Beast & Crown, by Joel Ross

Beast & Crown, by Joel Ross (HarperCollins, August 2017)  is one I was looking forward too (I liked his first book, Fog Diver, lots), and so I was happy when a copy came my way from a friend.  And I was happier to actually read it, finding it fun and fast and thought-provoking.

Ji is a boot boy, toiling away for the privileged nobility.  His mother hopes that one day he'll rise to the ranks of butler.  Ji hopes that he can keep squirrelling away enough valuable shoe decorations to buy his stable hand Sally's little brother from slavery in the city.  But then the son of the noble family he serves is chosen to be a contender for the Summer Crown.  The Diadem Rite will chose the next heir, giving the chosen one the magical power that was gathered from all the people in the land years ago by the first Summer Queen so that she could keep the country safe against monsters.

Ji gets the chance to travel in the entourage of the young lordling, along with Sally and another friend, the bookish sister of the ex-governess, kept on as charity.  He plans to somehow save Sally's brother...but then he and his friends realize, while it is happening, that the Diadem Rite has a horrible dark side to it.  And this society being what it is, it isn't the young nobles who pay the prices for the transfer of power.  It's their servants.

In a world where goblins and children are enslaved, and "monsters" threaten to invade, the nobles will do anything to keep their power.  But Ji and his friends find themselves on the side of the monsters, poised to bring the status quo tumbling down.  If they live long enough....

It's a satisfactory story in a fairly standard friendship-focused fantasy adventure way, but the really interesting twist is Ji's gradual realization that monsters, like the goblins, are not easily dismissed as worthless folk.  Because to the consequences of the rite, Ji and company are themselves forced to directly confront what it means to be different, and Ji, who was already something a revolutionary, now finds himself questioning, with even greater urgency, just where his loyalties lie.

Ross seems to have made an effort to set his fantasy world apart from standard medieval tropes by calling the noble's houses "haciendas" instead of manors, and including non Northern European foods, but this ended up feeling more arbitrary than organic.  Ji and his friends appear racially diverse, based on mentions of skin color, but this isn't explored in any further way.  On the other hand, in what was a rather refreshing twist, one "monstrous" friend that joins the group adds both a humorous non-human point of view and a non-standard construction of gender.   And when one character is physically transformed into a human/troll hybrid, Ross takes the opportunity to make it clear that external appearance has no bearing on inner character, which is a welcome point.

Those who like things settled when a book ends will not be happy, but middle grade fantasy fans who don't mind waiting for the sequel will enjoy this one lots.

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