’s “talent” at crossing her own (something she uses quite often to her advantage), which were quite hilarious scenes to read..
As a bride and wife, Ildiko is expected to fulfill “wifely duties” *rolls eyes* (ha) even though human and Kai can’t produce offspring (I still hold to my predictions for the later books that somehow, possibly through magic, a hybrid baby will occur). This above all is terrifying to Ildiko. It’s not like she didn’t expect it as part of an arranged marriage, but it’s one thing to bed some boring duke or viscount, it’s quite another thing to share a marital bed with someone who isn’t even human.
Before her nuptials, Ildiko takes a walk in the garden in an attempt to clear her head and prepare for a life more horrifying than any woman, noble or common, can imagine. She runs into a hooded and cloaked Brishen (though neither knows whom the other is), which is how the Kai deal with the sun. They wind up having an easy and affable conversation despite their physical and cultural differences.. While her eyes unsettled him, his smile terrifies her as it reveals the mouth full of fangs. She says he makes her think of a wolf, while he laughingly admits her teeth put him in the mind of a horse. Then he asks her honestly what she thinks of his looks, and Ildiko admits if she ever saw a “dead eel” such as him in a dark room, she’d try to beat it to death. This causes riotous laughter, but the moment doesn’t last as the noblewoman has to away for final preparations. As she flees, the Kai prince wishes that his bride will be half as pleasant and at least a fraction as clever.
Somehow the Kai prince realizes right before the ceremony that the woman he met in the garden is none other than his bride-to-be, and breaking standard (or rather human) protocol, he insists on seeing her before the wedding. Though the queen is displeased by this, it’s not worth causing an international incident. Ildiko is just as shocked and overjoyed that Brishen was the man from the garden, and she’s even more surprised when he asks if they can hold off on the bedding, because he has just as much interest in that as she.
I’m not going to summarize the entire story, but these particular points I wanted to hit. This book…is fucking amazing. I have never read a better novel about arranged marriage or one about about the blending of culture with the “stranger in a strange land” motif. Usually, it’s the woman who suffers the most in that situation, having to endure sexual assault and often violence, but from the get-go, Ildiko and Brishen’s relationship is about communication. They talk and respect one another even though they’re from completely different cultures and species. Ildiko immediately starts sleeping during the day in order to acclimate herself to the night life of the Kai, since that’s whom she’ll be living among, and they both learn the subtle difference with how each of them express emotion. The young bride is extremely adaptive to all situations due to knowing her future would consist of an arranged marriage, and she soon realizes that Brishen is an honorable man.
Because he’s the “spare” with his brother and his brood securing the throne of Bast-Haradis many times over, the Kai prince also has a particular mien about him. He doesn’t really partake in the unnecessary pageantry of royalty, rather choosing to use his power for the purpose of protecting his people. When three of them are killed in his service during an attack on the road, he volunteers as the bearing of one young Kai’s mortem light. The elder race has ancient magic, though it’s diluted with each generation, and when one of them dies, the essence of their spirit and memories is withdrawn in order to return it to their family and eventually to a place called Emlek, which sounds hell of a lot like the Farplane of FFX. The ritual to return the light to the fallen’s mother involves what Brishen’s parents (especially the queen, more on her later…) would consider lowering himself, but the prince couldn’t care less about things like that. He’s point of view is that anyone who’s willing to die in his service deserves much more than this, and Ildiko is of a similar nature. When they eventually leave the royal seat, she only takes one of her Kai handmaids with her. When Brishen questions her on this, she explains that she only needed one and the other was related to the young man who died; therefore, her mother will need her help more than Ildiko.. This thinking about the welfare of others beyond just yourself is exactly what a leader should be like.
In terms of feelings, Brishen and Ildiko always honest with each other. Neither finds the other physically attractive in the least, but both prince and noblewoman know that there’s far more to someone than the mere physical. They respect each other from the start and have a solid friendship built on that mutual respect and regard.
Despite the fact that Brishen’s parents obviously arranged the marriage, his mother Secmis is nothing but vitriolic and insulting to her new daughter-in-law, and because the noblewoman doesn’t know the full history of the Kai queen’s poisonous nature, she has no problem returning each thinly veiled barb. This earns her a murder attempt by Secmis, which when Brishen confronts his father about it, the aged king laughs, asks his son if his wife is still alive, and when he’s informed she is, states that Secmis must not have tried very hard. Brishen hates his mother for very valid reasons even beyond and before this assassination attempt. So yep, he has “mommy issues” as in his mother is the issue.
Secmis appears far younger than her husband, because she practices what most would consider blood magic, taking the souls and essences of others in order to keep herself young and powerful. *spoiler* This is the catalyst for the plot of the second book as Secmis opens a door to a realm of demons that threaten to overrun the world, and her son has to deal with the problem she causes. She, herself, is killed in the act, reminding me of Arianrhod from The Mabinogion Tetralogy who died during her own bid for more power. *end spoiler* There’s some other seriously creepy/disturbing things with her, but Brishen knows exactly what she is and will never be fooled or foolish enough to be taken in.
There is a decided Egyptian motif to many of the terms used by Kai. The name of their capital city is Bast-Haradis, and the first part sounds like Bastet, an Egyptian warrior goddess. Other names have a similar sound like Anhuset, Brishen’s cousin and lieutenant, who is often called sha-Anhuset as a term of respect. Anhuset sounds like Anubis, who is associated with mummification and the afterlife. I wish I were less rusty on my Egyptian mythology, because I could give a better analysis.
This novel was such a refreshing departure from the typical arranged marriage motifs. I loved the fact that Brishen and Ildiko respected and liked each other from the start even if they didn’t find the other attractive. Just because a person isn’t considered beautiful, that doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of respect and fair treatment. The author didn’t mince words in describing how she still found the Kai’s appearance quite terrifying, but she wasn’t going to judge them based on that alone, nor was Brishen going to abuse her,because she wasn’t up to his standard of beauty. There is a definite statement about not treating others like lesser based on physical appearance, and even though I knew eventually they’d fall in love (who wouldn’t fall in love with someone who respects you, shares your humor, and has been thrust into the same inescapable situation?), it didn’t diminish my enjoyment or delight. I laughed aloud numerous times while reading this and was more than impressed with how Ms. Draven made me examine how a non-human sentient race would view humanity. It’s both humbling and awe-inspiring, and Brishen and Ildiko’s type of relationship is something I wish we saw more of in paranormal fantasy, fantasy, and just fiction in general. It would be the perfect paragon for real life to mimic.