Caledon Holt is the Kingdom of Renovia's deadliest weapon. Shadow has been training all her life to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunts--to become skilled enough to join the ranks of the Guild.
Partial synopsis provided by Goodreads.
The Queen's Assassin
Series: Queen's Secret #1
Author: Melissa De La Cruz
Publication Date: February 4th, 2020
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons
Page Count: 384
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Cover Artist: Kristie Radwilowicz
My Rating: ★★★1/2
Perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas and Red Queen, this is the first novel in a sweeping YA fantasy-romance duet about a deadly assassin, his mysterious apprentice, and the country they are sworn to protect from #1 NYT bestselling author Melissa de la Cruz.
Caledon Holt is the Kingdom of Renovia’s deadliest weapon. No one alive can best him in brawn or brains, which is why he’s the Guild’s most dangerous member and the Queen’s one and only assassin. He’s also bound to the Queen by an impossible vow–to find the missing Deian Scrolls, the fount of all magical history and knowledge, stolen years ago by a nefarious sect called the Aphrasians.
Shadow has been training all her life to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunts–to become skilled enough to join the ranks of the Guild. Though magic has been forbidden since the Aphrasian uprising, Shadow has been learning to control her powers in secret, hoping that one day she’ll become an assassin as feared and revered as Caledon Holt.
When a surprise attack brings Shadow and Cal together, they’re forced to team up as assassin and apprentice to hunt down a new sinister threat to Renovia. But as Cal and Shadow grow closer, they’ll uncover a shocking web of lies and secrets that may destroy everything they hold dear. With war on the horizon and true love at risk, they’ll stop at nothing to protect each other and their kingdom in this stunning first novel in the Queen’s Secret series.
I’m excited to be a part of THE QUEEN’S ASSASSIN blog tour with The Fantastic Flying Book Club, from February 4th – 10th, 2020!
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! In no way does this affect my rating or review.
Content Warning: Death of an animal and people, Bullying, War, Assassination, Premarital Sex, Imprisonment
He accepted it, willing himself not to hesitate, and drank of her royal blood.
With that, he was bound. As was his son.
The Queen’s Assassin will certainly catch the eye of readers who love political maneuverings. With a rich and detailed history of how this world has come into being, revealed as the story progresses, many will love this world building. There is a lot of historical information given throughout, giving a further glimpse back in time that set up the events of the present, and what makes them important. At times, The Queen’s Assassin teeters on the edge of info-dumping. Yet, all of the information given is necessary.
The Kingdoms of Avantine have seen much turmoil throughout history. Before division occurred, Avantine was united under the goddess Deia. Countering her greatness was the cousin of the king of the Dellafiore dynasty—Phras. Envious of his cousin who possessed stronger magical powers, he slew him and took the throne for himself. His lust for power and magic only grew, eventually leading to his title of the Tyrant King. He confiscated any magical text found which were made into scrolls of dark magic named the Deian Scrolls. Only those appointed by the king, the Aphrasian monks, could use magic as it was otherwise forbidden in the land.
Some managed to oppose the evil king. A group of witches amassed and became known as the Hearthstone Guild. They saved all the magic that they could, and dedicated themselves to keeping as much knowledge about magic as possible. When the king finally died, the land divided into Renovia, Montrice, Argonia, and Stavin. The monks, dedicated to magic only, became too powerful and began overrunning their nation’s leader. At this point, the assumed-deceased line of the Dellafiores rose to power, and fought to free Renovia from the clutches of war. When he died in battle, the crown of authority was passed to his wife, along with his most trusted ally—his assassin.
The Queen’s Assassin starts out years after the king’s passing. The son of the previous assassin is now the assigned assassin to Queen Lilianna. Caledan Holt has long ago scarified his life of normalcy. Being the best of the Guild, and bound to the Queen’s bidding by his father’s blood oath, he has no other choice. Caledon now must find the lost Deian Scrolls to forever eliminate the threat that the Aphrasians pose toward their kingdom since is father was unable to locate them before passing.
