Starting this off with full disclosure: this book is part of the Bold Strokes Books family, and if you will recall, I was at Denver Pride last year with Barbara Ann Wright and a couple other BSB authors, so I’ve had the chance to hang with her in person a bit and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
That being said, I recently re-read her debut novel, The Pyramid Waltz, and was struck again with how awesome it is, so I wanted to share my thoughts with all of you, dear readers, who may not have had the pleasure of discovering this fantastic series yet.
I remember, when I first read the blurb for this book, snickering a little at the character Starbride’s name. I was wondering if this was going to be some odd fanfictiony Mary-Sue kind of thing, because who names a character something so overly dramatic and weird? And then, I remember being really impressed by the way the story uses the name to set a cultural norm for the character’s ethnic background, which is followed (to really interesting effect) throughout the rest of the story in other characters.
Secondly, the cover art is kickass.
Thirdly, I have to talk about how cool the world-building is, which is kind of hard to do without spoilers. The most interesting elements of the world (the Fiends, and the pyramid magic, and the pyradistés who use the pyramids) are major players in the plot progression. The story gives some classic demon and half-demon type mythology, along with a little Robin Hood-esque (or maybe Scarlet Pimpernel-esque) secret identity fun. There is also plenty of political intrigue, and a cast of delightfully colorful characters surrounding the princess-cum-secret-warrior MC. Add to that a palace court life setting and young Starbride, who is a fish out of water from the moment she sets foot in court and has to figure out how to make a place for herself somewhere she clearly doesn’t belong, and it’s a recipe for a page-turner.
It was nice to see a person of color as one of the MC’s. I’m not sure what ethnicity Barbara intended for Starbride, but I imagine her as Middle Eastern, maybe… she has dark coloring and a rich cultural heritage. She experiences some discrimination and ridicule because of her background, though it doesn’t end up driving or hindering the plot – it’s more like an element of the setting that fades a little into the background as her political status is elevated. Also, her hatred of court fashion is hilarious, and her dessert-themed descriptions of the various concoctions she is made to wear throughout the book had me ROLLING.
I loved Katya’s personality, though I struggled a bit with the convention that made her, as second in line for the throne, the leader of the secret Order of guards for the royal family – it might have been nice to have more rationale explaining why that was a good idea (as opposed to having non-royal soldiers, or the youngest/farthest down the line of succession taking on the job, which seems to make more sense.) But, setting that aside, the convention makes for a lot of storytelling fun. Katya has to develop a shallow, fake public persona that allows her to be more easily dismissed by the people and the court at large, so that she can carry on her serious and sometimes deadly duties with less examination or speculation. It also allows her to surround herself with the aforementioned delightfully colorful characters, who are in and of themselves a reason to read this book.
The narrative voice took me a few chapters to really sync up with – I’m not sure exactly why, but some writing styles take me a little longer to get into. But I did get there as the story started to kick into gear, and Katya’s Fiend appears for the first time. In the meantime, the fascinating Pennynail character kept me reading – he never speaks, wears a grinning mask at all times, has a wicked sense of humor, and is pretty much an all-around ninja, and even Katya doesn’t know who he really is. I’d read an entire novel about him by himself! (He also puts on a dress at one point in the story, and I felt like high-fiving him.)
I enjoyed the romance between Katya and Starbride. They have a familiar warrior princess-slash-spunky academic chemistry that crackled onto the page from their very first meeting, and was allowed a good amount of time to build up before they came together. I kind of wish their love scenes had been more detailed – this book was first a fantasy, and second a romance, so the sexy bits faded-to-black instead of playing out on the page. But, their relationship lends dimension and weight to the central conflict of the plot, and the way they take care of one another is sweet and satisfying.
Lastly, the climactic battle at the end of the book was epic. EPIC. A huge cast of characters, some plot twists that you kind of saw coming but were nonetheless validating when they did, a villain you REALLY hoped was going to die, a side character you REALLY wanted to smack sense into, and an unexpected side effect to Starbride’s saving-of-the-day that is a perfect setup for conflict in the next installment of the series.
This is the kind of fantasy book I always wanted to read when I was a teenager. Interesting fantasy elements, hilarious comedic relief moments, fascinating characters, with female protagonists who fall in love with each other.
There are three more books in this series, and Barbara’s got a new Viking romance (yes, LESBIAN VIKINGS. SHUT UP AND GET IN MY KINDLE PLZ) coming later this year. I’ll probably work on putting up my thoughts on the other books in the series later on – I haven’t read the final one, The Fiend Queen, yet, because I wanted to re-read the others first.
Anyway, if you’re looking for something fun to read in order to make it through these last few days before the official-official Prayer of the Handmaiden release date (SIX MORE DAYS, FOLKS!) this would be a really good place to start. <3 Still unsure? Check out the hysterical book trailer: