Kiera Cass began her publishing career with a dystopian series about a young woman’s part in seeking a royal’s hand in marriage. I guess now that dystopian sci-fi is no longer in vogue and high fantasy is popular in the young-adult market, she decided to tackle the same material in a high fantasy setting.
Unfortunately, the whole girl-in-the-running-to-marry-a-monarch story is much less compelling or unique when it takes place in a Generic Medieval Kingdom with a Generic Monarchy and a Generic Court. “The Betrothed” isn’t a bad novel in any way, but Cass simply doesn’t draw anything unusual, rich or nuanced out of her story. Every part of it is more or less predictable from the beginning.
Over the past year, young King Jameson has had flirtations with several young ladies, but has never shown serious intentions towards any of them. Hollis Brite initially believes she is just another one, but then Jameson starts showing interest in making her his queen. At first, Hollis is overjoyed – despite her controlling parents, this means she will be a vital figure in a kingdom known for powerful queens. Plus, Jameson is handsome, charming, and he dotes on her, so what downside is there?
But the pressures of royal life begin to weigh on her when the king and queen of neighboring Isolte come to visit, and Hollis begins to wonder if Jameson wants her to take an active role in the kingdom, or just be an ornamental bit of arm candy. She’s also developed an interest in Silas, an Isoltan nobleman who has… blue eyes. That’s about all that is memorable about him. But pursuing her heart has some unpleasant results for Hollis, and sets her on a path that she never imagined.
The biggest problem with “The Betrothed” is simply that it is so generic. The setting is a generic European country that you would find in any fairy tale, without any special cultural flourishes. The worldbuilding is not very rich or deep, and the court drama/machinations are pretty simple. The main story is essentially telling us that you should marry for love and not money/power, which is not a particularly unusual moral for this kind of romantic story. It’s the kind of thing you find in Disney stories.
Cass herself seems to realize that her book is pretty by-the-numbers late in the story, which is when she flips everything on its head and stuff gets dramatic and unconventional. It’s given some foreshadowing in advance, but it could have used some more – instead, a massive development sort of pops out of nowhere, and everything is left hanging on a precipice for what will presumably be a sequel.
Hollis is a pretty bland heroine. There’s nothing about her to explicitly dislike, but she seems very sheltered and kind of clueless about how royal life works. For instance, it comes as a massive shock to her when she discovers that Jameson is already making marriage arrangements for their not-yet-conceived children, which really feels like something she should already know if she’s in the nobility. We’re told how amusing and caring and charming she is, but only some of it filters through.
As for the other characters, few of them make much of an impression – most of them flit into the plot for awhile, then just sort of fade back out. Silas doesn’t have much chemistry with Hollis – as nice as it is to have a pleasant, non-threatening romantic lead, he really felt more like a friend than a lover.
And of course, Delia Grace. Delia Grace is, simply put, obnoxious – we’re assured that she has suffered extensive bullying at court, but that doesn’t really excuse her selfish, bratty, contemptuous behavior towards Hollis. Her jealousy doesn’t elicit sympathy for her life; it just makes me want her gone.
“The Betrothal” throws some curveballs in its final act, but everything that builds up to it is incredibly generic and by-the-numbers. Here’s hoping that Cass brings us something meatier for the sequel.