One less distinguished, but just as passionate in the Guild, is Shadow. Although she’s been brought up to be prepared for court life, she’s only ever wanted to become one of the Guild. Having some magical powers of her own, Shadow has been learning to hone her skills to be useful, along with training to become an assassin—just like Caledon Holt. In a way, Shadow gets her wish, when one day she has an unlikely encounter with Caledon and he saves her from being killed. He’s a hero to her, but becomes a traitor to the crown when he kills her attacker who turns out to be a prince.
Caledon his carted off to an infamous prison to wait for further orders from his Queen, but things are looking grim. Shadow recognizes Caledon on his way out of town, and decides to embark on a rescue mission of her own. Shadow succeeded in ferrying Caledon out of prison, but the two are attacked on the road. Caledon realizes that Shadow is much more resourceful than he assumed, and they become a team, of sorts. The two learn along the way that there are numerous forces at play between the nations, and one in particular, incredibly sinister. However, as they spend more time with one another, an inevitable relationship buds between the assassin and his “apprentice.”
The Queen’s Assassin certainly has many twists, turns, shocking reveals, as well as some common tropes. I thought that these tropes were well-placed, and flowed naturally into the main plot-line. Despite this story being focused around Caledon and Shadow, I found myself much more drawn to the history and politics of Avantine. Some of the subplots with the characters fell to the wayside, and just didn’t catch my interest.
I wish that there would have been much more description of Avantine to accompany the history built into the story. It was difficult to distinguish the realms from one another. Customs, culture, landscapes, climate, etc were muddy and not nearly as defined as I would have liked. I think ingraining these differences would make some of the history more memorable. If historical events cannot be attached to current attributes, they become lost and forgotten. Even so, I appreciated that there was a great deal of a backstory given to set the stage. It gave The Queen’s Assassin depth and focus, and I’m curious to see where this story will go.
Sexual content: Some insinuative behavior and one scene of intimacy without graphic detail.
My Rating: ★★★1/2
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Melissa De La Cruz
Melissa de la Cruz is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of many critically acclaimed and award-winning novels for teens including The Au Pairs series, the Blue Bloods series, the Ashleys series, the Angels on Sunset Boulevard series and the semi-autobiographical novel Fresh off the Boat. Her books for adults include the novel Cat’s Meow, the anthology Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys and the tongue-in-chic handbooks How to Become Famous in Two Weeks or Less and The Fashionista Files: Adventures in Four-inch heels and Faux-Pas. She has worked as a fashion and beauty editor and has written for many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Allure, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney’s, Teen Vogue, CosmoGirl! and Seventeen. She has also appeared as an expert on fashion, trends and fame for CNN, E! and FoxNews. Melissa grew up in Manila and moved to San Francisco with her family, where she graduated high school salutatorian from The Convent of the Sacred Heart. She majored in art history and English at Columbia University (and minored in nightclubs and shopping!). She now divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, where she lives in the Hollywood Hills with her husband and daughter.
