A young girl is taken from her family to a castle. She is to become a princess; to be raised in luxury and marry a prince. It sounds like the beginning of a fairytale and indeed young Twylla cannot believe her good fortune when the queen pulls up at her door to whisk her away to a better life. Yet the fairytale comes at a price: the princess must be alone. Her touch is poisonous to anyone not of the royal blood and she is used to execute those deemed traitors to the realm. Then, one day, she is assigned an attractive new guard from the neighbouring – democratic – kingdom. Will the princess fall in love? And what will she do about it if she does?
From the above description and from the way this book has been marketed by the publisher, one might conclude that this book was a 'mere' re-telling of a fairytale-style romance. Girl is isolated by cruel older 'step-mother' figure; girl nevertheless meets boy; girl and boy fall in love; boy rescues girl from intolerable isolation. That is certainly the expectation that this writer had when he sat down to read it. Yet to assume that it belongs in the 'fantasy chick-lit' genre would be a grave mistake. This is an incredibly powerful first novel, which has three elements that go to make up great fantasy.
Firstly: psychology. Salisbury is at her best as a writer when delineating the complexities of human relationships. Her characters never fall into cliché and she writes about their conflicting and confused motivations in a way that tugs at your heart. Every kind of relationship is expertly explored in the story, from friendship to romance and family loyalty. For this reason alone, the book is worth reading.
Secondly: politics. The 'fairytale' castle in which Twylla must live is – as was hinted at in the above – anything but: the queen is an autocratic monarch whose grip on power becomes increasingly clear as we move through the book. Salisbury has invented a world with a detailed history and political landscape and, remarkably for a fantasy writer, managed to convey it all in little over three hundred pages. The test of a really great fantasy writer, of course, is how well they integrate that information into the movement of their narrative and this is a test which Salisbury passes tolerably well. She never devotes pages of the work to merely telling the reader endless 'back-story', even if – when it emerges as part of the narrative – her connections between it and the narrative sometimes seem a little thin. Furthermore, the contrast between the two major neighbouring kingdoms in the book – one autocratic and superstitious; the other democratic and rational – was overblown and unconvincingly simplistic. Nevertheless, for those whose tastes run to political thrillers as well as romances, this is a gripping read.
Finally: faith. One of the most interesting aspects of the fantasy genre is to examine the beliefs which underlie the world being shown to us; not merely those of formalised religion but those of a general culture (where would Lord of the Rings be without the deep-rooted attachment of a dwarf with his – or presumably her – homeland?) . This is an element which Salisbury has consciously and convincingly set out to explore. The mother from which Twylla is separated in order to become a princess is no faceless peasant but the 'sin-eater': an ancient office that entails attendance at wakes and ritualised consumption of a meal, symbolising the sins of the departed. It is, as those concerned with death often are, an office both feared and despised: should the sin-eater refuse to eat her meal (and, as an interesting aside, it appears – although Salisbury never explicitly draws attention to this in the novel – that the sin-eater always is female) then one stands condemned for eternity. The deep social ramifications of this ritual – not merely in terms of posthumous judgement but also in terms of the public unveiling of private sin – constitute a major theme throughout the novel. Questions of justice, wrong and punishment underlie, without ever overwhelming, the narrative. It is this use of story to explore deep themes that marks this book out as definitely worth reading and Melinda Salisbury as writer to watch.