E. J. Beaton, The Councillor (2021)

Author: E. J. Beaton

Title: The Councillor

Format: E-book

Pages: 448

Series: ?

Soft-BDSM LGBT+ YA Court Intrigue (and not the “feminist Machiavellian political fantasy” it’s marketed as, at least for me)

I just thought I’d get it out of the way first.

Now that’s done I can start with the proper introductions 😉. The Councillor is E.J. Beaton’s debut novel, published today by DAW. It takes place in a fictional world bearing strong resemblance to our world’s Italy in Renaissance times and all this time and place entailed: separate city-states, feudalism, a ruling caste of cutthroat nobles, condottieri and the constant warring they made their fortunes in, and even something of an Italian League (not the football one, this one). The main character, Lysande Prior, is an orphan foundling who through sheer talent (she translated an ancient poetry artifact, Silver Songs, at the age of twelve) became a protégé of Elira’s Iron Queen, Sarelin. When the queen is murdered, our poor scholar must take the position of a Councillor – a sort of an interrex, responsible for choosing a new ruler from among the four remaining city-state rulers. The decision is urgent, for the person responsible for Sarelin’s murder is no other than Elira’s nemesis, The White Queen: Mea Tacitus (more on that masculine suffix later) who over two decades earlier set the realm aflame (quite literally, being an elemental able to control fire). The White Queen wants to conquer Elira for good this time, and won’t take “no” for an answer. So it falls to our hapless and seemingly mousy protagonist to make the right decisions under mounting pressure and successfully defend the realm. Lengthy discussions, banquets, balls, tournaments, and sightseeing trips abound, and there’s even one short battle.

The book is written in an assured, flowing style, imaginative and lush, bordering on purplish – all the more remarkable considering this is a debut novel for the poet Beaton. The exposition is done deftly, the intricacies of the world explained in small bits and pieces, allowing the plot to flow naturally. The cast of characters is sizeable but managed effectively by the author: while their characteristics are mostly limited to the bare minimum allowing the reader to recognize each without trouble and focused mainly on physical traits – with the exception of the dead queen and the main protagonist, who were given a bit more depth and much needed ambivalence – the characterization seemed adequate for the task of differentiating the various persons of interest. Beaton’s writing holds a promise, and her broad literary knowledge can be glimpsed in the myriad of references to various texts, from Machiavelli to Marx. The introduction of magic as a discriminatory trait in a feudal post-war society was an interesting decision and resulted in the lion’s share of my enjoyment of the book. I wish the novel lived up to the marketing description and actually focused on politics of the realm; however, after a promising start it shifted its attention toward romantic/sexual fantasies and relationships of the main character couched in the glittery cloth of court intrigues – and left me feeling increasingly disgruntled.

There are many reasons for that. But the first and foremost is that I found the marketing campaign for this book to be totally misleading. “Machiavellian” aspects of this novel can be summed up as a handful of references and the main protagonist “borrowing” Machiavelli’s remarks on ruling – that’s basically it. Politics is trivialized to an average YA-level simplified vision of court intrigues, where what you wear (oh, goodness, the descriptions of the clothing seemed to go on forever!) or eat, or who you have sex with is more important than the decisions about the realm. War’s brewing but the main character is more interested in imagining herself choking and/or slapping certain attractive males from her entourage as a prelude/part of her sex play. If I had a dollar for every mention of the pulse in the throat of an enemy-to-lover walking trope the main protagonist wanted to squeeze I’d be surprisingly rich.

“Feminist” is another key word, represented mostly in how certain historical figures suddenly changed gender in this novel’s world; and so, our “Machiavelli” is a genius orphan girl, a scholar writing not about princes but queens, while Cicero seems to have surreptitiously traded the last letter of his name for an “a.” The pantheon consists only of 4 goddesses, and nobody bats an eye that one of them is named Vindictus. I mean, I understand not everyone has to have a classical education to write books about their own versions of Italian Renaissance. I don’t even begrudge the author her four city-states forming the kingdom of Elira and spanning all possible geographical zones, from far North and horned polar bears to jungles filled with leopards and even desert sands of the far South while still being ruled by separate princes united under the nominal rule of a queen. Okay, it’s a fantasy world “and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental”. But if you know enough about Latin to change Cicero to Cicera, how can you not know that Vindictus is a male name? I know it’s a minor thing, my pet peeve and probably nobody else’s. Still, though, I’d like to read books that were actually researched and maintain at least a semblance of internal logic.

