Black Ring Match: A Review of Crush the King, by Jennifer Estep

I have talked endlessly about the power of fantasy novels on this blog, and will continue to do so as long as this genre maintains its unique power.  Fantasy is about all about creation and imagination, allowing readers to inhabit worlds wholly unlike our own.  It is a measure of escapism that other literary genres can only dream of.  Free from the pretentiousness of literary fiction, and liberated from the need for explanation in science-fiction, fantasy authors set their own rules in each new story.  Crush the King is the third and latest novel in Jennifer Estep’s wonderful Crown of Shards series, preceded by Kill the Queen and Protect the Prince.  Few would call this story literary fiction, but few series are more fun to read that the adventures of Everleigh “Evie” Saffira Winter Blair.

If you are reading a review about the third book in an ongoing series, then I shall assume that you have also read the first two books.  If not, then I suggest checking out Kill the Queen and Protect the Prince, my reviews of which can be found here and here respectively.  Estep’s series follows the adventures of Queen Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair, known as Evie to her friends, as she fights to maintain her reign in the face of assassins and enemy kings.  The first book opens with Evie as 17th in line for the throne of Bellona, and follows her as she survives a royal massacre, builds her support base, and takes the crown for herself.  The second novel sees her combating assassins and reaching out to the wider world for allies in her fight.  Crush the King finally introduces her enemy, the king of the nation of Morta, who has been behind every threat thus far.  He orchestrated the annihilation of her family and attempted to dismantle her negotiations with her first allied kingdom.  The first two books built up to this conflict and, if this were a trilogy, the king of Morta would be the final villain.  Instead, this confrontation opens the door to the wider world and introduces a new level of intrigue which could allow for many more books in the series.

Where Kill the Queen took place in Evie’s home of the kingdom of Bellona, and Protect the Prince moved the action to neighboring Andvari, Crush the King finds our heroine on the neutral island of Fortuna.  An island set between Bellona and Morta, with bridges linking to both, Fortuna is not run by any royal family.  Instead, the nation operates as an oligarchy, run by the wealthy DiLucri banking family.  Every year, Fortuna hosts an international competition between the various kingdoms of the region, similar to the Olympics of ancient Greece, with gladiator matches as the most famous event.  In previous years, Bellona, despite its gladiator heritage, has not performed well.  Weary after constant, shadowy conflict with Morta, Evie decides to take the fight public.  She brings her retinue to the Regalia with three goals in mind.  First, win in every event possible.  She has assembled some of the most talented individuals in the kingdom to show her kingdom’s power.  Second, the formally ally with the remining kingdoms in the region against Morta.  Third, assassinate the king of Morta.  It matters not to her how he dies, just that he does.

Maximus Mercer Morland Morricone, the king of Morta, takes center stage in Crush the King as Evie’s ultimate antagonist.  His half-sister, the bastard Maeven, the primarily villain of the previous two novels, takes a step back as the true mastermind is revealed to readers.  The series has been leading to this conflict, and does its best to set up Maximus as a truly terrifying villain.  He has orchestrated countless plots against Evie, and arrives with a level of magical vampirism not present in the story thus far.  However, the novel never truly accomplishes setting up as the final villain of the series.  He is menacing for sure, but he never comes across as the intelligent mastermind behind the series.  Instead, we quickly learn that he delegates almost everything to his Bastard Brigade, made up of family members with no claim to the throne.  He is a tyrant and a brute, but seems to come out the loser in his every interaction with Evie.  Part of this is the result of Evie’s own hard work and preparation, but part is due to the feeling that Maximus is not meant to be her final antagonist.  He is almost a cartoon caricature of a final villain, in a way which actually helps to set up future conflicts for the series.  His defeat leaves the series in a very interesting place moving forward.

A new element introduced to the world of Crown of Shards in Crush the King is the DiLucri banking family and their Fortuna Mint, the largest bank in the region.  They are exorbitantly wealthy and ruthless, similar to the Iron Bank of Braavos in A Song of Ice and Fire.  On they surface, they are a neutral business lending money to the nations of the region, but they are secretly a powerful nemesis to all, only concerned with building their own wealth and power.  Due to the power generated by their wealth, they operate with impunity, and Evie fights their assassins multiple times while hearing about other atrocities.  Publicly, the family is led by the simpering Driscol, but is strongly hinted that his calm sister, Seraphine, is the true power in the Mint.  Flashbacks also reveal a deeper connection to Evie, and their assassination attempts turn to kidnapping once they realize who they are dealing with.  An utterance of the mysterious phrase, “Fortune favors her ladies”, during one such kidnapping attempts, sets the stage for a much more intriguing conflict.

Unfortunately, Crush the King is not without its missteps.  In the first two novels, Estep spent a lot of time developing the support cast of characters.  Evie’s best friend, Paloma, is an excellent gladiator and her personal guard.  The spy, Xenia, proves an invaluable mentor.  Cho and Serilda, former members of a gladiator troupe, act as much needed advisors and planners.  Sullivan, an extremely powerful magician and the bastard prince of Andvari, is her lover and queen consort, providing strength and comfort in equal measure.  However, in Crush the King, this cast of supporting characters is relegated to the sidelines and, while present during important events, rarely contribute to the plot directly.  Paloma gets a little character development here, but mostly as set up for growth in a future novel.  Aside from her, the characters feel unimportant, which is a bit disappointing considering how integral they have been thus far.  Instead, Evie is the only one to move the plot forward and must handle every crisis on her own.  While this set up could serve as an interesting examination of absolute power going to a person’s head, it really is an excuse to watch Evie be excellent at everything.  Normally, this would be a stronger criticism, but we are in a time where power trips and competence porn are much needed.

Despite my previous criticisms, I still read Crush the King in three days.  This series is the epitome of fun fantasy fiction, and the perfect escape many of us sorely need.  While this could have easily been a trilogy, Estep leaves the series in a very interesting place at the conclusion of the novel.  The person we thought of us the main villain is defeated, allies have been made, and the DiLucri family has been set up as the next major threat.  Additionally, Maeven, the villain of the first two novels, now sits in a position of dangerous power, alive but punished.  She could transform into an unlikely ally just as easily as develop into a more interesting villain.  It is unclear at this time how long the Crown of Shards series will last, but hopefully it will continue for some time and allow us to have fun following the adventures of Queen Everleigh Saffira Winter Blair.

Crush the King can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 3 days

Next on the List: The God Game, by Danny Tobey

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