(Note: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)
Familiar, then unexpected. Throne of Sand is a book that caught me by surprise—in a very good way.
Its basic premise is not so unusual, with a tenacious, un-ladylike for the times female lead. It’s written in familiar, contemporary language (not my favorite for a story in an older era, but it ended up suiting the action well). As a retelling of Aladdin, it’s a story we’re well acquainted with (comfortingly so), complete with cheeky little nods to the movie adaptation and callbacks to the original folktale (this djinni is in a ring). But this time, the hero is a heroine: Zadie, the princess who reads, writes, rides bareback and knows her way around a trade agreement. In other words, she is not the princess her fiancé expects.
Especially because Sultan Kassim was engaged to her sister.
Zadie hides a very large secret, having helped her sister elope with a commoner she loved. But the replacement princess is not all virtue and romantic ideals: Zadie wants her sister to be happy, but she also wants a chance to rule, something she’s prepared for and never had a chance at until now. She’s not above a little manipulation, and her servants are not above caking her with makeup to make her the legendary beauty Kassim was promised.
This Aladdin retelling is fast, full of action and fun–and even the djinni gets a backstory.
After a very tense meeting with the sultan, Zadie travels to her future kingdom, where she spends her time ditching her servants and trying to prove she can be a sultanah who rules, rather than one who just looks pretty on her powerless throne. She has to balance her kingdom’s need for the marriage to go through with getting what she wants. The tightrope act soon gets irritating, both for Zadie and for this particular reader.
Fortunately, Zadie’s adventurous nature gets the better of her and the best parts of the story come on fast, full of action and fun. Even rude, tradition-obsessed Kassim, whose sole virtues were his title and muscles, starts to soften after a bit. The wooden sultan becomes a real boy, and it turns out he isn’t half bad.
I wasn’t familiar with Elm Vince before this, but I knew from The Prince and the Poisoner that Helena Rookwood can write amazing and unique female characters (resilient ones, to be sure). Like the royalty in The Prince and the Poisoner, nobody’s a hero or flat-out scoundrel in the courts of Throne of Sand. The characters in this tale are also more dynamic. We see them grow, show their true colors and correct their mistakes throughout the story, and Zadie turns out to be a great deal of fun as a main character.
She certainly knows how to find trouble, too. Like Rookwood’s Lira, she never crumples in the face of it (unless, you know, it’s physically impossible not to. Again, there’s a lot of great action in Throne of Sand). Zadie has intelligence, diligence and toughness to commend her, and whenever she has a sheltered princess moment or two, she manages to redeem herself with her cleverness sometime after.
This is one of those books that I really looked forward to picking up again, only to remember I’d just finished it, which left me really disappointed that I couldn’t go back for more. (Thank goodness the sequels are now out.) Our princess may start out helpless and a little on the scheming side (and a lot on the naïve side), but beneath all that is true, three-dimensional character, and just the right traits for someone who hopes to rule. For all my grumbling when I started reading, it becomes impossible not to root for her—and important that I must read what happens next.