Epic fantasy heist. Those three words in the subject line of an email were all it took for me to windmill slam “yes” on getting an eARC of The Queen of Days from NetGalley and publisher HarperVoyager. Some marketing person knew the magic words that would pique my interest instantly. I was excited to dive in, and thankfully, the book lived up to the hype! This is a delightful, powerful adventure that left me wanting more in all the right ways.
Balthazar, aka Bal, is a scion of a noble family that has fallen on hard times. He now makes a living as a thief in the city that his family once ruled, and his latest heist sees him reluctantly partnering up with the mythical and mysterious Queen of Days. The heist, as heists often do, goes pear-shaped. On the run and outgunned, Bal and his crew and the Queen of Days find themselves as unlikely allies on a quest to kill a god, save their city (and possibly the world), and keep their skins intact.
The book opens with Bal meeting the Queen of Days, whose name we soon learn is Tassiel, or Tass. From there, we quickly move into meeting the supporting cast and the heist itself. I appreciate this pacing—I don’t mind when a heist book builds up to the heist-as-climax, but I also like when they do what Kelly does here. The heist, you see, is actually an appetizer before the real plot takes off. After a brief diversion into a mysterious Archive for some exposition and raising of stakes, Bal and Tass and the crew are back out into the city, on the run, trying to figure out what to do next.
The found family vibes are strong here. Kelly alternates chapters between Bal and Tass’s perspectives. Something I really liked is how the chapter titles for Tass evolve. At the start of the book, they provide her full name and title; as the story continues, they shorten to “Tassiel” and then eventually “Tass,” signifying her acceptance of this identity and her connection to Bal and his crew.
The mystery of Tass’s identity—who she is, where her magic comes from, where she herself comes from—is one of the earliest and most central mysteries in this book, and it’s fun. The way that Kelly teases out the mystery, not giving us everything at once yet also never lingering too long before dropping another clue, is tantalizing and kept me reading. I needed to know more about Tass, more about the magic in this world—and the others. Kelly artfully combines several standard tropes in a way that breathes new life into them.
Similarly, Bal’s own character arc, though less dramatic, is no less important in this story. At the beginning, he is fixated on revenge and protecting his kid sister. That second desire never changes, of course. Yet Bal must confront what “revenge” means against the backdrop of bigger, more existential threats, and it’s in this crucible that he demonstrates his ability to be heroic. I really like how his friendship with Tass develops. There is a kindness to the core of his character that often feels lacking in male protagonists of his mould. He isn’t quite a lovable rogue, and he also isn’t a blustering blowhard of a fighter. Kelly has carved out an unique and interesting man who, despite numerous flaws, brings people together in a way that is its own kind of magic.
Though I praised the pacing earlier, if I were to critique anything about this book, it would actually be how too much happens. This is a book with a lot of side quests. Not all of them held my interest. I’m thinking of one in particular, a foray finally into Tass’s home—I can see why Kelly includes this, but at the same time, I kept thinking, “I just want us to get back to the main conflict here.” This is the problem when you try to write an epic fantasy story that also wants to be a cozy, family-centric heist story: the two genres are difficult to mash together since they have diametrically opposed atmospheres. That Kelly manages to make them work as well as she does is, in and of itself, quite impressive.
If one of those two genres wins out, it’s the latter. The Queen of Days is indeed epic on paper; there is no denying that. There are gods. An entire city trembles. The stakes are real. Yet we don’t really care about that. The readers are here for Bal and Tass and the lovable crew that surrounds them.
The Queen of Days raised me from a reading slump. It elevated my resting, reading heart rate. If you could hook me up to a faucet of hot-and-cold running fantasy in this style, I would be a happy woman. As it is, I am left wanting more—in a good way—and I can’t recommend this book enough to people who want epic fantasy with cozy characters.