Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab
Release Date: May 7, 2019
Received From: Review copy from the author via NetGalley
Thelia isn’t in line to inherit the crown, but she’s been raised to take power however she can. She’s been friends with Princess Corene her whole life, and she’s scheming to marry Bayled, the heir to the throne. But her plans must change when an army of elves invades the kingdom.
Thelia, her cousin Parsival, and Corene become trapped in the castle. An elf warrior, Sapphire, may be Thelia’s only hope of escape, but Sapphire has plans of their own. Meanwhile, an ancient magic is awakening within the castle, with the power to destroy the whole kingdom. Can Thelia find a way to protect her future–and her life?
GENDER: cisgender, nonbinary
SEXUALITY: asexual/demisexual, bisexual, pansexual
ROMANTIC ORIENTATION: demiromantic, biromantic, pansexual
PAIRING: M/F, F/ENBY, M/ENBY, polyamory
TROPES: magical abilities, unlikeable heroine, height difference, age gap
TAGS: young adult, fantasy, POC characters, romance, queer romance, queer characters, touch averse character, sex repulsed character
WARNINGS: incest, disfiguremisia, violence, alcohol, parental death mention, ableism, misogyny, racism, mental illness (panic attack), alcoholism, classism, rape threat, abusive family, cissexism/anti-trans language, torture, physical injury, captivity, colonialism, menstruation, anti-bisexual/pansexual stereotypes, anti-ace, misgendering, vomiting, suicide mention
Ah, where to begin.
This review is difficult for me to write, because I consider the author one of my online friends, but there was so much in this book that just did not work. CASTLE OF LIES promises castle intrigue, queer representation, and an immersive fantasy world, but fails to deliver on all accounts.
The plot has the potential to be as mesmerizing and intense as the blurb promises, but instead, it’s populated with flat characters, dropped plot threads, and poor worldbuilding. All of the teenage characters are incredibly immature and naive. And this is not just in a “they’re teenagers, of course they’re immature” way, because I don’t buy into that mindset, but they are just…incredibly short sighted and can’t see the forest for the trees. They have no concept of nuance in any situation and are seemingly incapable of looking forward to how their course of action may play out in ways other than the ending they hope for. For example, Thelia is constantly reflecting on the lessons that her mother taught her about being tricky and the complexity of court life, yet she thinks everything will be fixed by her becoming queen. Then there’s Sapphire, who is a 50 year old being, but who is just as naive as the teenagers, stubbornly clinging to denial until definitively proven otherwise.
Furthermore, Burkhart creates a fantasy world much like that of medieval times through the creation of castle life and the addition of aspects like serfdom. However, the characters use such terms as “dad/daddy,” “mom,” “piss them off,” and “we’d be total pricks.” The narration and dialogue utilize modern language and it completely throws the reader out of the story, as such terminology clearly does not belong in this setting.
Next, we come to the queer representation, which was questionable at best.
Thelia, the character on the asexual spectrum (presumably demisexual, as it appears that’s the way she was supposed to be coded) is cold, cruel, and conniving–they all are, but she’s always mention to be so the most, and the Ice Queen Ace is a common and harmful trope that is very often depicted, despite numerous ace spec people frequently speaking out about it. Thelia is also presented as being touch averse and sex repulsed. However, all of this, which is built upon for nearly 70% of the book, flips on a dime. The mere fact of experiencing trauma, and apparently getting drunk, is enough to make her aceness, her aversion to touch, and repulsion towards sex, completely fade away. Where previously she couldn’t stand to be touched by anyone and the idea of sex didn’t appeal at all, Thelia is suddenly more than willing to make out with Sapphire and Parsifal (her cousin), as well as willing to hop into bed with Parsifal, multiple times throughout the rest of the 30% of the novel. And, it’s revealed around the 70% mark, that despite the fact that she spent almost all that time mocking and disdaining Parsifal, she’s not only suddenly attracted to and in love with him, but she’d also had sexual fantasies about him before. It all just…doesn’t make sense. I feel like Burkhart was trying to Do Something with Thelia and the ace rep, but I’m just not sure what that thing was supposed to be, and it just ends up being a cringeworthy mess.
Similarly, the queer representation to be found in Parsifal was disappointing as he’s a caricature of the Debauched Bisexual/Pansexual. It’s made clear over and over that he will sleep with anything that moves, and even at one point tries to seduce a door to open with Magic. In fact, the very first mention of him is a flippant comment from Thelia’s point of view that Parsifal was probably off having sex with one of the male kitchen servants. I know bisexual/pansexual people like this exist, and they are fully within their right to have as much sex as they want! But when this is the image of bi and/or pan people that is most frequently depicted in media, it’s just tiresome to find yet another instance.
Finally, there’s Sapphire who is nonbinary and also bisexual/pansexual. I didn’t really have too many issues with the way they were presented, but there’s really not all that much about it in the text either. There’s a brief mention of their nonbinary identity in the first section from their point of view, but other than that, there’s just a moment of purposeful misgendering by Corene (the princess and Thelia’s other cousin) when Thelia corrects them on Sapphire’s pronouns. However, I did side eye a bit over the fact that the single nonbinary character mentioned in the whole of the novel is one of the elves–so, a mythological being, not even a human.
Additionally, there was tiresome and unnecessary disfiguremisia within the novel. Parsifal has a facial disfigurement and apparently all people are disgusted by it, and several derogatory comments are directed his way. Seemingly the only people who are accepting of him are Thelia, who’s just used to his face because they’ve been raised together, and Sapphire, who doesn’t understand why the humans find him ugly and instead thinks him beautiful.
And speaking of derogatory comments, the character of Morgaun–Thelia’s hateful, rapist brother–and the antagonism coming from him is hugely unnecessary to the novel. The book would be essentially the same without him, but if he must be included, he at least didn’t need to constantly be hateful and make rape threats (of which are there are several from him and other characters).
While I had high hopes for this novel, it unfortunately does not live up to my expectations and I can’t recommend it.
Kiersi Burkhart lives and works as an author and freelance writer in Wyoming. She grew up a cowgirl in Colorado and can still run the barrel race. Despite owning her own business, she manages to find time to dismantle the patriarchy and play plenty of Pokemon. She lives with her best friend, a mutt named Baby, and her partner at the foot of the mountain.