Nathan’s review of The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten
In The Foxglove King, Hannah Whitten returns with a brand-new trilogy brimming with necromancy magic, a love triangle, court intrigue, and a looming magical threat. All of these elements combine to create a book that I didn’t necessarily love, but that I had an absolute blast with. As we are starting to move into the summer months this would make an absolutely fantastic fantasy beach read. There is enough substance to keep you engaged without feeling overly heavy or overwhelming as you are enjoying the summer vibes (and for my Southern Hemisphere friends it also works as an autumn read as well!).
The Foxglove King follows the main character, Lore, who is a powerful necromancer in a society that is prejudiced against death magic. However, she is called to court by the king to help them solve a problem – entire villages are being wiped out by some unseen force. Lore is tasked with reviving the dead (bringing humans back to life is a very rare skill) and asked what happened to them. Lore is then ensnared in a political plot that runs far deeper than she even thought possible.
The marketing of this book is a bit misleading because it pitches this book as this dark and gothic romance….which the book is definitely not. While there are some darker moments involving necromancy, on the whole the tone of the book is fairly standard fantasy fare. The blurbs on the made me think I was going to get a book closer in tone to Krystle Matar’s Legacy of the Brightwash, but I would say that it is even less dark than Whitten’s Wilderwood Duology. While the magic system is cool, don’t pick up this book if you are looking for a book dripping with gothic romance because this will not be the book for you.
However, the magic system is really well developed and cool. One thing that I have liked about all three of Whitten’s books so far is that she doesn’t let her romance storytelling get in the way of building out her world. The Foxglove King is no different, and it is chock full of magic related to both life and death. Essentially, people who experience a near death experience (or who do die and are resuscitated) have the ability to control Mortem, or the power of death. There is also life magic, Spiritum, which is much more difficult to control being Spiritum holds on to beings a lot more powerfully than death.
It is clear that Whitten has thought about how her magic system would impact people’s behaviors and actions. I don’t want to get too deep into here (because, spoilers), but the magic system is deftly integrated into the court intrigue politics in a natural and organic way. The magic system doesn’t feel ham-fisted into the book just to have magic, but is central to the overall plot and class structure of the society.
Outside of the magic system the worldbuilding is a bit sparse. Whitten gives us just enough detail (mostly in terms of the political structure, class structure, and religion) of the world to get by. This left the world feeling relatively generic and uninteresting. As much as I was engaged by the plot, I never felt the desire to explore Whitten’s world. I didn’t feel immersed in the setting, which felt like every other generic medievel-ish fantasy world out there. This was a bit disappointing because one of my favorite elements of Whitten’s previous Wilderwood Duology was the lush descriptions. I wasn’t getting that here, and I think that also threw the tone of the book off; the lack of detail kept those darker tones the author was going for from really being able to seep through. I was also thrown off by some of the prose decisions where the language felt a bit too modern, which also detracted from that dark and gothic vibe.
And, despite the world being underdeveloped, it is often presented in an info-dumpy kind of way. This didn’t bother me too much since I don’t mind a little info-dumping in my fantasy books, but other readers might be turned off by it.
Luckily the weak worldbuilding is made up for a bit by a strong central character. Like with Whitten’s previous protagonists, Lore is a character that is easy to root for and is a strong female character without being a “strong female character”. She is assured in our agency and sexuality while also being flawed. However, also like Whitten’s other protagonists there is just a hint of “generic protagonist” within Lore. She is a developed enough character to carry the plot, but character development doesn’t run too deep.
This is a problem with most of the characters in the book. Whitten draws them with only the lines that she absolutely needs to, which means they can sometimes come across as a bit two-dimensional and single minded. As I also mention below, this mostly impacts the character of Gabe, who seems to shout the same thing over and over again to the point where as the reader you just want to say “Gabe, we get it” (Whitten also seems to have a fixation with him having only one eye as if that is his only interesting feature).
The plot moves swiftly so a lot of the times you don’t even notice how shallow the characters actually are. Again, its a beach read fantasy romance. You’ll get sucked into the plot and then when it is over you’ll pull yourself out of the book and barely think about it again…while also eagerly waiting for the next volume.
If you are a fan of the central love triangle in the Shadow and Bone series (note: I am basing this off the TV show version and not the book, although I am told they are fairly similar) you’ll love what Whitten does here. Lore is trapped between two men: her childhood friend and now warrior monk Gabriel and the dark, brooding heir to the throne Bastien. Whitten nicely develops both of Lore’s potential love interests, crafting them as flawed yet viable objects of Lore’s attentions. Gabe is noble (and technically celibate) but is single-minded in his devotion to his religion while Bastian is insecure but sees the larger picture. What was also refreshing is that Bastian, while definitely modeled after the “antagonist the girl thinks she can change” type, doesn’t fully fit that archetype. He isn’t evil incarnate (although his true motivations and allegiances are one of the mysteries running through the book) and he is not a complete jerk. He is level-headed and kind enough that you can see why Lore might be attracted to him while also acting as a good foil to “good guy” Gabe.
If you are looking for a fun read to give you a breather from heavier works, or if you are a hardcore fantasy reader looking to try out some non-spicy romance, you could do a lot worse than The Foxglove King. As much as it is a heavily flawed novel, I absolutely do not regret reading it. It was that perfect fast-paced read that I needed, and so keep this one in mind if you ever need that book that is just kind of a mindless breather.
Concluding Thoughts: Mismarketed as a dark romance, Hannah Whitten’s The Foxglove King is a perfectly serviceable fantasy romance with an interesting and fast-paced plot with a fun death-based magic system. Whitten keeps the book swiftly moving to the point where the thinly drawn characters and underdeveloped world fade into the background as you join Lore in exploring a far-reaching magical and political conspiracy. What this book lacks in depth and detail is made up for in sheer readability and engagement. A perfect beach read or palate cleanser between other books.