Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Genre: young adult, fantasy
My rating: 2.5/5 stars
When broken down to its fundamental components, Nameless Queen has a lot of things that tend to make me automatically love a book: a protagonist who is a thief, hidden royalty, and commentary on classism and rigid social structures. But when taken as a whole, the novel failed to breathe much life or originality into those tropes. The result was a lukewarm story–not bad, but wholly unremarkable.
The premise of the story is pretty straightforward. In the city of Seriden, you have three classes of citizens: Royals (the highest class, mostly rulers and legislators), Legals (the working class, from craftsmen to members of the royal guard), and the Nameless (who literally don’t have names and also have no legal rights, so they typically have to steal to survive). The ruler has a tattoo of a crown on their arm. When they die, they speak a name, and the tattoo transfers to whoever that name belongs to. So imagine the surprise of a Nameless girl called Coin when the king dies and (surprise, surprise) she finds a crown tattoo has appeared on her arm, granting her magical abilities. Taken to the palace, Coin quickly realizes that holding the throne isn’t a guarantee of power; she is on a probationary period, her best friend (a fellow Nameless) has been imprisoned unjustly, and while she has a few allies, most of the Royals despise her on principle. What ensues is a pretty typical “learning to rule and also uncovering a conspiracy” story, with little to make it stand out from all the other similar stories on the market.
So, let’s start with the good. One of the strongest themes in this book was its emphasis on family, both blood and chosen. The Nameless rarely have families; they certainly don’t have family names, at any rate. And yet there are deep-rooted friendships and alliances between some of them that run just as deeply as conventional familial bonds–particularly between Coin and Hat, the aforementioned best friend–though fierce self-reliance makes them reluctant to fully care about anyone else. At the palace, Coin quickly befriends a guard named Glenquartz, a man who lost his daughter years ago and comes to think of twelve-year-old Hat like another daughter. And, without spoiling too much, Coin finds that she does, in fact, also have blood relatives in the palace, and she has to reconcile this with the fact that she spent her entire life alone, believing she had no family. Furthering this, there is absolutely no romance in Coin’s life, which means the focus is completely on family, with none of the teenage angst or random making-out scenes that often fill YA fantasy books.
That said, while she doesn’t have any romantic interests, Coin otherwise reminds me a lot of some Sarah J Maas heroines: she’s sassy, unnaturally self-confident and irreverent, she doesn’t like girly things like wearing dresses, and when she finds out she has powers, she masters them almost instantly, and she becomes a total pro at fighting with only a week of training. Those last points are the worst; heroes need to WORK to get their skills, or it’s just unsatisfying and feels cheap. If you can’t tell, I am not a huge fan of SJM, so this comparison is not a favorable one. Coin is too much “not like other girls” and doesn’t have a lot of growth throughout the book, aside from a slight increase in her willingness to trust others.
Some of the other characters, while one-dimensional, were still lovable, especially the fiercely loyal Glenquartz and the clever Esther–but, without any major complexity, they’re not memorable. And Hat? It’s like the author couldn’t decide what age she was meant to be. Sometimes she speaks so eloquently and philosophically, you would swear she was in her twenties, but then other times she is so excitable, you are reminded that she’s just 12. I wanted to like her, and I do think I liked her more than Coin, but overall she was still annoying.
Now, beyond the characters, the biggest hangup for this book was its strange and inconsistent magic system. The abilities imparted by the tattoo are only slightly explained, and nobody details why, exactly, the power was assigned to the tattoo in the first place. It is known that the magic doesn’t affect Nameless, but there isn’t a good reason why, and some very cheesy explanations at the end are used to play fast and loose with the rules. Worldbuilding is important in a fantasy, and while the history of the kingdom and its neighbors are explored fairly well, a weakly-defined magic system makes the larger world feel less believable.
In all other regards, there is nothing particularly good or bad about the book. The plot is a little predictable but not implausible. The pacing is fine. The writing is clean, not anything special, but does what it needs to. There isn’t much profanity, so that’s good if you like your books more PG-rated (though the made-up profanities for this world, primarily featuring the words “gaiza” and “spetz,” are not very convincing or natural-feeling). And the resolution of the book is a solid setup for a sequel, though I am not exactly chomping at the bit for it.
I wish this review could have more strong sentiments in either direction, positive or negative, but my thoughts on this book fall so squarely in the middle that to use any extreme language would be disingenuous. I won’t dissuade you from reading it, but I certainly wouldn’t read it again, and the jury is still out on whether I’ll be picking up book two.
Thank you to Random House for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!