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Nathan’s review of The Hemlock Queen by Hannah Whitten

*Also see my review of The Foxglove King, the first book in the The Nightshade Crown series.

The tl;dr: Whitten is back with another book that expertly balances what fans of romance and fantasy are looking for. The Hemlock Queen is much bigger and bolder than its predecessor, with gods battling it out for power, our favorite characters in new positions of authority, and Lore having to still figure out her heart amidst the gods-ravaged chaos. International political conspiracies, tragic gods, murders, necromancy, and a bit of spice fill these pages to create a sequel that is as much as a fun page turner, but now with just a bit more depth to the plotting and worldbuilding, and a tad more emotional resonance. Once you get through the slow start, this book soars.

 

My full review:

Hannah Whitten returns with another thrill ride of a romantic fantasy. The stakes are heightened in this rollicking sequel as ancient gods battle it out for supremacy amidst the very human emotions of love, family, and power. Fans of The Foxglove King will find a lot to relish here, while even those who were a bit iffy on the entry of Whitten’s sophomore series might want to give it a glance (although this sequel will not change your mind if you were completely put off by The Foxglove King).

The Hemlock Queen picks up pretty shortly after the climactic events of The Foxglove King, and in general it is the first 20% of the book or so that raises my biggest criticisms. The opening pages here are quite slow, and unnecessarily so. I understand that some sequels start slow, and I generally like when sequels take room to breathe and ease readers back into a world and its characters. However, I don’t think Whitten did this particularly well. The beginning of Hemlock Queen doesn’t really re-introduce the world, characters, or conflict (there are some callbacks, but Whitten really relies on the reader remembering a lot of the details here), and yet nothing happens. So the beginning ends up being a “worse of both worlds” situation where nothing happens, and yet readers are not eased back into the world either. I have to admit that in the beginning all I could think was “oh no oh no oh no oh no Whitten hit the sophomore slump”.

But fear not, once the beginning shakes off the cobwebs, the story hits its stride and does not let up until you hit the last page.

One of the aspects of the story that I really appreciated is that Whitten allows actual change to her characters and world. Bastian is now the king, Gabe is the supreme religious authority, and Lore is set up to be the next reigning queen. There are no convoluted plot devices to try and “reset” the story back to where we were before the conclusion of Foxglove King, and that makes this sequel a smarter, deeper, and more assured book than its predecessor. I wouldn’t say it is the most massive of glow-ups (and doesn’t have the same jump in quality as Whitten’s Wilderwood Duology had), but Whitten commands the material to a depth that Foxglove King was only skimming.

I am generally not a romance reader, and I find love triangles to be contrived and an overly simplistic way to add personal tension and drama – but Whitten continues to make the Lore-Bastian-Gabe love triangle one of the most compelling in all of fiction. I can actually believe that both of these men would be romantic contenders (for very different reasons) and why Lore is pulled between the safer, more nostalgic and comforting draw of Gabe and the more powerful, darker, and riskier allure of Bastian. The love triangle pulls back a bit in this book as Whitten needs to dedicate the page count to the more earth-shattering elements to the plot, but the romantic elements help to ground the story in an intimate and human way as the overarching story gets bolder and loftier with gods, possessions, and more.

(There are two other things I should note about the romance in this book: (1) if you are not normally a romance reader but like fantasies with death magic, gods, and more, the romance is a small enough part of the book that you might want to give this a go and (2) there is one kind of spicy scene towards the end of the book, but otherwise it is just glances and kisses).

Whitten also takes the larger worldbuilding and turns it up to a ten. There are international conspiracies, god possessions, ancient battles rearing their heads, murders, betrayals, long lost relatives, and more. Whitten ups the ante in almost all ways here, and doesn’t slow down once the book gets rolling. Again, after the first 20% or so, Whitten doesn’t give the reader time to breathe as the plot hits into high gear and doesn’t relent – and all without feeling overstuffed or like there is too much going on. The story feels bigger, grander, and more epic in scope without spiraling out of control, and without forgetting the characters that we have come to love in the first book. The plot also leads to an extended flashback chapter about the gods that absolutely FLOORED me with how compelling and lovely it was. Having read Whitten’s work since her debut (For the Wolf), it’s been great to see her become more adventurous with her storytelling and plotting.

(The only part of the plotting that I thought could have been smoother was the god-possession of the one of the characters. It was very much done with the subtlety of a “bull in a china shop”, which I would have liked to have been better, especially when it is still presented as a “mystery” in the early goings of the book).

The entire book also leaves off on a pretty massive cliffhanger, with several characters in peril and many people scattered in different directions. I think that this is going to be a trilogy (at least Whitten mentions this being a second book in a trilogy in the author’s note), and I cannot wait for the grand finale.

I really enjoyed my time with The Hemlock Queen, probably more than The Foxglove King. While my review for Foxglove highlighted how breezy and fun the book was (some romance, some necromancy, a fast-paced plot), my appreciation and pleasure with Hemlock is a bit deeper as I still had a lot of fun with it, but now with a greater emotional connection to the characters and worldbuilding. Highly recommended for Whitten fans, or anyone who likes their fantasy full of romance, gods, and necromancy magic.

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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