Okay. I just finished Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes, and I have to say that my initial assumptions about this book were completely blown out of the water.
I initially picked it up because I recently read A Book of Spirits and Thieves, and while it was an interesting read that I might continue, I wasn’t too impressed by it or anything. It was something light and fun, there were some intriguing characters, but I didn’t fall in love with it. This book, on the other hand, was… something else completely. It was like hiking up a large hill and then boom, you get to the top, everything’s fine—and then the ending is just a descent into unbelievable, intense horror.
This book was a slow-burning bomb. That’s the only way I can think to describe it. The beginning is very chill. Nothing really happens but you get a lot of character establishment and world building. Morgan Rhodes makes sure to delve into the backgrounds of the different cities- Auranos, Limeros, and Paelsia- and to be totally honest, it’s interesting but it also dawdles a lot. We learn about Cleiona and Valeria, the two main goddesses, and how the conflict between the three kingdoms is the product of years and years of barely-restrained animosity. In fact, the whole thing is a bit reminiscent of World War I, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered—except in the book, it was a young Paelisian boy named Tomas.
I almost gave up on this book because I didn’t care much for the exposition. Like I said before, we get a lot of information about the different characters—Prince Magnus, Princess whoever-his-sister-is, Princess Cleiona, and Jonas. We read about their pasts, their primes and their pitfalls. Speaking of pitfalls, the relationships in this book are a mess. Two, specifically, come to mind—the fact that Magnus is in love with his sister, for one thing. I can’t forgive that at all. Sure, there’s the argument that she’s adopted and therefore not blood-related to him, but oh my god, still. This girl grew up alongside him as a sister, and he spends half of the novel talking about her in this uncomfortably, unforgivably infatuated way.
Well, maybe I’m being a little unfair—I should clarify that his interest would have been totally normal if he was any other character and not her brother. He didn’t make any gross comments about her. You know what I mean, calling her curvaceous or talking about bedding her or anything. But the fact that he’s her brother makes even the most innocent of his romantic intentions completely and totally inexcusable. I was justifiably weirded out, and almost couldn’t keep reading because I was so weirded out, but I’m glad that I did.
Another really creepy relationship is the one that Princess Emilia has with the guard, Simon. This one, luckily, did not last, but it was just a strange situation that could have potentially arisen. The thing was, Emilia was romantically involved with Simon, a guardsman—who is the father of Princess Cleiona’s bodyguard, Theon. So if Cleiona and Emilia had both gotten their men… Emilia would have been Theon’s stepmother, and Cleiona, his aunt through marriage. He would have been hooking up with his aunt.
It was weird. So weird. So, super weird.
Luckily, Simon died.
I couldn’t get close to Theon, though, not after realizing this, but there are also other reasons—he’s a love interest for Cleiona throughout the book but I felt like their romance was seriously rushed. The first time she meets him is when she and her group of friends go to Paelsia to buy wine. She notices him and how handsome he is. And then he becomes her bodyguard through various other means, and when she runs off to Paelsia to find magical seeds to save her sister from dying, he realizes that he’s falling in love with her. When he reunites with her near the end of the novel, after rescuing her from Jonas’s sister’s makeshift prison, they immediately confess their deep and undying love for each other, and… seriously, they were apart for 70% of their relationship. To be fair, I don’t know what the chronology was exactly, but I’m confident that they didn’t spend more than a month or two together. I couldn’t’ take their love very seriously. Sorry, Theiona.
Also, I could see his impending death coming from a mile away, so that was no surprise. I do have to ask, how come in these medieval-fantasy YA novels, someone always gets speared through the stomach/chest area with a sword? There are a lot of creative ways to kill a person in a medieval-fantasy YA. Please, use some other method.
I’m being too critical right now, though, because if you’re still persevering through this review let me tell you—this book is good. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s incredibly interesting, especially if you like stories with inscrutable characters and gray scenarios. There are a lot of misunderstandings, many of which end in tragedy, and there are a lot of perspectives into each one. No one is completely wrong, and no one is completely right. You get to see the makings of an evil king, and possibly and evil queen. I always love seeing good characters get corrupted, not because I’m a sadist but because it’s both sad and fascinating to see a good character going down a bad path. There’s also a modicum of forgiveness and moving on. You see characters maturing as their overall goals change, and you get to see those goals changing and be with them through the experience of realizing that their world is not just whatever tiny angle that they’ve taken on the story. Each one of the characters in Falling Kingdoms comes to the understanding that they are very small fish in a very big, very convoluted pond.
