Review: Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, by Jess Gately

Title: Four Dead Queens
Author: Astrid Scholte
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (2019)
Genre: YA Fantasy

Every so often a book comes along where the pacing is so perfect—the tension rises steadily  and the plot races forward—that you find yourself turning the last pages at two o’clock in the morning wondering how ‘just one more chapter’ resulted in the end. Four Dead Queens is that kind of book. Scholte has mastered the art of interweaving her word-building with a fast-paced plot designed to reveal just enough to keep you wanting more. It’s no mean feat in the fantasy world and especially for a debut!

Keralie Corrington is a skilled thief with a painful past but when she is instructed to steal a package from the Quadara Palace, her life begins to unravel. The package in question is embroiled in a murderous plot that sees all four of Quadara’s queens murdered within days of one another. Keralie must team up with Varin Bollt, the messenger from whom she stole the package, to unravel the mystery of the killer before the nation is plunged into chaos.

Hidden behind this magnificent world is a commentary on science, emotion, freedom and forgiveness. Quadara is divided into four main realms, each of which have very specific roles, and once born into that realm, residents are destined to live by its oaths. Varin comes from the realm of Eonia, a barren wasteland of ice where the people have survived through the development of technology—technology that now also serves Quadara. To ensure they are always moving forward for the betterment of the realm, they sacrifice their emotions, their relationships and their connections to ensure impartial and logical thinking. But beneath their expressionless exteriors, many of the Eonian characters we glimpse are brimming with repressed emotions and dreams of more. Scholte suggests that not only is it impossible to truly repress emotion but that it is our emotions that drive progress. Without emotion, without love, desire, and hope, progress may simply become experimentation without purpose.

Likewise, Keralie comes from the realm of Toria, where the people are all explorers and traders responsible for building the economy of Quadara. Her whole life her parents insisted that she take to the sea but Keralie hates the water and detests the notion of spending her life on a boat. In desperate rebellion, she joins forces with Mackiel, a boy whose father runs the black market down in the Jetée District. Through Keralie and Varin’s stories, Scholte reflects on how restricting the interests and talents of individuals and forcing them into lives that function solely to serve their country, can lead to drastic decision-making and outright rebellion. She explores how Quadara, in its quest for peace and freedom, has essentially reduced its citizens to slaves.

The story is written, flicking between the points of view of Keralie and the four queens, allowing Scholte to delve further into the nature of the human psyche. The people of Archia, as the providers of Quadara’s food, live without technology to ensure they are never overworking the land and always respect the effort that goes into each aspect of life. The people of Ludia are consumed with art, music, and theatre. They engage in endless festivals and intricate traditions focusing on the beauty in all life (and death). The separation of the four realms is one of the ongoing arguments between the Queens as they struggle to ensure that they’re people’s values and traditions are upheld while also envying one another for their perceived ease of life. There is recognition that all four realms and their values are required for the nation to be successful but they seem to believe that all four are not capable of existing within one person and cannot be mixed with each other’s values successfully.

While the story is thrilling, fast-paced and easy to read, it’s deceptively simple. There is a lot to unpack beneath the YA veneer of a young woman and a young man struggling to understand one another whilst trying to save their nation. My only qualm with this story was its final villain about who I will say little for fear of giving it away. Suffice to say that I wasn’t convinced of the motives. But overall I put down this book satisfied, heart racing, and in need of some deep breathing if I was going to fall asleep even at two in the morning.

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