THE COUNCILLOR by E. J. Beaton (Book Review)
The Councillor is the upcoming debut by E. J. Beaton, an author who you’re going to want to keep your eye on because my gosh has she created a stunning novel here. Classed as a machiavellian fantasy, this is a story filled with enigmatic characters, vibrant world-building and a plot which continuously keeps you on your toes.
Lysande Prior, our main protagonist, is an orphan, but when she captures Queen Sarelin’s attention with her extraordinary knowledge of languages, her life at the orphanage is swapped for a life in the palace as a scholar. Her days from then on are fairly smooth sailing, that is until tragedy strikes, and she is left with the weight of the kingdom upon her shoulders. Lysande must enter a world of deadly politics, she must find a way to unite the city leaders, and above all she must unravel the mystery behind the rival tyrant ‘White Queen’, long thought to be dead.
Applying all her knowledge of history, monarchies, battles and of the White Queen herself, Lysande must use it to decipher how best to deal with the situation she finds herself in. Praised by her beloved Queen Sarelin as ‘the girl with the quill’, Lysande sets forth to discover whether a pen can actually be mightier than a sword.
‘If you wanted to arrive at your own view, you had to stand above others and look beyond their heads, to take in the horizon from a new height. You had to choose that precise level for yourself and decide what you wished to see.’
There are many aspects I loved about The Councillor, but what immediately drew me in were the complex characters which Beaton presents to us. The book is told solely through Lysande’s eyes and this allows us to understand her inner thoughts and vulnerabilities. Although Lysande outwardly appears in control and confident, we observe a woman wearing a mask, and once stripped away, her insecurities, her drug addiction, her loneliness and grief are all laid bare. We see many sides to her character, even her amatory obsessions and lustful nature, for as much as Lysande is a scholar she is also a woman with strong sexual impulses. She is not a perfect character by any means, and that’s a real plus for me because I wouldn’t have been as extremely drawn to her if she were. There are certainly times where we may question Lysande’s actions, yet this worked to make her a realistic character, for our choices in life cannot always be the right ones.
‘Oh, you could tell yourself that you were doing it for the people and you could turn the pages of tracts in your mind, making all the connections to justify it, but it was still a ladder, stretching up into mist, the top obscured. For the people — the other side of that coin was the people for oneself.’
I absolutely loved how this passage showed Lysande owns her flaws, she recognises her own thirst for power, for glory, she contemplates her own motives and that makes her so well fleshed out. The Councillor is very much an exploration of power and what it can do to one’s mind.
Beaton also managed to distinctly flesh out many of the supporting characters who play key roles too. Throughout, we see a beautifully crafted backstory of Lysande and Queen Sarelin’s budding bond, she paints a vivid picture of a battle-worn warrior queen contrasted with an insecure young scholar coming into her own. Their strong friendship was truly endearing, even when Lysande began to see the Queen was not quite the flawless idol she aspires to live up to.
Then there were the city leaders – Jale Chambois, Dante Dalgerath, Cassia Ahl-Hafir, and Luca Fontaine, each with their own eccentric and quirky characteristics. Out of these I was most taken with Luca Fontaine, and very much enjoyed the intellectual dynamics between himself and Lysande as they played many kinds of games – I was also most intrigued by his unusual animal companion. Yet, no character is ever trustworthy and I found myself captivated by speculating their every move.
I fell deeply in love with Beaton’s exquisite lyrical prose and dazzling world-building. To coincide with Lysande’s nature, Beaton deftly weaved in the world-building, magic system, and variating cultures in a sophisticated scholarly way. We see Lysande observe customs whenever conversing with the other city leaders, she would recite and recall in her mind passages which she’d read in books which correlated with whatever part of the world or magical ability she was scrutinizing. Most importantly though, she listened to stories and always remembered them on the chance they may become relevant later. Consequently we discover aspects of the various cultures through Lysande’s observations, and so we get an enriched knowledge of the culture within each city – for example in Pyrrha they swap desserts between guests a number of times before they are allowed to eat it, Castle Sapere in Rhime holds inventions of great wonder and elaborate artistry, Lyrian’s seek the sun in times of distress and the people revel in flamboyant beauty. It is within these vivid intricate details where the world feels fully realised. We become lost in a world of regency and decadence. However, nature also plays a vital role throughout, castles of stone and metals coexist with jungles and wild creatures.
‘Heads turned across the hall as a troupe of musicians marched in, blowing trumpets, plucking strings, and beating drums. The sound billowed in a harmony that spoke of silver and gold and treasures from places Lysande had read about. Her fingers tingled.’
This is also a book where people can love whomever they want without judgement. A person’s sexual orientation isn’t even a factor which needs to be questioned, and people can be themselves. Men are free to enjoy finer arts and fashion, women can be battle-worn conquerors, they are able to stand on equal grounds. The land of Elira shines as the beacon of diversity, a notion we can only hope to aspire to. Yet in any land it is inevitable to have some form of prejudice, and in The Councillor that lies within class and magical ability. You see those that are poor are left to starve and fester, and those who wield elemental powers are executed. This conflict builds to an absolutely explosive climax, one where you are left pondering who was right and who was wrong.
As much as this is a story about political strife and what it takes to rule, it is also a story of love in all its variations, addiction, privilege and of loss. Like the motif of the Chimera — a hybrid creature — which runs deeply throughout this novel, Beaton never allows the narrative or her characters to be placed in any one box. The Councillor is certainly one of the most sophisticated, intricately woven, and mesmerising debuts I’ve read.
E-ARC provided by DAW via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
All quotes used are taken from an arc and are subject to change upon publication. Thank you for the copy!
The Councillor is out 2nd March 2021 – you can preorder a copy here.