Wilhelmina has a hundred identities.Well that wasn’t terrible.
She is a princess. When the Indigo Kingdom conquered her homeland, Wilhelmina and other orphaned children of nobility were taken to Skyvale, the Indigo Kingdom’s capital. Ten years later, they are the Ospreys, experts at stealth and theft. With them, Wilhelmina means to take back her throne.
She is a spy. Wil and her best friend, Melanie, infiltrate Skyvale Palace to study their foes. They assume the identities of nobles from a wraith-fallen kingdom, but enemies fill the palace, and Melanie’s behavior grows suspicious. With Osprey missions becoming increasingly dangerous and their leader more unstable, Wil can’t trust anyone.
She is a threat. Wraith is the toxic by-product of magic, and for a century using magic has been forbidden. Still the wraith pours across the continent, reshaping the land and animals into fresh horrors. Soon it will reach the Indigo Kingdom. Wilhelmina’s magic might be the key to stopping the wraith, but if the vigilante Black Knife discovers Wil’s magic, she will vanish like all the others.
Jodi Meadows introduces a vivid new fantasy full of intrigue, romance, dangerous magic, and one girl’s battle to reclaim her place in the world.
I mean, I don’t really like fantasy a whole lot, so my experience with it is, y’know, limited, but even so, The Orphan Queen was pretty okay. Not OMG ILU amazing, but also not fuck-off awful, and that’s kinda a triumph in itself, right?
There’s a lot going on in The Orphan Queen, as you can kind of glean from the description. The main plot, or, at least, the starter plot, introduces us to Princess-future-Queen Wilhelmina and her group of noble pre-through-teen orphans, the Ospreys, who have spent ten years scheming to free their country from its current occupation by the Indigo Kingdom. This eventually requires Wilhelmina and her bff Melanie to go undercover at the Indigo King’s palace as noble refugees from a distant country, and from there, the narrative splinters off a bit. There are a handful of character-centered subplots and backstories that are hinted at but don’t really pay off for a while, a recurring action-romance thread with a Batman-esque vigilante named Black Knife, who Wilhelmina plays Catwoman to, follow through with Wil and Melanie’s spy mission, of course, and eventually the most important bit, the exploration of “the wraith”, a sort of magical pollution that threatens to destroy all of the kingdoms in the land, including the one that Wilhelmina’s trying to raise.
The book actually handles most of this stuff pretty well. It feels long and packed, but not in a boring way, just in a “a lot of stuff is happening and we will address it all” kind of way. All of the subplots get resolved (mostly) and everything folds in neatly together. Really the only problem for me was that a great deal of it was very…generic, and the stuff that wasn’t generic was the stuff that got the least exploration.
I think the idea and presence of the wraith and its associated history is what’s supposed to set The Orphan Queen apart from other fantasy novels. Basically, magic use is, or used to be, common in this world, to the extent that it was industrialized and the whole land, world, whatever’s economy was centered around it. There used to be magic-powered cross-country railway lines, and castles with (I guess) vague technological functionality powered by magic. But then one day the wraith appeared – the wraith not being one specific entity, exactly, but like…magical smog that’s engulfed entire kingdoms and continues to press forward, warping humans and animals and reality, kinda, into mutated, monstrous things. Anyway, the various other kingdoms in the land concluded that the wraith was being caused by excessive use of magic, and made an allied agreement to ban its practice, unconditionally, which obviously crippled the land’s economy in a way that, at the start of the novel a (few?) hundred years later, the kingdoms are only just recovering from.
It’s absolutely an interesting premise, I give Orphan Queen that. I mean, anvilicious as fuck, right, but interesting. I’m down with industrialized magic and consequences for industrialized magic and holy shit a YA book about royalty that even mentions the economy?!? I’ve got such a responsibility boner right now. The problem for me is that they just don’t do anything with it in this novel. Like at all. That paragraph up there is the sum of the information that we’re given about Wilhelmina’s land and its past with the wraith over the course of like 400 pages. The wraith shifts from background menace to primary threat as the book progresses, and it only becomes and actual Thing at the end, to act as antagonist in a climactic battle. And I get that this is a first book and we’re supposed to be introducing the world and the characters and the conflict, but like, goddamn, four hundred pages to get to the part of the story that really perked my ears up? What’s that about?
I think the real issue for me was that nothing else in the book really caught my fancy. I mean it wasn’t BAD, but it was kind of…meh? The world-building is sparse, except for the aforementioned wraith, and it’s a mostly generic medieval fantasy world with #GenericMedievalFantasyWorldProblems. So much so that there’s kind of an implicit assumption that you get the setting, you know how it works, so why waste time with details, right? There’s literally one page where an orphan rattles off All the Backstory You Need to Know, and then it’s like, “Yep that’s all you’re getting.” Nothing in this world feels distinct or unique or even lifelike or lived-in. It’s weird and distant, like the suggestion of a world rather than an actual world.
