Daughters of Ruin

daughters-of-ruin-9781481436656_hrTitle: Daughters of Ruin
Author: K.D. Castner
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Romance, Action
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ || 1.0

This is a long one, guys.

I came across this book a few months ago and it looked so good and the premise was so promising that I was instantly intrigued by its intrigue. Four heirs to four crowns in four warring kingdoms are brought together to live in the victor’s castle to be raised as sisters, forming a Pax Regina––a peace of Queens––in order to avoid further war. They were meant to be friends, equals, but instead, three of them are prisoners, and they are all of them enemies.

I expected a lot from this book from its description. Fantastic (and I use the term in the sense of Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher and not in the sense of “Wow that food was fantastic”) romances (and I use the term in the sense of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, not in the sense of Harlequins) that feature politicking and posturing, when done well, are an especial favourite of mine––it should shock a total of zero people that The Queen’s Thief series is one of my favourite series to exist on this earth in the history of ever. But the key words are these: when done well.

If I’d been expecting girls who pretended to love each other, but actually schemed against each other in order to move their own agendas on behalf of their own kingdoms (which yes, I was, and which yes, would have made for an interesting conflict), then I was sorely disappointed. Because what the novel featured instead were girls who were openly antagonistic towards each other in a way that betrayed all promises of subtlety and grace in maneuvering, such that when one of the girls, Rhea, remarks at the close of the novel that “for ten short years, [she] had had three sisters, and she loved and hated them,” it rings false, because one never felt any indication that she harboured anything but ill-will, resentment, and self-victimhood towards them. That’s how the entire novel felt: it could claim one thing, but the substance of the matter speaks differently. No one outside of Iren (one of the princesses) had an agenda. Their politicking was clumsy as best, incompetent at worst.

Good politicking in novels relies on good plotting. The subtle manipulation, the movements below the surface. Everything here was brash, and plans are explicated mere moments after they’re introduced, with no room to linger and no space to play themselves out. There were also––to be honest––no stakes, mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to be invested in any of these girls or any of their problems.

To be honest, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to––or, in fact, that I even could––review the novel for this blog, as it didn’t initially seem as if the novel were particularly diverse. At least, it wasn’t particularly explicit about its diversity (though with names like Suki and Reiko, who could argue that at least one of the kingdoms was being racialised?). But as the novel grew worse and worse and worse at handling race and mental illness, the only character who, though she’s not given explicit race, is racialised enough, and her treatment by the narrative is ableist enough, that I could justify complaint.

But first, a tangent.

If in any way you are expecting, as I was, a dissection of empire, even one that is as surface level as The Winner’s Curse trilogy (which I really enjoyed, but not necessarily for its commentary on colonialism, because “you are being just as bad as they are” is really super boring and overused as a displacement of guilt over institutionalised injustice, Kestrel), it becomes immediately and almost shockingly obvious whose side the narrative is on, and what sorts of attitudes it bears.

Rhea––the daughter of the victorious King Declan––is given the first opportunity to speak, the most number of pages to occupy, the most accessible style to speak in, a love interest who has the largest role to play, copious space to play the victim and justify herself and her attitudes, and she is the one who comes out best of the four girls at the end of the novel. Even when she is wrong or prejudiced, it’s framed as an understandable reaction to unimaginable circumstance, and her apologia for her father is conveniently obscured by the realization that––shock of shocks––he never loved her to begin with, so that the reader is encouraged to sympathize with her sense of betrayal.

The next girl, Cadis, who buys into Pax Regina, is also given an accessible stylistic voice similar to that of Rhea’s, and though she comes to realize later that the peace is a farce, her initial loyalty to King Declan and the idea of peace is rewarded with a return to her own country, though by the end her lapse in loyalty to Meridan and to Declan is refracted back onto her, and she’s forced to injure herself mentally and physically as a reward. She’s also portrayed as a blonde girl with dreadlocks (described explicitly as thus), which. My eyes almost rolled out of my head after reading that.

It should be pointed out (and where better than here) that the action that makes Declan the fraud, the Big Reveal of His Big Badness, is not a realisation on the part of Rhea (the obvious POV character) or the reader (who, LBR, probably already knows) that Pax Regina was a lie meant to expand Declan’s own power and create another war (the part of the novel that massively doesn’t make sense, because isn’t Pax Regina supposed to prevent war? So why does he want another war? Why are the girls being trained to fight each other if the aim is peace? I don’t know, you don’t know, I’m not sure the narrative knows, so it’s best to make like Cadis and not ask too many questions). No, the Big Reveal—the definitive shift in the novel’s attitude towards Declan—is that he had killed the former king and queen and was, in fact, a usurper. And that the True Heir is still alive.

