Review by MacKenzie Sewell
Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House, February 2022
528 pages, Ebook, 9780593118184, $10.99
Ages 14+, Grades 9+
“Beatriz is the prettiest of you — she will have no trouble swinging the hearts of the Cellarians. Sophronia is the sweetest and she will win over the Temarinians with ease,” the empress said to Daphne just the day before, her voice like that of a general dispatching troops. The words deflated Daphne, until her mother leaned toward her, pressing her cool palm to Daphne’s cheek and blessing her with a rare full smile. “But you, my darling, are my sharpest weapon, so I need you in Friv. If you’re going to take my place one day, you must prove you can fill it.”
Princesses Beatriz, Daphne, and Sophronia have been betrothed to faraway princes of neighbouring countries since before their birth. They’ve been learning how to destroy monarchies for nearly as long. Taught in the arts of weaponry, etiquette, seduction, and much more, the star-born triplets have always known that their destinies are to aid their mother in the conquering of the entire continent. But on their sixteenth birthday, on the precipice of a year in strange territory without the empress or each other, their future seems anything but clear.
Sophronia is sent to marry King Leopold in decadent Temarin and contend with the dowager Queen’s behind-the-scenes meddling; Beatriz must give up the luxury of magic when she arrives in Cellaria, where summoning the stars is punishable by death, and marry shy Prince Pascalle, avoiding the King’s drunken advances; and Daphne bundles up when she arrives in frigid Friv as the royal family is mourning the loss of a son, while another must step up to fill his shoes. Once situated in their new lives — and lies — the girls must put their mother’s plan into action. But as each sister finds unlikely allies and develops even more unlikely feelings, the girls start to question their mother’s plan and the life they’d always known. Does the empress truly have her daughters’ best interests at heart?
Laura Sebastian writes a compelling royal fantasy studded with an enthralling cast of characters throughout the three storylines and perspectives. She creates a complicated quartet of countries interwoven by affairs and wars and dignitaries, with a complex but easy-to-follow political system encapsulating the story. Each country has its own backdrop apropos of romance and politics: from the delicate beauty of Bessima, to the lavish decadence of Temarin, to the brightly coloured, jewel-encrusted (yet magicless) Cellaria, and the barren, snowy, fur-lined Friv. But despite their meticulous training, each girl finds herself in a situation she has not prepared for, and their mother’s ruthless plan becomes difficult to enact. The reader finds themselves wondering how — if? — the sisters will manage to live up to their mother’s impossible expectations.
The voice of each sister is carefully crafted in a way that suggests a familial continuity but still establishes a distinct personality for each. In fact, each of the sisters’ personalities is easily discernible, with a slight risk of seeming contrived: there’s the sweet and demure sister, the brazen and sexy sister, and the witty prodigy. These boxes that the three main characters find themselves in are partly the work of their mother defining them using only a few characteristics. However, rectifying this predictability, each girl finds ways to break free of these roles, and by a few chapters in, they seem anything but ordinary.
The first book in a new trilogy, Castles in Their Bones will have readers gasping at each new reveal, but no surprise feels far-fetched. Sebastian sets up each turn carefully — the reader doesn’t predict the ending, yet each unexpected plot point is delivered with a grace that makes the reader smack their head in hindsight.
MacKenzie Sewell lives in Coquitlam, BC with her girlfriend and their two cats. Somewhere in between studying creative writing at UBC and working as a barista, MacKenzie loves to read — novels, cereal boxes, you name it.