I’ve not read as many self published books as some of my friends and fellow reviewers have, but I’ve read enough to see that they are just as hit-or-miss as traditionally published books. As far as I can tell, there are more self-published works of fantasy and science fiction than in any other genres, which means there are lots of misses out there. Thankfully, there is also a plethora of hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen is undoubtedly one of those. While I’ve loved other self-published novels, this is the one that left me flabbergasted. I’ve read a multitude of traditionally published fantasy novels that didn’t hold a candle to this debut, and I truly don’t understand how or why a publishing house hasn’t jumped on it yet.
As soon as I started reading, I was excited. So excited, in fact, that I messaged friends recommending the book to them before I was even a quarter of the way in. Hutson created a varied, interesting world that gripped me from page one. We see many facets of the world, from the islands to the forests to bustling cities to ruins of lore. Each of these places is populated by vastly different people, with different gods and myths and customs. There are also multiple empires in this novel, some fighting subtly for dominance while the others choose to keep their focus turned inward. I loved getting a tour of the world of the Raveling through the eyes of various characters.
There were tropes in this book, but they felt fresh to me. Hutson wasn't leaning on them so much as finding new ways to make them shine. Tropes become such because we love them, otherwise they would never stick with the genre for so long. I love when authors take tired tropes and breathe new life into them, and that's exactly how I felt Hutson handled the tropes he utilized. There's a lot of exposition in this novel, but I never felt bogged down by it.
Hutson’s characters are also a diverse lot, ranging from your quintessential chosen one, a gifted but ignorant boy on the cusp of manhood; a man who awakens one day to realize he’s actually immortal and is missing nearly a thousand years worth of memories; a Fist warrior, who is as one with his four brothers to the point that they feel each other’s emotions and hopes and fears; one of the Pure, the warriors sent out into the world by a god to eradicate sorcery; a self-absorbed emperor and the courtesan who leads him by the nose without him realizing that he’s relinquished his control; a sorcerer and his knife, the woman who keeps him safe; and many more.
And then, there’s the title character: the Crimson Queen. For more than half of the book, this Queen is almost a creature of myth, unseen but ever present in the minds of the people. She is loved and hated and feared, but is rarely understood. There’s a level of mystique to her character that I absolutely loved. I won’t say anything else about her, because I want other readers to be able to experience that mystique for themselves.
This world faced cataclysms in its past, and is desperately trying to avoid them in its future. But there are some characters who seek to recreate these cataclysms to their own ends. Hutson did a great job of creating a villain who was intriguing but self-absorbed to the point of evil. I found said character fascinating to read about, though the further I got into the book the more I curled my lip while reading this person’s perspective.
Something I really loved about this book was the handling of magic, and its unapologetic presence. I feel like modern fantasy novels often either shy from magic, keep it too mysterious to understand, or develop an almost scientific system for it. This book did none of those things. Magic was present, those gifted enough to wield it, but it wasn’t formulaic. There were also mythical creatures who weren’t fully explained, but who were very present in the story. I just felt that Hutson did an excellent job of balancing the mystery of magic and the presence of magic, without compromising either aspect for the sake of the other, and it’s something that I really appreciated.
Hutson’s writing style is also to be applauded. He managed to develop prose that is so highly readable that it almost disappears as you read the story. His words painted pictures in my mind instead of catching me up in the loveliness of the wording. I appreciate both methods, but Hutson’s choice of readability over profundity worked best for this story. Not that there weren’t profound statements made, mind you. I have to include a few pieces of his more philosophic dialogue, because they stuck with me. Here’s what he had to say about free will:
“All that a man has in this world is his own will, the freedom to do what he desires. Taking away that is the greatest crime one can inflict on another. Murder - it is terrible. But it is over in an instant and the dead never can truly understand what has happened to them. They are simply gone. But slavery - day after day, year after year shackled to another’s whims - it is the most heinous of crimes.”
PREACH. It’s good stuff, right?! Free will is one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given, and stripping another person of that free will is one of the greatest wrongs we can inflict.
Here is one of the character’s thoughts on the written word:
“A book is the pinnacle of arrogance for it demands to be heard, but it cannot listen. It desires to communicate, yet is refuses conversation. … The arrogance of writing comes not from the finished creation, but from the very act itself. What hubris is required for a single mind to believe that its thoughts should populate the world? What unbridled arrogance is it to disperse ideas like the petals of a dandelion in the wind, allowing them to float free, to germinate in the minds of others like an invasive weed?”
I. Love. THIS. Seriously, I’ve always been held in thrall by the power of the written word, but I don’t know that I’ve ever considered the arrogance of writing. I’m not positive I agree with the spirit behind the words, but it’s definitely an opinion that makes sense and has merit. It’s a theory that will stick with me. But if writing is arrogance, I’m incredibly thankful that so many people have chosen to give into that arrogance and share their stories with the rest of the world.
I'm so glad I read this. The plot was compelling and incredibly enjoyable. I loved the characters and setting, as I stated above. And the book had just enough ending to be satisfying, while leaving enough up in the air to make me almost desperate for the second installment. I’m incredibly impressed, and highly recommend this book to any and everyone. I’ll leave you with one final quote from the book:
“We make our own destiny. Believing otherwise abdicates responsibility for what happens, and I refuse to do that. Failure or glory, the result belongs to us.”
Good luck in this final round of SPFBO, Hutson!