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Shadow Something or someone is following me. I’ve been wandering the woods for quite a while, but now it feels as if something—or someone—is watching. I thought it was one of my aunts at first—it was odd they didn’t chase after me this time. Maybe they didn’t expect me to go very far. But it’s not them. I stop and pull my hood back to listen to the forest around me. There is only the wind whistling through the branches and the sound of my own breathing. Whoever is following me is very good at hiding. But I am not afraid. Slivers of light penetrate the dense foliage in spots, shining streaks onto the blanket of decaying leaves and mud under my boots. As I slice through thick vines and clamber over rotting logs, speckled thrushes take flight from the forest floor before disappearing overhead. I pause to listen to them sing to one another, chirping elegant messages back and forth, a beautiful song carrying warnings, no doubt, about the stranger stomping through their home. Being out here helps me clear my head. I feel more peaceful here among the wild creatures, closer to my true self. After this morning’s argument at home, it’s precisely what I need—some peace. Some space. Time to myself. My aunts taught me that sometimes when the world is too much, when life starts to feel overwhelming, we must strip away what’s unnecessary, seek out the quiet, and listen to the dirt and trees. “All the answers you seek are there, but only if you are willing to hear them,” Aunt Moriah always says. That’s all I’m doing, I tell myself. Following their advice. Perhaps that’s why they allowed me to run off into the woods. Except they’re probably hoping I’ll find their answers here, not my own. That I’ll finally come to my senses. Anger bubbles up inside me. All I have ever wanted is to follow in their footsteps and join the ranks of the Hearthstone Guild. It’s the one thing I’ve wanted more than anything. We don’t just sell honey in the market. They’ve practically been training me for the Guild all my life—how can they deny me? I kick the nearest tree as hard as I can, slamming the sole of my boot into its solid trunk. That doesn’t make me feel much better, though, and I freeze, wondering if whatever or whoever is following me has heard. I know it is a dangerous path, but what nobler task is there than to continue the Guild’s quest? To recover the Deian Scrolls and exact revenge upon our enemies. They can’t expect me to sit by and watch as others take on the challenge. All the women I look up to—Ma, my aunt Moriah, and Moriah’s wife, my aunt Mesha—belong to the Guild; they are trained combatants and wise women. They are devotees of Deia, the One Mother, source of everything in the world of Avantine, from the clouds overhead to the dirt underfoot. Deia worship was common once but not anymore, and those who keep to its beliefs have the Guild to thank for preserving the old ways. Otherwise that knowledge would have disappeared long ago when the Aphrasians confiscated it from the people. The other kingdoms no longer keep to the old ways, even as they conspire to learn our magic. As wise women they know how to tap into the world around us, to harness the energy that people have long forgotten but other creatures have not. My mother and aunts taught me how to access the deepest levels of my instincts, the way that animals do, to sense danger and smell fear. To become deeply in tune with the universal language of nature that exists just below the surface of human perception, the parts we have been conditioned not to hear anymore. While I call them my aunts, they are not truly related to me, even if Aunt Moriah and my mother grew up as close as sisters. I was fostered here because my mother’s work at the palace is so important that it leaves little time for raising a child. A gray squirrel runs across my path and halfway up a nearby tree. It stops and looks at me quizzically. “It’s all right,” I say. “I’m not going to hurt you.” It waits until I start moving again and scampers the rest of the way up the trunk. The last time I saw my mother, I told her of my plans to join the Guild. I thought she’d be proud of me. But she’d stiffened and paused before saying, “There are other ways to serve the crown.” Naturally, I’d have preferred her to be with me, every day, like other mothers, but I’ve never lacked for love or affection. My aunts had been there for every bedtime tale and scraped knee, and Ma served as a glamorous and heroic figure for a young woman to look up to. She would swoop into my life, almost always under the cover of darkness, cloaked and carrying gifts, like the lovely pair of brocade satin dance slippers I’ll never forget. They were as ill-suited for rural life as a pair of shoes could possibly be, and I treasured them for it. “The best cobbler in Argonia’s capital made these,” she told me. I marveled at that, how far they’d traveled before landing on my feet. Yes, I liked the presents well enough. But what made me even happier were the times she stayed long enough to tell me stories. She would sit on the edge of my bed, tuck my worn quilt snugly around me, and tell me tales of Avantine, of the old kingdom. Our people are fighters, she’d say. Always were. I took that to mean I would be one