Title: Crown of Coral and Pearl
Author: Mara Rutherford
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 432
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Notable Notables: Solid world-building and original ideas
Recommended Readers: Those wanting to give a new author and a new fantasy a chance
Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review—and sorry it’s a tad bit late.
Crown of Coral and Pearl by Mara Rutherford is definitely a book I’m conflicted by. I certainly didn’t dislike reading it, but I didn’t fall in love with it, either. It’s got a great plot setup that mostly needs more character polish. I was in sync with the book’s pacing as I read, but after looking back at the full summary it boasts, I would not be surprised if other people have a dissimilar experience. The summary reveals a lot of the plot, and if you read it thoroughly beforehand, you may start to get impatient for new things to happen and actual surprises to be revealed. Speaking of, here’s a bit of that summary, so perhaps read with caution.
The daughters of Varenia, a small village constructed on the ocean, are prized for their beauty above all. The only thing that rivals their beauty is the value of the blood pearls, which the Varenians harvest and sell to the kingdom of Ilara in exchange for food, water, and other living necessities. However, the blood pearls are becoming scarce, the waters are over-fished, and it’s almost time for Ilara to choose a Varenian daughter to marry the Crown Prince. Because of the scar on her face, Nor knows that her twin sister Zadie will be chosen, but after harm befalls her, Nor is sent in her stead. Forced to live as her sister, Nor believes she will still find the freedom in Ilara that she never knew in Varenia along with a way to intercede for her home. Yet her betrothed, Prince Ceren, is as cold as his underground mountain palace, and Nor finds herself caught in a web of politics involving the royal family and her people—while harboring feelings for Ceren’s brother, Prince Talin, she should not have.
Good things first. I love the world-building surrounding Varenia and Ilara themselves. The ocean village in particular is so interesting and distinctive, I can practically feel the waves and taste the salt water as I read. The culture there is just as enjoyable, and I find myself fascinated by Nor and Zadie’s way of life. Ilara is a bit less interesting, but it stands out as such a sharp contrast from Nor’s home in comparison. The affect the palace life and living without sunlight has on occupants is particularly riveting, and I wish more had been explored there on a deeper level beyond Ceren.
As for the other kingdoms the book name-drops and the “woman king” I had to hear about over and over again, the world-building definitely needs work there. They are only words on a page at this point. I became steadily tired of the woman king never being referred to by name, and once I finally did hear her name, I was so unimpressed. It feels like it’s a secret held back for no other reason than to reveal the supposed final twist of the novel at the right time, rather than for narrative reasons that make sense. My poor reaction to it is also a result of how much I did not like how Rutherford wrapped up the book, but I’ll cover the ending more later. Spoiler-free, though, promise.
Truly, it is Nor and Zadie’s relationship as twin sisters that serves as the cornerstone of the book and is perhaps its greatest strength. I never once felt like theirs was a cliché twin relationship. While sharing many similarities in appearances, they are both still their own people; they help each other, compete with each other, laugh together, and argue over what they think is right. Zadie does appear at first to be the pure, selfless sister with seemingly no flaws that Nor struggles to live up to, but eventually, that facade gives way, and you can appreciate her as a real character.
Nor is who stands out between them, though. The story is told from her first-person perspective, but thanks to Rutherford’s writing style, her voice comes across as strong, clear, and mature. I understood Nor’s yearning for a different life at the same time I knew she would miss the familiar once her ideals for the world weren’t met. It’s a situation we all have faced at one time or another. I did roll my eyes a bit at her whole “if I don’t save someone, I as good as killed them” line, but that’s because I like my heroines to be more cutthroat. For some reason, Nor in Varenia is a much more interesting person than Nor in Ilara.
To help her people, Nor intends to spy on the king, potentially curry favor with him and her betrothed, and send news back home. Her motivations to spy are good ones, but her subsequent follow throughs are extremely weak and reveal how shallow the book is when it comes to court politics. She’s told point blank that everyone has spies everywhere, and then proceeds to trust people because they’re kind to her, confiding in them her real feelings. Somehow, no consequences befall her for this because she somehow manages to trust the right people, but it definitely killed whatever court intrigue and treachery this kingdom was supposed to have. She also tries to sneak around yet constantly notes how often guards see her, then acts surprised when people know what she is up to. I truly don’t know what she expected, honestly.
Then, there’s also her romance with Prince Talin. At first, I was deeply intrigued by what was going to happen between them based on how they first met. I’m so let down by it because it was a good first meeting, but nothing ever happens to deepen the relationship or make it interesting after that. All Talin is is the Prince Charming of the story, with all the handsome traits and kindness that Ceren supposedly lacks, and that’s all he has going for him. Somehow, despite having nothing else, he’s usually the one who convinces Nor to do stupid stuff, like dance with him with lovey-dovey eyes in front of Ceren and the entire court.
Yet again, despite the court politics, gossip, and emphasis on social standing this kingdom supposedly has, nothing terrible happens to Talin or Nor for their actions. Ceren just sends Talin away, tells Nor to stay away from him, and tries to make him seem far less trustworthy than he is. Hate to break it to you, Ceren, but compared to you, your brother is a cardboard box, and there’s nothing in there.
Other than Nor, Ceren is the character that is developed the most by far, yet I’m having trouble untangling how I feel about him. Typically, he would be a problematic fav for me, no question, but the narrative swings wildly between him being a fascinating, morally gray antagonist to a cartoon villain who’s evil because he can be (and because no one likes him, so he may as well be horrible, I guess). Still, for all that he’s explored, much of it feels surface-level because I don’t know what to do with the information about him I’ve been given, and neither does the narrative. Is he supposed to be sympathetic or utterly reviled? Why am I not invested in either option? (Hint: the ending.)
It’s strange, too, because there are glimpses we see of “redeemable” qualities in him, but then those glimpses are jerked back in such a drastic, over-the-top way. When it comes to redemption, I’m flexible. While I don’t believe anyone is irredeemable, I also don’t think it’s a requirement that villains need to be given a redemption arc. Instead, I’d rather have room to play. I love wondering, Oh, what’s going to happen with this person? Will they get better, or will they get worse? Have they been playing a long-game with everyone all along? However, the story couldn’t seem to decide what kind of villain it wanted Ceren to be, and that took away from the moments where he was compelling on the page.
And how has he not been killed by somebody yet if he constantly pulls a King Joffrey on his subjects yet unlike Joffrey he’s 1) knowingly frail and sickly, 2) has no true allies other than what he’s earned through fear, and 3) everyone likes Talin better and sees him as a better option for the throne? I just did not get how Ceren wielded the power and influence that he did. A charmer, he certainly was not.
There’s also that ending. Woof. It seriously lessened my enjoyment and almost devalued everything the entire book had been working to achieve. I can tell you right now that if Crown of Coral and Pearl had remained a standalone like it was supposed to be, and it still had this ending, I would be utterly unhappy with it. Since there will now be a sequel, I feel more comfortable giving it the benefit of the doubt with hopes that said sequel will deliver a much better payoff.
I enjoy this world, I enjoy Nor outside of Talin’s influence and whenever she can be herself, and I enjoy the feeling the story gave me for about the first two-thirds. There was something distinctly magical and fantasy about it. I’ll probably read the sequel when it comes, but I earnestly hope that it’s going somewhere worthwhile and that we’re not leaving behind the interesting parts of the story we could’ve just explored further here and called it a day.