Which, okay, is horrible, only thrones change hands like that all the time. Li Shimin assassinated his own brother so that he could become crown prince, yet he was still widely acknowledged to be a highly competent and gifted ruler who is celebrated even today, a thousand years after his death. Surely the worse thing is that Declan coerced three children from their homes, essentially kidnapping and imprisoning them, in order to cover up and then create false pretenses for war, thus killing and displacing thousands more.

Meanwhile, the two girls who are in on the scam to begin with (i.e. they knew they were being imprisoned, they knew they were hostages and not guests, prisoners of war and not sisters) are given the least accessible voices (Iren is a blunt staccato that’s meant to suit her methodical, observant thinking, while Suki’s is rife with parentheticals and self-centeredness, but we’ll come back to her later) and the least satisfying endings. Both of them are stranded by the narrative, far from their native lands, having destroyed their ties with everyone around them. And when Iren is not explicitly demonised by the narrative, Suki is, which is such a shame, because these two are arguably the most complex and compelling characters in a land made otherwise of soggy cardboard. Suki is spoiled—not necessarily a bad thing, narratively speaking––but of the four she is extraordinarily clear minded about her role in the Pax Regina and is the one most openly resistant to her role in it, while Iren is quieter, seemingly more complacent, but is a spy for her mother within the walls of Meridan, turning dogs against their owners and with contingency plans in place.

Yet Suki, Suki, Suki. She was my favourite from the very beginning, and that’s in part because I like a good growth narrative (spoilt brat to gracious, farsighted, kind young adult–hello, hi, I’d like to telephone my first two great loves, Mary Lennox and Amy March) and in part because she’s the only racialised one (if only implicitly; her name, Suki, is coded as Japanese (though it should be noted it’s not actually a very common name in Japan), as is her mother’s, Reiko). But she’s the one treated most abominably by the narrative.

She’s Rhea’s romantic rival, she’s a spoiled brat, and her legitimate concerns about being made a captive are ascribed alternately to her megalomania and self-centeredness or to an unnamed, unspecified “madness” (which is literally how she is first introduced––”spoiled and twisted by a rank delirium/slowly and sure she…went…mad”)—that is to say that her claims are framed as invalid, as delusional, as her aspiring to a grandiosity that she could not feasibly have a claim to, even though the substance of what she is saying is true—she is a captive. Rhea is condescending (“He wrapped his arms around her shoulders––so obviously as a big brother would, though Suki wouldn’t know it”).  She is given the fewest number of pages in which to speak, and those pages are used less to justify her narrative of victimhood (as Rhea’s do), but to hammer in her “broken” (a word used by the text itself to describe her; and I can’t put to words how insulting that word is to use on someone who is framed by the narrative as being “unstable”) mind through the physical form and lack of decipherability her words. To make us doubt her perception of reality.

Would it be fair to call this narrative gaslighting?

She’s framed as the most abominable of the four, a status that is retroactively justified by her behaviour at the end of the book. All of the other girls have at least some sympathetic aspects, and at least some sort of hope towards the end, but she has become monstrous, indeed, made monstrous because of her mental state. Another way to say this is that her unspecified mental illness has made her monstrous, which a roundabout way of saying that the text supports the idea that mental illness is monstrous, creates monstrosity.

There were ways of giving Suki a mental illness––if an unspecified one (which never, ever bodes well in a narrative tbh)––that are not so offensive. There are ways of making her a villain, even a villain who is the only racialised one (and it should be noted that her specific racialisation is East Asian, and that she is an extraordinarily infantilised character, one who is simultaneously portrayed as dangerous and delusional, all of which, I should add, are stereotypes that are often used to describe East Asian women, if not in that specific combination) and the only one whose perception of reality we are encouraged to doubt, whose entitlement and self-aggrandisement is presented as disgusting (as we should; those aren’t good qualities, but why is she the only one whose faults are demonised to this extent?).

But this was not it, not by a million miles, because she is never shown the empathy we are expected to show to the other characters, none of whom, I may add, is as compelling as Suki is. She was the one taken from her family at the youngest age, the only one whose family’s death (her elder brother and sister’s) were the directly at the hands of King Declan. Her relationship to Meridan, to Rhea and to Declan, could have been so fruitful a relationship for its tension, but instead she is brushed aside, both in the treatment of her character, plot-wise, and in the more structural form of page numbers. (She is unconscious for a good portion of the second half of the novel, and is at one point thrown at armed guards, which is played for laughs.)

Junot Diaz once made a point that for young people of colour, for marginalised people in general, not having reflections in the mirror can often make us feel as if we are monsters. But what if the thing we see in the mirror, over and over and over again, are the monsters other people make of us? I often struggle with the question of representation—yes, ideally, we would have nuanced, good representation, but so, so often what it actually comes down to is a choice between no representation or shitty representation, and it both cases we have been made monstrous. So while this was a promising concept, and while it was a quick read that I pushed myself through for the sake of writing this review, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It was neither a great book nor great representation, and just not worth the time or the discomfort.

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