The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole
Spoiler Warning: Because The Queen of Crows is the second book of a series, this review contains unavoidable spoilers for book 1, The Armored Saint. While I’ve tried to minimize spoilers for both books, I’d strongly recommend you read The Armored Saint before reading this review or The Queen of Crows, as the story’s relentless, bone-grinding emotional momentum will be blunted if you do not. If you’re debating, read our review of The Armored Saint here (it’s good, folks).
All done reading The Armored Saint? Wonderful! Then you should be safe from the minor spoilers waiting below.
As the second act of what will likely be a three-act story, The Queen of Crows picks up immediately after the conclusion of the first book. Heloise, our sole protagonist, is still reeling from the many losses, human and otherwise, she and her fellow villagers suffered after rising up against the Order, a group of dickish protectors turned brigands. While the Order’s stated purpose is to kill those who use magic (after all, magic summons demons!) they really just spend their time oppressing and murdering people, and now the Order’s reinforcements are coming to slaughter the survivors of Heloise’s village.
Down one hand and up one steam-powered war machine, Heloise is surrounded by people who were once her fellow villagers but now consider her a Palantine, a holy knight chosen by the Emperor (both sides revere their long dead emperor) to kill demons and protect the oppressed. Of course, Heloise feels entirely unprepared for the religious fervor and demands heaped upon her. Everyone around her expects her to find a way to lead her fellow survivors, most of whom have never served in the army, against a mounted group of professional killers who plan to relentlessly smash their heads with flails.
Together with the few villagers who have some idea how to fight, including Heloise’s own father and the towering tinker who built her nigh unstoppable war machine, Heloise hatches a plan to ambush the Order as they arrive. With luck, her survivors can bloody the Order badly enough that they will either give up their goal of slaughtering the remaining villagers or be too damaged to pursue them when they flee. Naturally, this all goes wrong almost immediately, and Heloise and her charges end up in worse shape than ever, facing exhaustion, starvation, and a horde of religious zealots who show no mercy.
Ultimately, The Queen of Crows is the relentlessly well-paced story of how Heloise, the lone rebel, grows into Heloise, leader of a rebellion, and unfolds in a set of small moments and brutal battles involving death, dismemberment, and magical explosions. Yet Cole (just as in The Armored Saint) never hesitates to slow the book down just long enough for us to experience the quiet before and after battles, which ensures we appreciate the trauma Heloise suffers, as well as how her struggles and trauma change her.
Honestly, it seems almost unfair to saddle Heloise with mundane concerns like a misguided suitor and an overprotective father while she’s trying to prevent her whole village from getting butchered, but the small, interpersonal conflicts in The Queen of Crows hit her just as hard as its massive battles. As with the first book, the grim darkness of Cole’s world comes not from over the top cruelty or ultraviolence but from the relentless march of challenges and tragedy that plague Heloise, who really wants nothing more than to keep herself, her family, and her fellow villagers alive … and probably won’t.
Another thing The Queen of Crows does well is to add new wrinkles to how magic works in Heloise’s world, including revelations shedding new light on events in The Armored Saint. The book also introduces some new and interesting factions to her struggle, the most prominent of whom are the Kipti, a matriarchal society of nomadic traders who honor and follow those who have experienced loss. Among the Kipti, mothers who have lost children are honored most of all, and it says something for what Heloise has already suffered that the Kipti grant her a great deal of respect after hearing her story.
To conclude this review, The Queen of Crows gave me everything I wanted in a follow up to The Armored Saint, and while Cole intends it to be the second act of a three act story, it, like the first book, ends at a natural stopping point in Heloise’s story. As with the first book, I really enjoyed this installment, and I’m looking forward to the third book which will, presumably, wrap everything up and conclude yet another thrilling SFF trilogy from talented author Myke Cole.
If you like dark stories with a sympathetic protagonist, well-written battles, and a fascinating world you’d never want to live in, then this series (The Sacred Throne) and all its books are for you.