The concept behind The War Stories of the Seven Troublesome Sisters series, of which this is the first, is a clever one. Essentially, it’s the same story from seven different perspectives. The realm of Ilari is under threat from an invading horde of Mongols and seven sisters play pivotal roles in its defence. Hence the ‘She’s the One…” part of each book’s title.
This first book follows eldest sister Ryalgar, whose failure to marry has been a source of consternation for some of her younger sisters. While Ilarian society is very sex positive and liberal towards women in some ways, openly endorsing sexual exploration in particular around their eight annual holidays, it still requires elder sisters to marry before their siblings.
In general, this book is about empowered women shaping their country. Having said that, Ilaria is made up of a number of principalities (nichnas), each ruled by its own prince. Prince, not princess. Pilk, the most powerul nichna, has a rule of succession that gives the throne to the eldest male, so long as he produces a male heir who survives to the age of three before one of his brothers produces one. So, women have some freedoms here, but nothing like equality.
Ryalgar discovers a connection to a group of elder, forest-dwelling, mystic women called the Velka, joins them and finds herself planning the defence of the realm against a coming invasion. Mixed in with this is her sort-of-secret relationship with Prince Nevik of Pilk and a hatful of family drama. Ryalgar’s parents and sisters drop in and out of the tale, hinting at larger stories to be told in their own books.
A great deal of worldbuilding has gone into this series, creating entirely new vocabulary and measures of time for this culture. Weeks are replaced with 9-day long ‘anks’. Months are replaced with ‘eighths’. In the best fantasy tradition, we even get unique swear words: ‘pruck’ and ‘scump’. There is no question this is a different world.
Or is it?
This is where one of my niggles comes in - we have a well-built alternate world, threatened by Mongols. I couldn’t see why Cronin didn’t simply give her invading horsemen a different name, as she’d done so much to establish her otherworld. But I was prepared to overlook it until we got to discussion of Greek mythology, at which point I felt a great dissonance as to where our story was set. The answer seems to be a completely new culture placed into otherwise established history. To be fair, it is billed as historical fantasy / alternate history, and maybe I just haven’t read enough of that subgenre for this to be expected. It might work fine for many, but I personally found it jarring, when it would have been easy to set it in an entirely new world.
The vast majority of the book is Ryalgar preparing to defend the kingdom, while also dealing with her personal dramas. The prose is smooth and easy to read. However, there is an oft-quoted bit of advice in writing: ‘Show don’t tell’. While it’s advice that is often taken too literally and applied too strictly, in this instance I felt the story fell too far over the ‘telling’ line and, as such, I found it difficult to become immersed in the world. One could argue that it is told in what is almost akin to an oral storytelling style, which would most likely have been used at this point in ‘history’, and I have some sympathy for that viewpoint. Read from that perspective, perhaps it works fine, and many readers, I’m sure, will enjoy it.
The other issue that came up for me was that there was something of a lack of tension. Each time a problem presented itself for Ryalgar, the solution followed not long after. Her relationship with Nevik borders on becoming a problem, and suddenly it’s not because of an unrelated decision. She thinks of something she needs for the defence of the realm, and one of her sisters reveals a hitherto unknown talent that offers a solution. Everything goes a bit too smoothly, and things happen a bit too conveniently, I think, to really create the sense of tension, drama and threat required.
I suppose, though, that when the book blurb literally says:
“While these historical fantasy/alternate history books can be enjoyed as stand-alone novels, together they tell the full story of how Ilari survived.
Which sister do you think saved the realm? That will depend on whose story you read.”
You go in already knowing Ilari will be saved. The drama is in the ‘how’. In truth, then, this series is more of a family drama played out in seven parts, against the backdrop of a failed invasion. And in that, it probably succeeds, on the evidence of this first book. It’s not long for fantasy (236 pages) and perhaps the interest lies in seeing the story played out through the eyes of the other six sisters, particularly the one who is enigmatically missing for most of this book. The whole story from each perspective will likely create a rich, deep story of the two years culminating in the Mongol invasion.
But again, here at the end, there is an issue. As a standalone book, we don’t get to know the end. I mean, we already know, courtesy of the blurb, but She’s the One Who Thinks Too Much ends ostensibly on a cliffhanger. There are unsolved mysteries and questions still to be answered. And there, I think, is the crux of the thing. This series is very much designed to be read as a series, and I suspect only from completing all seven books will a rounded, satisfactory ending come. But there is enough here to pique interest in the rest of the stories, for those with the inclination to commit to all seven books.