The main character is an educational example of a special snowflake trope: an orphaned genius with a generous heart, scholar’s naivety and warrior’s loyalty and bravery, balanced  by one tiny teeny addiction which doesn’t seem to have any adverse effects on her and is shown as the requisite “weakness” – because there are no other weaknesses she could even pretend to have (except wide-eyed social and emotional stupidity – more on that later). On the contrary, you can rest assured that over the course of the novel her special snowflakiness will only grow. This evolution of Lysande as the Chosen One and her slow appreciation of power is marked by her approach to the white, “deathstruck” lock of her hair, which she studiously covers at the beginning of the book and openly shows at the end and which brands her as separate, other, destined.

Our warrior-poet is also a dominatrix, spending a substantial portion of her time fantasizing about her actions in various sexual arrangements while remaining rather hung up in terms of emotional development. Instances of slapping, choking, consensual introduction to bondage and fantasies about them explain my classification of Beaton’s novel as soft-BDSM; and while BDSM and YA don’t seem to go hand in hand, I categorize The Councillor as YA due to the pronounced emphasis on romantic relationships coupled with lack of noticeable emotional development of the main characters. The main protagonist is curiously dumb for a genius scholar: logic is not her forte, neither are human emotions or motivations, to which she remains utterly blind for the most part of the novel. Add to it the fact that this book devotes an incredible amount of time to descriptions of clothing, gossip, commentary on romantic involvement of others, and utilizes many of the worn romantic tropes: star-crossed lovers, enemies-to-lovers, emotional/sexual betrayal, unwanted wedding, misunderstood courtship, forbidden romance, etc., and The Councillor lands firmly in the YA category for me.

As for the court intrigue, it has sadly turned out utterly predictable, the twists signposted half a book earlier. The Councillor has also severe pacing issues: while the first three quarters of the novel were characterized by a marked slowness, lengthy descriptions and focus on internal states of the protagonist, the last quarter sped up quite drastically, making the final payoff rather unbelievable and rushed. I have a suspicion there’s a second installment in the making – and I won’t be reading it.

Honestly, I think that mislabeling this book was the worst thing that the publisher could have done, at least for me. I’m sure there will be many people who will enjoy it way more than I did (not that difficult, after all). But if I knew what the book was really about, I wouldn’t have requested it nor felt compelled to read and review it, and everyone would have been at least marginally happier: the publisher and the author (though they probably won’t read my review anyway, they at least could have had received a glowing one instead); I, without the reading-induced headache; and you, not being exposed to this all 😉.

I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

Score: 2/10

69 thoughts on “E. J. Beaton, The Councillor (2021)

    1. Heh, there you go 😉 NetGalley can be great, but if a book is mislabeled, you can get in trouble 😉 I had a hard time believing my eyes while reading – this was totally not what I was expecting after reading the promo blurb 😂😂😂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL 🤣 I did snatch the first two books of Wolfe’s New Sun sequence… And some cool non-fiction books, and Asher and Powell… So not all bad, but I’m getting very wary of debuts 🤣

      Liked by 2 people

            1. I’ve bought it a few days ago. much, much cheaper than the 450 pounds for the same thing in 4 books and with 3 autographs the released as a limited edition. My reread of Dune was also a Folio, and that was a wonderful experience from a fetish POV (to remain in theme here) and I’m looking forward to rereading its New Sun next year or so.

              I’ve also noticed they put out a ridiculously expensive limited edition of that Dune Folio too.

              Liked by 2 people

              1. piotrek

                The price is ridiculous, I’m not that crazy… but I kind of wish I was, it looks so good 😉

                Wolfe I might get some day as a present, I put it on a list and maybe somebody will notice…

                Liked by 2 people

                1. As I replied to Ola, I liked the original Folio book itself much better. Wouldn’t have bought it like this (without the case etc.) if it would have been the regular Folio edition. I do like the case however.

                  Liked by 2 people

              2. Ow, that price is crazy! I mean, it puts this edition clearly in a “status item” category 😉

                I love that Dune edition, I’m tempted to get a copy myself (not the limited one, that’s bonkers), but again – not so easy in NZ 😉 I’ll hunt it down one day, though!

                Liked by 2 people

                1. The funny thing is I don’t really like the book itself of the limited edition, I don’t like the orange-sand color scheme. The cover of the original Folio edition captured the essence of Dune much better imo: space & Paul.

                  Liked by 1 person

  1. Hmm… maybe it should have been marketed as “new adult.” I find that such books are usually for an older YA crowd and tend to read like a YA novel but have too much sexual content to be in the YA section, hence the need for a new marketing term.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your explanation makes sense, thanks! 🙂 Though I heard publishers try to steer away from that label, considering it too narrow…

      Anyway, I’d have been much happier if it was properly marketed, YA or NA, and if that sexual content was actually somehow marked – I just wouldn’t have requested it from NG. I mean everything is for people, and I have no problem with that – it’s just for me this mix turned out pretty disappointing – it basically reinforced my already pretty low opinion about contemporary YA 😉
      I’m simply not the right target for this! 😅

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reading this review, I get the depressing sense that authors are endlessly copying each other and produce books according to check lists and that there is no real innovation in fantasy.

