Dark Breaks the Dawn, by Sara B. Larson

If you are fan of YA fantasy in which a teenage girl struggles to become the strong queen her country desperately needs, you have lots of books to chose from these days.  I feel I've almost read enough for now, but I didn't mind Dark Breaks the Dawn, by Sara B. Larson (Scholastic, May 2017), and if you are a fan of this particular sub-genre, you may well enjoy it lots.

Evelayn did not expect to become queen of the Light Kingdom of Eadrolan, just after she'd come of age to claim her personal magical heritage.  But when her mother was killed, fighting against the dark,cold magic armies of the Dorjhalon, queen Eelayn became.  And though she was able to claim the light magic of her people that only the queen can command, strongest during summer's warmth, she has no time to master her gifts, including shapeshifting into her one particular affinity animal (nb for reassurance not "spirit animal," which isn't a term used) before she must be the one to keep her country safe from its would-be conquerors.

Force of arms, and force of light magic against dark were not enough for her mother, so Evelayn devises a cunning ploy that will deliver the heir of the king of Dorjhalon into her hands, and, she hopes, give her the chance to end the war and restore balance. She's guided, comforted, and distracted by a handsome young lord, who takes equal pleasure in long runs through the woods.  But mostly she's grieving, and uncertain, and unsure that she will ever be the queen her country needs.

So basically it's girl learning to be a queen with magical powers with bonus love story (not a love triangle, at least not yet), under really difficult circumstances.  Though the initial steps go as she hoped, things go crashing down horribly wrong at the end, setting the stage for the next book in the series.

There wasn't anything here that made this one rise above the crowd for me personally, and I was a tad thrown off by the author's choice to use "males" and "females" instead of men and women--it made it hard for me to think of the characters as entirely human, which was perhaps the point.  But it was a gripping enough read to keep me going, especially toward the end when we move from Evelayn's emotions to actual full-on-page conflict with the bad guys (although I wish we could all just stop with equating dark/bad light/good....).

One of the more interesting things about the book, for those of us who like retellings, is that it is a prequel to the Swam Lake story (princess who ends up enchanted swan).  The set up for the actual Swan Lake story is strong enough for me to want to read book two, hoping that the stage is set, the story will have a chance to be stronger.  Likewise, some of the plot points that look to be set up could well make for an interesting read.  But this first volume on its own just doesn't offer much that's particularly fresh or new, and Evelayn isn't quite a compelling enough character as presented here to compensate for the lack.  So I only recommend it to people who just can't get enough of the young queen and her tender young romance, or to Swan Lake fans who can join me in wanting to read book 2....But if you are not cynical and jaded like me, perhaps your reaction will be more enthusiastic than my somewhat tepid response!

Here's a more enthusiastic review at blackplume. And Kirkus calls it "an appealing if imperfect girl-power fantasy that ably sets the stage for its sequel" although the Kirkus review and I don't seem to have read exactly the same book because really although it seems possible/likely that a third party will enter the romance next book, the romance here and now is not a triangle!  And Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, saying ""Larson is especially effective in her portrait of Evelayn's need to summon maturity before she thought she would have to, a sweetly innocent romance underscores the bite of betrayal, and the cliffhanger ending will easily build anticipation for the second book."

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

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