too. I think about these stories as I whack my way through the brush. Why would my mother tell me tales of heroism, adventure, bravery, and sacrifice, unless I was to train with the Guild as well? As a child, I was taught all the basics—survival and tracking skills, and then as I grew, I began combat training and archery. I do know more of the old ways than most, and I’m grateful for that, but it isn’t enough. I want to know as much as they do, or even more. I need to belong to the Guild. Now I fear I never will have that chance. “Ouch!” I flinch and pull my hand back from the leaves surrounding me. There’s a thin sliver of blood seeping out of my skin. I was so lost in my thoughts that I accidentally cut my hand while hacking through shrubbery. The woods are unfamiliar here, wilder and denser. I’ve never gone out this far. The path ahead is so overgrown it’s hard to believe there was ever anyone here before me, let alone a procession of messengers and traders and visitors traveling between Renovia and the other kingdoms of Avantine. But that was before. Any remnants of its prior purpose are disappearing quickly. Even my blade, crafted from Argonian steel—another present from Ma—struggles to sever some of the more stubborn branches that have reclaimed the road for the wilderness. I try to quiet my mind and concentrate on my surroundings. Am I lost? Is something following me? “What do I do now?” I say out loud. Then I remember Aunt Mesha’s advice: Be willing to hear. I breathe, focus. Re-center. Should I turn back? The answer is so strong, it’s practically a physical shove: No. Continue. I suppose I’ll push through, then. Maybe I’ll discover a forgotten treasure along this path. Woodland creatures watch me, silently, from afar. They’re perched in branches and nestled safely in burrows. Sometimes I catch a whiff of newborn fur, of milk; I smell the fear of anxious mothers protecting litters; I feel their heartbeats, their quickened breaths when I pass. I do my best to calm them by closing my eyes and sending them benevolent energy. Just passing through. I’m no threat to you. After about an hour of bushwhacking, I realize that I don’t know where I am anymore. The trees look different, older. I hear the trickling of water. Unlike before, there are signs that something, or rather someone, was here not long before me. Cracked sticks have been stepped on—by whom or what, I’m not sure—and branches are too neatly chopped to have been broken naturally. I want to investigate, see if I can feel how long ago they were cut. Maybe days; maybe weeks. Difficult to tell. I stop to examine the trampled foliage just as I feel an abrupt change in the air. There it is again. Whoever or whatever it is smells foul, rotten. I shudder. I keep going, hoping to shake it off my trail. I walk deeper into the forest and pause under a canopy of trees. A breeze blows against a large form in the branches overhead. I sense the weight of its bulk, making the air above me feel heavier, oppressive. It pads quietly. A huge predator. Not human. It’s been biding its time. But now it’s tense, ready to strike. The tree becomes very still. And everything around does the same. I glance to my right and see a spider hanging in the air, frozen, just like I am. Leaves rustle, like the fanning pages of a book. Snarling heat of its body getting closer, closer, inch by inch. I can smell its hot breath. Feel its mass as it begins to bear down on me from above. Closer, closer, until at last it launches itself from its hiding place. I feel its energy, aimed straight at me. Intending to kill, to devour. But I am ready. Just as it attacks, I kick ferociously at its chest, sending it flying. It slams to the ground, knocked out cold. A flock of starlings erupts from their nest in the treetops, chirping furiously. My would-be killer is a sleek black scimitar-toothed jaguar. The rest of the wildlife stills, shocked into silence, at my besting the king of the forest. I roll back to standing, then hear something else, like shifting or scratching, in the distance. As careful as I’ve been, I’ve managed to cause a commotion and alert every creature in the forest of my presence. I crouch behind a wide tree. After waiting a breath or two, I don’t sense any other unusual movement nearby. Perhaps I was wrong about the noise. Or simply heard a falling branch or a startled animal running for cover. There’s no reason to remain where I am, and I’m not going back now, in case the jaguar wakes, so I get up and make my way forward again. It looks like there’s a clearing ahead. My stomach lurches. After everything—the argument and my big show of defiance—I am gripped with the unexpected desire to return home. I don’t know if the cat’s attack has rattled me—it shouldn’t have; I’ve been in similar situations before—but a deep foreboding comes over me. Yet just as strongly, I feel the need to keep going, beyond the edge of the forest, as if something is pulling me forward. I move faster, fumbling a bit over some debris. Finally, I step through the soft leafy ground around a few ancient trees, their bark slick with moss, and push aside a branch filled with tiny light green leaves. When I emerge from the woods, I discover I was wrong. It’s not just a clearing; I’ve stumbled upon the golden ruins of an old