There just wasn’t anything for me to really sink my teeth in to, I guess. Books are supposed to be experiences, you’re supposed to be immersed in the world and the characters, but I just wasn’t getting that from The Orphan Queen.
That aside, there was stuff I approved of, if didn’t exactly emotionally connect with. I liked the idea of Wilhelmina fighting to claim responsibility for her kingdom instead of running away from it. I liked that she had doubts about her ability to rule, about her experience, and I liked that she was a skilled actress and forger and had weapons in her arsenal besides “daggers to stab people with”, even if “stabbing people” was still pretty high up on her resume under “Skills/Interests”.
I liked that even though there was still a character who fell into the role of Alpha Bitch and eventually another woman vying for the affection of the Love Interest, there wasn’t any extreme cattiness. The female characters here were actually extended a lot of good will by the narrative, even the woman who eventually became responsible for revealing Wilhelmina’s deception. There was also some good stuff in there about the women’s activities that Wilhelmina initially dismissed actually being valuable and important, in that they represented the women doing as much as their positions allowed them to do, and perhaps gave some of them a cover for being and doing more.
Look I just appreciate it when a book doesn’t go out of its way to piss all over women and women’s relationships and women’s contributions and I realize that it’s a low bar but still it’s a bar that almost never gets hopped OKAY?
On a different but semi-related note, I was a) happy to see characters of color in a medieval fantasy setting, that was nice, but b) disappointed that the characters of color both had subservient roles. Like, one was Wilhelmina’s best friend but also lady-in-waiting, Melanie, and the other was Melanie’s brother, who we almost never see. So basically it was just Melanie. And Melanie was definitely in a subservient position to, y’know, the Princess-future-Queen. So I’m really not sure why that wasn’t just switched. Why not make Wilhelmina a black princess? If it was totally not a thing for there to be black characters and nobody commented on it or cared, why not just go all the way and give us a black princess protagonist. It’s a hella missed opportunity if you ask me. Quite possibly the biggest missed opportunity in the book, honestly.
Also, no lgbtq characters so far. Other big missed opportunity? Melanie/Wilhelmina romance.
I was also kind of disappointed to see them go super tropey with Medieval Batman Black Knife’s identity, especially since it turned an A-B romance into a goddamned love triangle with the two women on opposite ends. But then, I can’t even really be that mad about it because it’s not like you couldn’t see it coming from a mile away. On the flip side, WOW does that reveal rip a HUGE hole in the plot that I don’t think ever gets addressed, and it doesn’t even matter, honestly, because nothing they do to attempt to address or patch that hole could ever justify its existence anyway.
I’m also really really not a fan of men (Black Knife) being put into positions of like…moral authority over women. Basically, there’s a scene where Wilhelmina gets really upset and comes across this huge guy physically assaulting a young woman, and she just loses her shit. She rescues the girl, and engages the man in a fight, eventually getting to a point where she uses her magic (again, big illegal no-no) to restrain him while she continues beating him up, until Black Knight interferes. Then she and Black Knife fight and Black Knight not only wins, but cuffs her and leaves her crying in an alley like a child in time-out while he tends to the other guy. Meanwhile Wilhelmina is having a freak-out because she lost control and almost killed someone, and I’m just sitting back like
So look, I get that Wilhelmina was out of control, and that she was not behaving in accordance with her own personal moral code, but Christ I haaaaaate when a dude has to interfere with what a woman is doing so that he can ~save her from herself~ or whatever. It’s obnoxious as fuck, and even in the best of cases, has this condescending feel like “Hello, I am mighty dude who knows what’s best for you, woman I barely have interacted with, in this, your moment of womanly emotionalness.” Why not have Wilhelmina stop herself when she realizes what she’s about to do? Why not have her not stop herself and then deal with the consequences of her actions? Hell, I’d even accept Melanie stepping in to stop her because at least they are friends who have history together. But no, instead it’s Love Interest Black Knife swooping to White Knight all over the place, beat Wil in a fight, in case you were wondering whether or not they were on equal footing, and then physically restrain her so she can cry it out.
It’s just really, really obnoxious, and I feel like this sort of thing happens a lot, especially when you have a female character who IS supposed to be powerful or capable of physical violence. It’s a frustrating, often patronizing invasion of a character’s agency.
Also? Not super happy about Melanie siding with Slappy McSlap Slap. The fuck was that about? If she’s doing it because she thinks it’s what best for Wil and the kingdom, great I guess, although you’d think she’d value Wil’s desires over Patrick’s plan. BUT I have a sneaking suspicion that it was meant to be done BECAUSE of her feelings for Patrick even after his slap, and that is some strong-ass bullshit.
ANYWAY, that’s kind of it for my thoughts on Orphan Queen. It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It went along fairly quickly, it all wrapped up together nicely, and the end piqued my interest enough that I will probably come back for the sequel. On the other hand, it didn’t do anything particularly outstanding either, so you know. We’ll see how the rest of it goes.
TWO ****AND HALF**** STARS