It isn’t often that a book wins me over like The Throne of the Five Winds did! I usually know my general sentiment towards a book within the first fifty pages or so. My mood will change for better or worse as the story unfolds, and a 2-star book might make it to 3 or vice versa, and once in a while, a 4- or 5-star book plummets to 1 star because of an unforgivable sin. When I began this book, which I received as an eARC from Orbit and NetGalley, I was not feeling it.
Moreover, I really dislike it when someone tries to sell me a series by saying “for fans of Game of Thrones.” Because, like it or not, Game of Thrones is mainstream now. It’s like saying “for fans of Harry Potter” or “for fans of Marvel movies”—that’s not a useful category any more. And I honestly don’t think this book is very much like Game of Thrones, for many reasons, but hey, that’s not what this review is about.
Lady Komor Yala (house name, first name) has been sent from her home country of Khir to Zhaon. She accompanies her princess, Mahara, who is a bride and tribute to the Crown Prince of Zhaon following Khir’s rout at the battle of the Three Rivers. Yala and Mahara are alone in Zhaon, with no other Khir around them, forced to adapt to a strange culture. There are 6 princes of Zhaon, from 3 different women—two queens and a concubine. A second concubine of the emperor has adopted a son, General Zakkar Kai, who is unpopular with some because of his humble origins. Yala and Mahara barely have time to catch their breath before the latter is wedded and the assassination attempts begin.
People are going to tell you this book is long. Boy is it ever—but I don’t see that as a particular stumbling block, and I don’t think that’s even what those commenters are really picking up on. Sure, it’s long, and we could discuss how the story might be streamlined. But perhaps what we’re actually noticing is that almost all of the scenes in this book are two-handers, or perhaps three-handers in a pinch. There are certainly some larger crowd scenes, often action scenes. Yet so much of this book comprises private conversations between two characters, often involving intrigue veiled behind courtesy. That’s why this book feels longer than it is: everything is embedded within subtext, and so it takes twice as long to say. There is a lot of dialogue but also a lot of stillness, and S.C. Emmett’s description tends towards the poetic, with many quotations from writers in this world and comparisons of people’s movements to calligraphy.
Emmett also tends towards the “hard no” side for exposition and is even so hardcore as to put “untranslatable” terms into the book with footnotes explaining their meaning in English. So that adds to the initial learning curve. Frankly, I don’t blame anyone for noping out within the first twenty or fifty pages. It’s not easy to get into this book.
But if you persevere, you might decide it’s worth it. The Throne of the Five Winds has so many tropes of fantasy/historical fiction: palace intrigue, succession crises in the making, subtle love triangles, capricious queens and princes, a dying emperor, and assassins lurking behind every arras. Despite this surfeit of tropes, though, the book never feels that clichéd. The cornucopia of characters allows Emmett to wend and wind the plot through this world with a narrative deftness that keeps us on our toes.
There are downsides, of course. Another reason I couldn’t get into the book at first is that I didn’t feel invested in any of the initial protagonists. Why did I care about Yala being sent away from her home country? Who is this Kai dude, and why should I care about him and this emperor? Which of these princes am I supposed to care about? Similarly, the antagonists are two-dimensional. We’re supposed to like most of the protagonists and dislike most of the antagonists. Even Takshin, who is a fairly obvious antihero, is supposed to be the “lovable rogue,” in contrast to the Second Prince, Kurin, who is portrayed as an inveterate schemer. Emmett tries to give Queen Gamwone some depth by making it seem like her gambits are merely a way of ensuring the survival of herself and her sons in the limited ways she can as a woman in this world … yet the narrative voice of the book is so biased towards portraying her as a rude, vindictive, and petty woman that this little attempt at balancing the scales is insufficient, to say the least. And as far as the Khir nobility goes … we get, what, 4 scenes with them?
In other words, The Throne of the Five Winds has all the intrigue I love in a political fantasy novel. Nevertheless, it is still quite messy in some ways, and its characterization is shiny yet not always substantial. Emmet’s writing is beautiful in most cases, particularly as we watch Yala grow in her appreciation of her new home. I recommended this book to a coworker who enjoys reading sprawling court epics.