Book Review: The Councillor

The Councillor
by E.J. Beaton
448 pages
Expected publication: March 2, 2021 by DAW

Lysande Prior was a no-name orphan girl raised into the highest levels of her society after catching the eye of Sarelin Bray, the Iron Queen of Elira. The queen and the orphaned scholar became the closest of friends, a strange friendship in a society sharply divided by class. But when Sarelin Bray is assassinated, it falls upon Lysande to choose the next monarch from one of the four city-rulers seeking the throne. Each of these rulers is capable of ruling, just as each of them is capable of plotting with the rebellious leader known as the White Queen, but one of them– the charming Luca Fontaine– is as much of a rival as he is a potential ally. With war on the horizon and four contentious claims to the throne to decide upon, Lysande’s knowledge and scholarly skills are tested to their limit, and while she might be a scholar without equal, even she is not immune to the allure of power– or to the addiction to a powerful drug she must hide at all costs.

After the first reading of The Councillor, it will come as no surprise that, like her character Lysande Prior, E.J. Beaton is a scholar. It will also be no surprise that Beaton focused on Machiavellian politics in the realm of Shakespearean theater as well as in more modern fantasy literature. And to top it all off, Beaton is also an award-winning poet. Her expertise is on full display in The Councillor, a political fantasy novel with as many twists and turns as a bestselling thriller, filled with as much rich sensory detail as a historical epic, and written with elegant prose one would expect of an accomplished poet. In short, The Councillor is the rare sort of debut that engulfs the imagination from the opening lines and doesn’t let go until long after the last page has been turned.

Lysande Prior is not an ordinary fantasy hero. She may not even be heroic. While she may be able to wield a blade, she is a scholar first of all and the story reflects this. She is always thinking back to the books she has read, the conversations she has had, the observations she has made. And like any good scholar, she is always willing to reflect and consider her memories in a new context, no matter what or who the subject of that inquiry is, and no matter how much it might hurt to realize that her actions– or those of the people she loves– may have caused more harm than good. Such realizations are painful, but they are necessary to find wisdom. 

That’s not to say that Lysande is without faults, or that she is a representative of some mythical Ideal. At her core, Lysande is a Machiavellian figure. To most readers this would indicate that she believes in the notion of ‘the ends justify the means’, but there was always more to Machiavelli’s The Prince than a pithy slogan, and there is more to Lysande Prior than Sarelin Bray’s nickname, ‘the girl with the pen’. On the surface, she is a calm and logical scholar. But peel back that layer to find a calculating observer. And beneath that, there is a woman with a growing taste for power. And the passionate woman with dangerous tastes. And the nascent addict. And, and, and. . . The rest of the characters are just as complex, as Beaton did not forget that, while Lysande may be the point of view character throughout the book, she is not the only person who lives in this world. Whether it is the treacherous Luca Fontaine or the watchful Litany that Lysande is dealing with, there is always a sense that these characters are more than just players coming on and off a stage. With a simple twist of perspective, they could have been the star of show.

The world of Elira is just as carefully crafted, though one may not notice it first. There are no multi-page descriptions of scenery, cultures, or magic. There is no classroom setting in which the characters sit down mid-book to listen to a lecture about their people’s history. The characters inhabit their world, off-handedly mention bits of history or poetry, reference the books they read once upon a time, or talk about fashion, art, and cultural mores as they naturally arise. It is up to the reader, then, to piece together a picture of Elira and its people. Or to infer a world from what is left unsaid. The presence of silk and velvet, for example, suggests a complex fabric industry feeding aristocratic demand for cloth that is sumptuous and difficult to make, as well as emphasizing the difference between rich and poor. Not all fantasy authors are willing to assume that the reader is intelligent enough to put the pieces together without extensive exposition that gets in the way of the story. But Beaton assumes that her readers are clever enough to keep up. This is a breath of fresh air by itself and would set The Councillor apart from many of its bookish peers. But there is another element that sets it apart in the best way: it assumes gender equality as part of the world. Women can be soldiers and men can be fashionable, and neither will be disregarded for their tastes or preferences. In a genre that can imagine talking dragons, wizards, and all manner of fantastical creatures, fantasy still clings to Victorian notions of gender and hand-waves away these outdated norms as somehow “historically accurate”. Despite the talking dragons.

But while The Councillor has its roots firmly in the works of the European Renaissance, it does not fall into old traps. Instead, all characters have their strengths and flaws, and their places in society are not defined by their gender. This means that everyone has a chance to be whatever they choose. It also means that anyone could be a traitor. Lysande Prior may be one of the greatest scholars of her age, but even she has her blind spots. Who lurks in those blind spots and what secrets do they hide? That is the great mystery of The Councillor. Its narrative is compelling from the first line to the last, and while most of the mysteries will have their answers by the end, there are enough openings to make a reader wonder, ‘But what if. . . ?’ It’s questions like that that make a book memorable, and will make readers want to return to it again to find the clues laid out from the beginning, and to revisit a political mastermind in the making.

Thank you to NetGalley and DAW for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.

To celebrate the release of The Councillor on March 2, DAW is giving away three copies in a random drawing. To enter, click the link below. It is free to enter and is open to US residents aged 18 or over. Be sure to enter by March 16.

The Councillor sweepstakes entry- ends March 16, 2021.

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