Let me talk about some of the things that I liked about the book. One thing was Cleo’s big secret—the fact that she had a one-night stand with Aron, her betrothed and a person that she despises. I can get why she doesn’t like Aron—he’s selfish and vain, quick to act and dismisses those that aren’t as high-status as him as savages. (this is a little off-topic but I like that he’s not presented as totally evil all the time, though. He displays moments of vulnerability that make you realize that, no matter how horrible he is, he’s still just a kid.) Anyways, one night she got drunk on wine and had sex with him, and she keeps this secret close to her heart because princess are supposed to be pure and virginal and sweet, and if her father or anyone else found out, they’d be devastated, angry, etc. Also, I think it’s clear in the book that Cleiona’s very ashamed of the fact that this happened—she regrets it. I thought for a while that he’d raped her, actually, but she admits later on that in her intoxicated state, she welcomed his advances and wanted to be showered with affection from a man that many other girls wanted to be with. This could devolve into a whole debate about, if they were both drunk, was it consensual or was it still rape? But I’m not going to go there because it’s very philosophical and I’m kind of tired. Back to the topic at hand, Aron’s not completely out of hot water. The fact that he uses this knowledge—that Cleiona’s ashamed of what they did and that the aristocrats and her family have a certain expectation of her being virtuous and pure—as leverage against her already makes him skeevy. He displays obvious contempt for her at several instances, and makes poorly veiled threats to reveal this information to the people that matter to her if she tries to go against him. Also, near the beginning of the book, Cleo goes to him to see if he feels any guilt over senselessly murdering Tomas, and this quickly turns into a tense situation where Aron makes his intentions of raping her very clear. He even mentions that he’ll make sure that they have a lot of time for intimacy—an idea which she is clearly uncomfortable with—in the future, and also makes several crass remarks regarding their wedding night.
Conclusively, there’s no redeeming Aron. He’s a douchebag and a creep.
The reason I liked this whole thing, though, is because it’s a very real and personal issue for Cleo. She lost her virginity—and also slept with this person that she loathes—because she was drunk. There’s a lot of regret and fear, and it makes you sympathize with her a lot. What happened between them was unfortunate, and it leads to pretty awful situations later on in the book, but it also shows us just how important virtue and purity are in her society, for a person of her stature. There’re a lot of double standards in this book—for example, Magnus and Jonas mention, several times, that they’ve slept with a number of women and with no consequence. Cleiona made one mistake and it haunts her for the rest of the novel. That’s not to say that every girl suffers this fate, though, as we see later on with Amia and Sera and snake dance lady (I think her name is like Liela or something), all of whom have had multiple sexual interactions with various characters. I’m not complaining about this, though! I think that it’s an interesting dynamic, actually.
Speaking of that serving girl that worked for Magnus, I liked this whole thing where, although he didn’t save her from the beating that she endured at the hands of his father, he sent her away to a place where she’d be safe and with enough money to last her a few years. It kind of redeems him. Magnus is interesting because he continues to flip between being good and being horrible—you’ll grudgingly start rooting for him, only for him to do something completely assholey and make you despise him again. But then he does something kind, and once again, you’re conflicted. I do have to say that I didn’t care too much for his sister. She didn’t get that much “screen-time” in the book, I guess, and even when she did she wasn’t that interesting.
I also really like Cleo. She proves herself to be selfish, manipulative and ignorant of the real world, sure, but she’s also incredibly strong, perseverant and fiery. She suffers a lot by the end of the novel—and maybe it’s all karmic retribution for her role in Tomas’s murder—but what I love about her is the fact that she has the perfect origins for becoming corrupted. Her whole family was murdered, she’s all alone, her kingdom was taken from her and all she knows for sure is that she’s in danger of being killed at any moment. She has to depend on fairy tales about lost gods that might be able to help her regain power, but she has nothing concrete to go off of. She’s been completely abandoned by everyone she ever loved, and it starts to harden her by the end of the book. I thought that the part where she discovers that Emilia had died was beautifully written, though I do wish that it had been longer. It was brief. I would have loved to read more about her emotions and turmoil. I guess I like tragedy, haha. But I do feel like that was a pivotal point in the novel. Then, a few hours after she realizes that her elder sister (whom she’s been trying to save for 90% of the book) has passed away, her father dies in front of her. Both of them tell her to be strong, and her father gives her a last piece of advice that he hopes will help her to take their kingdom back.
Okay, well… that’s it, I think! Pretty tired after writing all of that. I liked this book a lot, overall, and I’m definitely going to read the sequels.
Also, it is currently 1 AM and I did not read through this post before publishing it. I don’t plan to, either. I’m 2 tired.