building. A fortress. The tight feeling in my chest intensifies. I should turn back. There’s danger here. Or at least there was danger here—it appears to be long abandoned. The building’s intimidating skeletal remains soar toward the clouds, but it’s marred by black soot; it’s been scorched by a fire—or maybe more than one. Most of the windows are cracked or else missing completely. Rosebushes are overgrown with burly thistle weeds, and clumps of dead brown shrubbery dot the property. Vines climb up one side of the structure and crawl into the empty windows. Above the frame of one of those windows, I spot a weathered crest, barely visible against the stone. I step closer. There are two initials overlapping each other in an intricate design: BA. In an instant I know exactly where I am. Baer Abbey. I inhale sharply. How did I walk so far? How long have I been gone? This place is forbidden. Dangerous. Yet I was drawn here. Is this a sign, the message I was searching for? And if so, what is it trying to tell me? Despite the danger, I’ve always wanted to see the abbey, home of the feared and powerful Aphrasians. I try picturing it as it was long ago, glistening in the blinding midday heat, humming with activity, the steady bustle of cloaked men and women going about their daily routines. I imagine one of them meditating underneath the massive oak to the west; another reading on the carved limestone bench in the now-decrepit gardens. I walk around the exterior, looking for the place where King Esban charged into battle with his soldiers. I hear something shift again. It’s coming from inside the abbey walls. As if a heavy object is being pushed or dragged—opening a door? Hoisting something with a pulley? I approach the building and melt into its shadow, like the pet name my mother gave me. But who could be here? A generation of looters has already stripped anything of value, though the lure of undiscovered treasure might still entice adventurous types. And drifters. Or maybe there’s a hunter, or a hermit who’s made his home close to this desolate place. In the distance, the river water slaps against the rocky shore, and I can hear the rustling of leaves and the trilling of birds. All is as it should be, and yet. Something nags at me, like a faraway ringing in my ear. Someone or something is still following me, and it’s not the jaguar. It smells of death and rot. I move forward anyway, deciding to run the rest of the way along the wall to an entryway, its door long gone. I just want to peek inside—I may never have this chance again. I slide around the corner of the wall and enter the abbey’s interior. Most of the roof is demolished, so there’s plenty of light, even this close to dusk. Tiny specks of dust float in the air. There’s a veneer of grime on every surface, and wet mud in shaded spots. I step forward, leaving footprints behind me. I glance at the rest of the floor—no other prints. Nobody has been here recently, at least not since the last rain. I move as lightly as possible. Then I hear something different. I stop, step backward. There it is again. I step forward—solid. Back—yes, an echo. Like a well. There’s something hollow below. Storage? A crypt? I should turn back. Nothing good can come from being here, and I know it. The abbey is Aphrasian territory, no matter how long ago they vacated. And yet. There’s no reason to believe anyone is here, and who knows what I might find if I just dig a bit. Perhaps a treasure was hidden here. Maybe even the Deian Scrolls. I step on a large square tile, made of heavy charcoal slate, which is stubbornly embedded in the ground. I clear the dirt around it as much as I can and get my fingertips under its lip. With effort, I heave the tile up enough to hoist it over to the side. Centipedes scurry away into the black hole below. I use the heel of my boot to shove the stone the rest of the way, revealing a wooden ladder underneath. I press on it carefully, testing its strength, then make my way down. At the last rung I jump down and turn to find a long narrow passageway lined with empty sconces. It smells of mildew, dank and damp. I follow the tunnel, my footsteps echoing around me. I hear water lapping gently against stone up ahead. Could there be an underground stream? The passage continues on, dark and quiet aside from the occasional drip of water from the ceiling. At the end of the corridor a curved doorway opens into a large cavern. As I suspected, an underground river flows by. A small hole in the ceiling allows light in, revealing sharp stalactites that hang down everywhere, glittering with the river’s reflection. The room is aglow in yellows and oranges and reds, and it feels like standing in the middle of fire. This space was definitely not made by human hands; instead, the tunnel, the abbey, was built up around it. There’s a loading dock installed for small boats, though none are there anymore. Then I see something that makes my heart catch. I gasp. The Aphrasians have been missing for eighteen years and yet there’s a fresh apple core tossed aside near the doorway. That’s when I hear men’s voices approaching from the corridor behind me. Excerpted from The Queen’s Assassin by Melissa de la Cruz. Copyright © 2020 by Melissa de la Cruz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.