Author: E. J. Beaton
Title: The Councillor
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.