    It is really telling that the “genius” character turns out to be clueless and dumb. People don’t know how to write a compelling genius character that is smarter than the writer him/herself.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, unfortunately I must agree – but as Bart reminded us recently, Sturgeon’s Law is still very much in play 😉

      Requesting books from NG I mostly get freshly published things – and so I can’t rely on opinions of people whose reading tastes and recommendations I trust – because very few people actually already have read them… And that 90% rule still holds 😅

      Yes to the last remark, too! I think it’d have been immensely helpful if people actually read some classics – eg. Conan Doyle had a few tricks up his sleeve for solving this particular conundrum 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am not familiar with NG. Have no idea what it is or how it works. But if you get random choices of new books, yeah, there will be crap in there. What we need in fantasy is visionaries, not endless variation on the same things.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. NG stand for NetGalley – it’s actually a pretty neat place where you can read newly published books in return for reviews. It’s just that I recently had a very bad streak with new books from NG, both from renowned authors such as Liu or Tchaikovsky and from newcomers like Beaton 😉 Just bad luck, I suppose – actually, I hope it’s just bad luck! 🤣

          Oh, absolutely agree. I feel like SFF is slowly going the way or romance or mystery – lots and lots of the same regurgitated ideas, because that’s “comfort leisure.” Cultural mass production, alas, doesn’t leave much space for visionaries 😉

          Liked by 1 person

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  4. World building based on Renaissance concepts just might have caught my attention, but this seems to be marred not only by every massive eyeroll issue that turns me away from most recently published fantasy anyway but by a few more in addition … not to mention the mislabeling. Thanks for taking one for the team here!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad to be of help! 😀

      Oh yeah, my eyes had so much exercise with this book I thought they’d fall out 😉 not only plenty of rolls, but also a lot of bulging 🤣🤣

      I sure hope my next book will be better! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh my goodness! The beginning of your review sounded so promising, and then the revelations crushed any hope I had for this book! I believe that no stone, or rather no tired YA trope was left unturned in this story, which sounds more like badly written fan-fiction than anything else…
    Given that I will steer clear from this book, I found instead that your delightfully sarcastic review of this mess was more than worth reading, so thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I do love your caustic reviews, Ola, entirely justified from your descriptions, but it makes me nervous about my own reviews which are rarely eviscerating (unless it’s pseudohistorical claptrap).

    I gave up on a promising series of YA books marginally similar to the premise of this one, Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza sequence, and for similar reasons to yours, but I see from Goodreads I didn’t even bother to review the first two titles I did get round to reading; I think that’s probably the extent of my critiquing — not bothering!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No need to worry, Chris! I’ll be caustic enough for the both of us 🤣

      Truth be told, I was obligated to write the review for this book as it was my NetGalley read; otherwise I’d probably not bother with either finishing it or reviewing it. I usually try not to be bothered when I encounter a bleh book like this – unless the faults are important to me for some reason, like with Liu 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. mmm, It took me a while there to realize how much you disliked the book 😉 Up until the end, I thought you both enjoyed and disliked, and I wondered what the verdict would be.
    Misleading labels are both annoying to the reader and the author, trust me. My “teen audience” is a contentious point between me and my publisher too, as well as a few other labels they’re refusing to change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah, sorry about that bit of sneakiness! I tried to be as objective as I could but reserved the end of the review to show my own feelings 😉

      I feel like publishers try to get as wide category as possible for the books they are publishing, hoping to make more money – when sometimes it seems very counterproductive when a book would appeal strongly to a narrower target audience but because it was mislabeled it gathered a lot of bad reviews from people who were mislead by the promo blurbs. In the long run, this seems to be a counterproductive strategy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, but authors see this at a different angle. The publishers do reach their main goal – which is to sell books. The ones who get hurt in the long run are the authors. Readers will put the book aside – after a bad rating, not read any of the author’s further books, and they can even demand back their money.
        Anyway, that’s a whole topic and mostly unrelated.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, indeed – it works well for the publisher, not so much for the author.

          I actually think it is related – for me it boils down to good will and sincerity on the publisher’s part, but in the long run it also is an important factor in the dynamics between creating something average and something unique – publishers seem to want more of the same and seem to be quite risk-averse these days.


  8. You may not have thought the novel was much good, Ola, but I’ve enjoyed your assessment. What a rollercoaster read this is, and what a great way to save on my reading time – that’s in far too short supply at the moment.

    Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oooof, thank you for your detailed review! It seems like the book description was only the tip of the iceberg, hiding a mountain of baggage beneath. I was so looking forward to this and I just received the audio for review, but now I’ll be heading in with more realistic expectations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that description was what drew me in – alas, it was indeed just the tip of an iceberg! 😉

      I hope you’ll have a better experience with this than I did, Mogsy – maybe the audio version will be able to cover up some of the less digestible parts 😉 I’ll sure be looking forward to your thoughts on it!


  10. Oh no, you HAD me with “Soft-BDSM LGBT+ YA Court Intrigue”, I actually got really excited!! 😂 But yeah, the cutthroat court intrigue marketing of it was what made me request it at the library (though maybe not enough to request an ARC or preorder lol). And they billed as a fantasy Wolf Hall! Which sounds… absolutely nothing like what you’ve described. I’ll still give it a try, with my expectations firmly changed 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL 🤣🤣🤣 OMG whoever coined that simile has a special place in hell reserved for them!!!

      I’ll be very curious to read what you will think of this book! 😀


  11. Oh what a shame! The misleading is always an awful thing, and even if I think that it happens more often than not (hmm, ok, this may be an exaggeration, but it is a thing that, sadly, happens often) it is really a counter-productive thing!
    I am not really a fan of YA, I like some of them, but lately they made me feel old (and it is not all their fault, obviously! 😅). And YA and BDSM are a strange couple, that’s for sure! But again, if you know what to expect can be good. Ok, maybe not a masterpieces (not just for the strange pair, but for some of the other things you wrote) but it seems like something that, in the right mood, I can maybe enjoy or at least try out. (or maybe not!) but only going there knowing what to expect.
    Expecting something more mature plot wise and finding this… Well, it is disappointing!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! I think when you know what to expect you might actually enjoy this book – it’s nicely written, and can be entertaining, and there are plenty of YA fans out there who’d be delighted with this book, I’m sure. I simply expected something completely different and, not being a fan of either BDSM or YA, I was only getting more irritated with this book by the minute! 😅

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Haha – I’ve just read a glowing review for this one with a full 5/5. It’s not a book that originally interested me but that high rating did pique my interest – but here of course we have the complete reverse, so maybe I’ll stick with my original feelings and give this one a swerve.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure this book will get a lot of love in the blogosphere – there are plenty of readers who will be enchanted. I can see its appeal, with its lush prose and rich descriptions of clothes and palaces it can surely scratch a “princess itch”; it’s just not something that appeals to me 😉 I’m neither a YA fan, nor a BDSM fan, and this book is very clearly both 😅

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Nope, not gonna read this. Too bad with the misleading marketing. I guess there are people who will enjoy this a lot more than you did, but the question is whether it will hit the right target audience being described as “Machiavellian” (which raises a lot of very different expectations).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kathy mentioned that her library advertised this as fantasy Wolf Hall! 🤯
      And I don’t even want to imagine what will people think of/about Machiavelli after reading this! 😂😂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh no! Remembering how much you enjoyed Wolf Hall, I am sure you’d rather not have it associated with this book! Haha, yeah some people might be rather surprised if they decide to pick up anything by Macchiavelli based on this!

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Dang. This book is on my TBR but now I don’t know 😦

    ”romantic/sexual fantasies and relationships of the main character couched in the glittery cloth of court intrigues” that turns me off immensely.

    Thanks for the review! Now I have some thinking to do 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy to help! Though it seems my review didn’t help at all in your decision! 😉

      Yeah, this was a huge letdown for me; not at all what the promo blurb suggested. But some bloggers love it despite/because of the things that so put me off 😉 I’ll be curious what you think of this if you decide to read it!


  15. The first thing that popped into my head is why you even picked this one up in the first place but then I remembered how I also fell for that awful marketing in the past, especially for books with no mention that it was actually YA disguised as adult fantasy… Great review nonetheless! I loved the fourth paragraph (when you start mentioning feminism). You can tell you were trying hard to cut the debut author some slack but deep down you wanted to roast this bad boy in a blazing fire! You can’t say that doesn’t sound more steamy than whatever romance was going on in this book!!!! 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OMG, that book was so completely, conciously mislabeled I still can’t believe it. Sounds like willful misinformation on the publisher’s part, really. There’s a difference between ripe and rotten fruit, though, and no amount of marketing can change that 😛

      Oh yeah, sarcasm was my best friend in writing this review 😛

      And yes, your description is definitely more steamy and less corny than the book’s romance(s). 😂😂 But you know, you don’t have to believe me – you can check it out for yourself! 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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