Aurelia feels like a logical stepping stone between the princess stories of Gail Carson Levine and adult novels of romance and intrigue. In many ways, Aurelia is a typical princess from stories like this—she chafes against authority, she thinks she’s less beautiful than her golden younger sister, the common people love her, and she’s smarter and more competent than most of the people around her even though her primary responsibility is to shut up and marry whomever her father chooses. However, she’s also the target of several failed assassination attempts. Robert, her childhood friend and son of the King’s former spy, returns to investigate.
Horses play a large role in the book—bloodlines and training of horses serve as vital clues to solving the mystery. The horse-crazy 12 year old in me enjoyed the descriptions of the horses and the way they were almost characters.
I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it. It’s Osterlund’s first novel, and I could almost read the notes she’d taken from a writing class. Her writing feels like she worked really hard at it and the result is solid. It just doesn’t quite feel natural yet. Some sections were slightly hard to follow due to phrasing, although I didn’t miss anything critical. It just pulled me out of the flow sometimes. Younger readers might find some of it frustrating, or perhaps they won’t even notice. I’ll probably eventually get around to reading more novels from this series, and I’d expect that the text will improve as she gets more comfortable writing.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Despite the slightly more grown-up feel of this book, there’s nothing but a kiss. However, we do find out that Aurelia’s father and stepmother had a child while both were married to other people.
People continue to try to kill Aurelia throughout the book. It opens with servants trying to deal with the dead body of her food taster. There are several vivid attacks on her, usually involving horses. We learn that her brother died as a child when he was trampled by a horse. In the end, both Robert and Aurelia end up killing people in self-defense. This isn’t done easily or treated lightly, but it is slightly graphic.
Aurelia is so very alone. Her brother is dead and her mother abandoned her after his death. Her father is distant, and through the course of the book she also learns that’s he’s a coward and an ineffectual ruler. Her stepmother is cold and disapproving. Her sister seems loving, but in the end turns out to be the one trying to have Aurelia killed. Robert is in slightly better shape, with a father who forgives him for defying his wishes and an uncle who respects and understands him, but his cousin turns out to be the traitor and Robert has to kill him.
There is some drinking, but both Aurelia and Robert pointedly do not drink. At a party, when people hand Aurelia alcoholic drinks, she passes them on to a companion. Robert explicitly says at some point that he never drinks.
Although race is never addressed directly, I did notice that several of the characters are explicitly mentioned as having darker skin tones. A minor protagonist is a swashbuckling pirate type with charcoal black skin. Aurelia is described as having cinnamon skin and brown hair. Of course she thinks she’s plain compared to her blond haired, green-eyed sister—and sadly many of her suitors seems to feel the same way—but Robert thinks she’s stunning.
Aurelia’s country and several of the others nearby are struggling to keep people from the Outer Realms from crossing the borders. Aurelia thinks this idea is antiquated—she tries to convince her father to open the borders rather than build them up.
Although Aurelia is the crown princess, she identifies with the common people. She thinks they should have a voice at court. She doesn’t want to rule from the isolation of a palace, so she sneaks out to get to know the people of the city.
All the typical tropes are here—Aurelia is marriage fodder packaged in a corset and gown, expected to be lovely and obedient. Of course everything about her flies in the face of that. Robert appreciates the fact that she’s better than he is at many things. He enjoys arguing with her because she’s a worthy opponent.
This book is probably suitable for ages 12 and up. Readers who enjoy stories of intrigue, royalty, horses, and romance will probably enjoy it. I’d have no problem letting my daughter read this, but I think she might find it too plot driven. We like Aurelia and Robert because we’re supposed to and we’re never given a reason not to; however, they didn’t really come alive for me, either. The plot was compelling enough to keep me reading, and there’s a good chance I’ll continue the series at some point.
She enjoyed the book and is lending it to a friend to read. She did mention that it seemed to be all plot and not a lot of character. She was and remains annoyed that Aurelia’s sister and Robert’s cousin were the villains (she’s mentioned this to me multiple times). She liked them and, although this isn’t the language she’s using, I think she felt that the plot twist was contrived. Upon reflection, she definitely has a point. The twist worked fine with the plot, but it wasn’t in keeping with how the characters—especially the sister—were depicted.