In many ways delicious, The Queen's Bastard is a well-written, evocative piece of alternate-Elizabethan-era fantasy. Unfortunately, defects in both its plot and its characters detract from the otherwise beautiful prose of C.E. Murphy.
At first I enjoyed the stalwart strength of the protagonist, Belinda Primrose. An unacknowledged bastard of Lorraine (Elizabeth), Queen of Aulun (England), she has been raised and trained as an assassin by her father, Robert Drake (Francis Drake). Belinda is, in essence, the product of two decades of manipulation by her father. Since her first kill at twelve, she has had no identity beyond those she assumes to fulfil her missions. This struggle for identity becomes a key theme in the book and an important aspect of the plot as Belinda finds her will subsumed by the fabricated identity of Beatrice Irvine.
My problem with the book begins when Belinda rediscovers her quelled "witchpower" with the help of the Prince of Gallin (France), Javier, who is also a "witchbreed". This power is inextricably linked to emotion, particularly Belinda's anger and her sexuality. The book takes a sharp turn toward erotica when she wakes up in bed next to her serving maid, whom Belinda has bound and gagged. It wasn't the rampant sex that dismayed me--it was the inconsistency. Up until this point, sex had been a component of the story, but it never took centre stage in such an insistent manner as it did at this point.
Soon I began to despise Belinda and actively cheer for her antagonists, particularly the clever countess Akilina Pankejeff. Unlike Belinda's machinations and her ambivalence over destroying Javier, Akilina was pleasantly cruel. And she actually seemed competent at her job. Belinda, on the other hand, made numerous mistakes and blunders. While I appreciate the lengths to which Murphy goes to give me a flawed protagonist, I just didn't enjoy it very much. It results in a hasty resolution to Belinda's plot, one much less artful than I wanted.
I think what I'm trying to say is that The Queen's Bastard sacrifices political intrigue for character drama. For that reason, it's a good book--people who like character drama will enjoy it. But a great book manages to reconcile both politics and character drama to create a moving, profound story. Instead, the political trappings fall away as the book becomes more about romance, forbidden love, and the price of power.
I'm sad to say I was disappointed by The Queen's Bastard; I don't yet know if I'll read the sequel. Maybe I'll try some of Murphy's other works first. She has a wonderful talent for description; the book contains excellent similes and lyrical depictions of the scenes. The delectable prose makes it all the more unfortunate that I didn't enjoy the narrative more.