RJ Price’s debut fantasy novel Trouble, the first of her Seat of Magic series, is an engrossing story, one that compels a reader’s sustained attention. Trouble demands active reading, which means piecing together clues, anticipating questions, and speculating. Although information is revealed and presented in standard exposition and in dialogue, none of it feels forced or rote, which is itself a talent within the genre.
Trouble is well paced, realistically crafted, and vivid. And rather than being merely escapist fiction, it pushes against ingrained tropes and assumptions so prevalent in the genre without being preachy.
A complex magic system is often superfluous to a well-crafted story just as an expansive geography usually obscures a story’s shallowness. RJ Price avoids both of these pitfalls by creating a world wherein the setting is focused (the intrigue at a royal court) and the magic pragmatic (a force that keeps the lights on and the water running). Yet at no point in the story do readers feel that they are getting only a sliver of the world, a meagre or undeveloped portion.
Price is also able to subvert the standard romance dynamic by creating social norms that are at once strange but clearly familiar. This is a world of binaries, where women control magic and men try to control them. The tension of Price’s world is deeply rooted in gender politics, but it would be wrongheaded to claim there is an agenda.
Lady Aren Argnern, our heroine, doesn’t want a lord or a prince, she doesn’t want to rule the kingdom, she has no interest in some kind of revenge or petty melodrama. Rather, she simply wants to find a place where she can live in peace and freedom. Her dream is simply to let be.
This, of course, can’t be allowed.
Trouble: Seat of Magic Book 1
I’m not really one for Young Adult fiction, but I’m hesitant to put Trouble into that category. However, it’s a difficult to make the argument given that the protagonist is eighteen while half the story takes place at the court of a royal palace. Then there’s the love story…so yeah, alright, YA fantasy in that CW style. What do I mean by that? I mean that Trouble is the fiction counterpart to Reign or The Vampire Diaries, in that we have surprisingly mature children and surprisingly immature adults. I wouldn’t say that this is a problem. In fact, I don’t mean it as a negative criticism. It’s what makes YA fiction what it is, what gives it its appeal. But what I enjoyed about Price’s book is that it is only superficially YA.
Worldbuilding in fantasy fiction can progress in a myriad of ways. Price has chosen the immediate immersion route, revealing information about her world through the primary characters discovering themselves in an unfamiliar social situation and by being ignorant of the consequences of their actions.
Price presents us with the story of Lady Aren Argnern, a girl who has been abandoned at the royal court to be a ward of the palace. She strives to go unnoticed, to simply save up what she can so she can disappear. Aren dream is simple, “You want a little cottage on a lake somewhere with just enough land to work, but you don’t want the court, or men or even women Just you and that land. Maybe a dog.” Aren isn’t a lady-in-waiting nor is she a fantasy Jane Austen character. She has, from the first, a secret, a strong will, and a plan.
In this world, marriage is a last resort ceremony. Noble men and women engage in mating ceremonies that can be for life but are more often for a predetermined number of years (one, three, ten, etc). The primary purpose of ‘mating’ is to have children but also to trade and barter lands or funds. It appears to be a rather progressive institution allowing for same sex pairings and one that maintains the independence of the individuals. But like every institution, there are obligations that can feel like burdens.
The greatest burden of this world rests upon the shoulder of the queen. Or queens. These are the women who are able to wield magic, a skill that men rarely possess. The throne is a quasi-sentient magical conduit that can only be accessed by a queen–a woman who ascends to rule through a mixture of intrigue and the throne itself exerting some kind of enticement.
There is a surprisingly pragmatic purpose to the queens:
Queens are magic. They serve commoners as magic, are the only only ones who can lend or give their magic to others. They are the only ones who can link to the throne and provide the magic necessary for the lights to come on, for the water to run. The strength of the queen dictates how far her magic reaches.
But sitting on the throne withers a queen, and while their purpose may appear to be rather banal, the thrust of the story is the sinister side of this situation:
Queens were fuel, but few of them ever knew that fact. The people pampered and cared for queens, gave them anything they could ever ask for, if only the lights would work.
These women are historically guarded or shepherded by male warriors; they are literally man-handled or “slaves in silk cages.”
It doesn’t take long to figure out just what Aren is trying to hide, why she is trying to hide it, why she wants to get away from the royal court, and remain un-mated. Even though she suffers through disease, dishonor, and abuse, Aren is able to keep her focus. It becomes clear that she is more than a bit skilled at doing so, “Blocking out the pain was such a simple process, once one learned to block anger.”
But the monkey wrench in Aren’s plan is Lord Av Marilton, a warrior whose brother Jer is the mate of the current queen. Av is a blunt instrument and perhaps one of the most annoying characters I have ever read. Unlike Aren, he lacks subtly but reeks of arrogance. Av is the ultimate privileged male who when confronted with a woman like Aren lacks the skill set to comprehend the logic of her let alone deal with his own emotions. In fact, I would argue that Av couldn’t think his way out of a wet paper bag. His purpose is to fight, but in this world there is no enemy, there is no war. What this does is turn Av and those like him in on themselves. Meaning in this world divided by sex (queens control magic, warriors control queens) men and women are constantly at odds with one another. A story of court intrigue is really a story about the highest classes devouring themselves.
Much of Trouble revolves around the notion of control, how it can become a species of abuse. Av and his brother Jer can only see what is immediately before them, they are unable to comprehend the larger picture. So when disease breaks out in the palace, when a madmen begins to murder the ladies of the court, and when the current queen Em begins to go made, neither of them have the necessary ability to do anything about it. They only know Aren is a draw for trouble.
It’s disappointing to see to grown men act so short-sighted. But in a way, it’s the most realistic element of the story. My revulsion to a 34 year old man bullying his way as the lover of an 18 year old girl (hinting at the pornographic barely legal fantasy) is only equaled by this character’s idiocy. For example, when Av decides to engage in some victim blaming:
‘What you’re doing is upsetting Jer. He keeps seeing you and making comparisons. Em didn’t walk without complaint, she did not set the table, help with food, talk with father like a man, instead of like a commoner,’ Av murmured, walking to the cooking area, ‘Em didn’t do this, and Em did that and, damnit, Aren, you’re making him feel like he’s a horrible person for being around Em, for choosing her.’
Av’s inability or unwillingness to see just how much of a shit he is being is shocking. Fortunately, just when Av is at his most chauvinist, Price introduces us to his father, Ervam. The two brothers have come to consult their father because of their own shortsightedness. Evram rights the ship and sets both brothers and Aren on a better path.
Wisdom comes from Evram and his youngest son Mie, a boy of about seven or eight. Mie has a fantastic moment where he dresses down his oldest brother Av for essentially roofying Aren:
‘You,’ Mie said jabbing a finger at Av, ‘gave her something to make her sleep. That’s not the way to deal with anything, putting someone to sleep just to make them more manageable.’
The failings of Av and Jer are due to their own stubbornness, being uncommunicative, and (this is what really tickled me) their failure to read the proper books.
Trouble isn’t just a romance, young adult fiction, sword and sorcery fantasy, an uncomplicated feminist tale that offers no easy answers or strives to make you feel like a safe and comfortable reader; it is, of course, all these things. I’m glad to have found it and read it and I look forward to reading the series, the second book of which is now available.
RJ Price lives in Canada where she works and writes full time. When not doing either of those things she attempts to navigate social media and resists the urge to return to writing.
She has published novels in the fantasy genre and insists she is also a science fiction author, but has been too caught up in her Seat of Magic series to actually complete a science fiction novel for publishing.