In 2009, Cinda Williams Chima published “The Demon King,” the first volume in her four-part high fantasy series, The Seven Realms. It was followed by “The Exiled Queen” in 2010, “The Gray Wolf Throne” in 2011, and “The Crimson Crown” in 2012.
The books have enjoyed both critical and popular success, and for good reason: They are an entertaining mix of high adventure, political intrigue, magic, and romance, guaranteed to keep readers turning pages and moving quickly from volume to volume.
In “The Demon King,” we learn that the seven realms are divided by both nation and clan. Most of the story is set in the queendom of Fells, which is a country full of internal strife between three clans: the aristocracy (dominated by queens who are descended from their great warrior-queen, Hanalea), the wizards (who advise the queen, but who are forbidden from marrying into the royal family by an ancient edict known as the Naeming), and the spirit clans, who paradoxically make the amulets the wizards need to perform magic, yet who hunt and kill any “jinxfinger” who dares encroach on their territory.
One of Chima’s strengths is creating memorable and appealing characters. First is Princess Raisa ana’Marianna, the daughter-heir who longs for a life beyond the confines of the palace and who desires to marry for love, not duty. Unlike her mother, who is far removed from the people she rules, Raisa is determined to know her subjects so she can reign with wisdom and compassion. Next is Han Alister, a reformed thief of unknown family origin who discovers his own magical heritage and who loves Raisa, though their union is forbidden by the Naeming. He strives to overcome his criminal past in order to become a man of honor and a man worthy of Raisa’s love.
Competing for Raisa’s affections are Amon Byrne, the military commander dedicated to her protection, and Micah Bayar, son of a treacherous and power-hungry wizard family that seeks to overthrow the line of queens who have ruled Fells for a thousand years. Around these main characters, Chima weaves a rich tapestry of friends, family members, servants, soldiers, criminals, traitors, and ordinary citizens caught up in the conflicting ambitions of those in power (or of those wishing to be).
Aside from the romantic element, the series employs a number of other themes. The Seven Realms is a coming-of-age tale for Raisa as she ascends to the throne and learns how to deal with political intrigue and threats, both internal and external. Most importantly, she grows into a good and just ruler for all her people, not just for the privileged few. For Han, it’s a story of redemption and transformation as a former street thug becomes a man who risks all for love and honor. For Micah, it’s the tragic tale of someone who cannot ultimately escape his family’s treacherous ways, not even for love.
One of the most interesting thematic threads running throughout the series involves how we view the stories and traditions handed down to us from our ancestors: the “national mythology” that influences how we view ourselves as a people. Chima asks us to consider the possibility that not all of those stories are true, and that our view of ourselves and our society is, therefore, flawed and in need of revision.
She also wants us to consider how even good traditions—those which served a vital purpose in the past—may be destructive to a contemporary society that faces very different problems than the ones which gave rise to those traditions. Chima’s tale reminds me of the words of Paul, who praised the Bereans (Acts 17:11) because they were willing to test what they were being taught. She seems to want her readers to employ the same courageous determination to evaluate their own inherited beliefs, standing resolutely for those which are still true and relevant, and discarding those which are not. In the hands of a less skillful writer, this could have come across as a knee-jerk reaction against all traditions, whether good, bad, or indifferent. However, through Raisa and Han’s journey, Chima presents this evaluative process as one which is both necessary and healthy for the growth of individuals and their societies.
The books include a spiritual element that incorporates both religion and magic. In Fells, the religion is an odd and fanciful mixture of ancestor worship (the dead queens appear to the daughter-heir as ghostly gray wolves at critical junctures in her life) and a vague pantheism practiced by the clans. It’s noteworthy that the religious leaders are portrayed as honorable people concerned with the well-being of their charges. As in the Harry Potter books, magic may be used for either good or evil—and like all good fantasy books, good triumphs, if only for a time. Chima seems to agree with J.R.R. Tolkien, who saw the battle between good and evil as one that must be continually fought until the end of time.
Although the books are not Christian in any overt sense, they are filled with Christian virtues like love, loyalty, courage, duty, self-sacrifice, kindness, and charity. While there are plenty of despicable characters driven by lust for power and greed in the seven realms, there are far more who are noble and worthy of both our admiration and emulation. Though not flawless, the Seven Realms series is certainly worthwhile, and should be enjoyable to both older teens and adults who want to immerse themselves in a satisfying adventure story.
Image copyright Hyperion. Review copies from the reviewer's personal collection.
Diane Singer is an English professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.