the Little Red Reviewer

The Queen Underneath by Stacey Filak

Posted on: April 21, 2018

The Queen Underneath, by Stacey Filak

Release Date:  May 8th 2018

Where I got it: Received review copy from the author (Thanks!)

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You know, I never expected to laugh that much at a brothel scene. Quite the happy surprise!

 

When Gemma’s adoptive mother and mentor Melnora dies, Gemma will become Queen of the Under.  When Prince Tollan’s father dies, Tollan will become King of Above. Neither Gemma nor Tollan are ready to lose their parents, but we don’t always get what we want, do we?

 

A sort-of retelling of Sleeping Beauty,  The Queen Underneath showcases fully developed characters who leap off the page, snarky dialog, vibrant world building, tons of show don’t tell, and inspiring adult relationships.  Some really great sex scenes, too!

 

In author Stacey Filak’s debut novel, Gemma is the heir apparent of the Underworld, the world of thieves and prostitutes, of daytime drinking, picking locks,  and freedom. Gemma has everything she could ever want – the earned respect of her followers, best friends in the right places, and she’s just waiting for the right time to tell her lover Devery that she’s pregnant.  Until Melnora took sick, Gemma was on her way to having it all.

 

Tollan is the crown prince of Above. He thinks he understands what “doing the right thing” means, and he prefers to stay blissfully ignorant of his family’s history and the true powers of the mage women who live at the castle. Things were going halfway decent for him until his father took ill and Tollan was accused of murder by his own brother.

 

With the Queen of Under and the King of Above on death’s door, it’s up to Gemma and Tollan to figure out what’s going on, and who wants all the royals dead. Well, mostly up to Gemma, since Tollan doesn’t have much experience outside the palace.  With the townspeople under a magic sleeping spell, and thorns erupting out of the ground, Gemma doesn’t even yet know who her enemy is, let alone how to stop the civil war on her doorstep. The plot does start out fairly simple, and with every chapter complexities and subtleties are revealed, drawing the reader in further and further.  Tightly plotted, buckets of fun, and sexy as hell, The Queen Underneath is an compelling story of of adventure, family bonds, political intrigue, wit, and revenge.  And if you don’t finish this book  loving Elam, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore.

 

This is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty in the same way Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s Winterglass is a retelling of the Snow Queen – the bones of the fairy tale are there if you look for them, but the characters and overarching plot have been rebuilt and reimagined so as to be completely unique.

 

So often in fantasy adventure novels like this,  the main characters are loners, and are pretty much incapable of loving anyone or being in a healthy long term relationship.  Maybe they have some tragic history involving their spouse getting slaughtered or some such. I know I’m rudely making light of it, but I’m also sick of that fantasy novel standard recipe of the damaged hero or antihero basically not being allowed to have a healthy relationship. Luckily, it seems like Filak was sick of it too. Just about everyone in The Queen Underneath is involved, or finds their way to a healthy loving relationship. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to read a book where people are having great sex with people they love!  Mainstream fantasy needs more of this!

 

I’m not sure why, but it took me a while to warm up to Gemma. That said, once the laugh out loud brothel scene happened, I was onboard for anywhere she wanted to go.  Once that *other* scene (spoilers!) happens at about the halfway point in the story, Gemma became someone I’ll never forget. Maybe *that scene* won’t matter to readers, but to have characters pay attention to that event and what it means to the person it happened to, to have it matter enough that the author put it in,  that meant the world to me.

 

Gemma is empowering, she is confident, she is funny, she is willing to show her vulnerabilities and her doubts, she is imperfect but always yearning to get better. With Gemma,  Filak has redefined the term “strong female character”. Not only does Gemma kick ass and run the show, she also speaks to normal (although often stigmatized) female experiences. To see adult relationships, motherhood, and the trials of pregnancy discussed front and center in an adventure fantasy novel is gloriously groundbreaking. The backbone of this story is family, and I just loved that.

 

You know, Gemma’s life reminds me of the phrase “having it all”.  She’s responsible for running the show, she’s about to get involved in a whole bunch of intrigue and history that wasn’t part of the job description, and when it comes down to it she knows she wants to start a family.  Can she really have it all? I’d say that sounds like a fantasy, but Serena Williams already did it IRL.

 

The Queen Underneath ends up being a blast, but it did take me longer than I expected to get invested in the characters and their goals and motivations.  Introductions and worldbuilding came off as rushed and overly busy in the first few chapters – not quite infodumping, but perhaps the opposite yet still feeling busy, where I came out of those chapters feeling like I didn’t have a grasp of what I was supposed to understand about this world. The good news is that Filak’s storycraft gets noticeably stronger as the novel progresses, with the best written and most powerful scenes coming in the second half of the book.

 

Filak’s debut fantasy novel functions perfectly well as a stand alone, but I for one would be thrilled if Filak decided to write more in this world. Regardless, I’ll be on the look out for anything she writes.

 

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4 Responses to "The Queen Underneath by Stacey Filak"

This looks fantastic! Thanks for reviewing it! 😀

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oh, it was totally fantastic! Very much a book that has a lot of re-readability, doesn’t even matter that the end wouldn’t be a surprise anymore. i’d gotten a really, really early copy, so the hardest part has been waiting this long to do the review!

Liked by 1 person

I will buy this on your recommendation. Try Deerskin by Robin McKinley as a retelling of a fairy tale.

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i hope you enjoy it! thank you, i will look for Deerskin, i love fairy tale / mythology retellings!

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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