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Belinda Primrose harbors a secret that only her father is supposed to know: she is the bastard daughter of the Queen of Aulunia. Her father, Queen Lorraine's lover and spymaster, has turned her into an assassin, training her to use all of her wits and other feminine wiles to get the job done. But she also was born with a magical power, one that is slowly coming into its own, and one she doesn't understand. Until she is tasked with infiltrating the court of Echon, in order to discover any plots against Aulunia. There she meets the sensual young prince, Javier, and discovers that he carries the same secret. Will love triumph over duty? Or will Belinda's power consumer her before she can even understand it?
First, a word of warning to those easily offended. There is a lot of sex in this book, but none of it is really "normal." Most of it is used to either demonstrate power over somebody or as a side demonstration of the real game going on between the two people. However, Murphy does not sugarcoat it in the least, so if you don't like sex in your books, stay far away from this one.
That being said, none of it is truly gratuitous, all of it either serving the plot or to add to the character development. Belinda is the protagonist, but she goes through a rather frightening transformation at one point in the book, and that sequence is vividly described by Murphy. Through sex, we see just what kind of character Belinda is, and it isn't always a pretty one. She has to use everything in her power to fulfill her mission, though, and it is nice to see that the women are just as sexually powerful as the men in this novel (and is it a coincidence that three of the five major powers in this pseudo-Europe are led by queens, despite the idea that women have no true power in this world?).
Murphy doesn't try to hide the fact that this is basically Elizabethan Europe (in fact, Kate Elliott's blurb for it comes right out and says it), which I'm not always happy with. I did find the real-world references, such as "Christ", to be a bit jarring, but why change a good thing? Instead, Murphy changes things enough so that she can do what she wants with the plot while still making it familiar to anybody who has some knowledge of their European history. "Aulunia" is England, and it's headed by a "Virgin Queen" just as Elizabeth was. Even the politics are pretty much the same, with Belinda pretending to be from Lanyarch (Scotland), a country that's been under Aulunia's rule for a long time but is straining against it. It did add a touch of familiarity that made the novel easier to digest.
Which is a good thing, because the characters are not the most interesting or likeable, with the latter being the main problem. I found myself with no character for whom I was rooting, and while the situations Murphy put her characters in were interesting, most of their personalities were grating. The only one I truly cared for was Eliza, Javier's best friend who (of course) is in love with him but they can't be together because of the difference in their social statures. Belinda's the protagonist of the story, but I found myself cooling to her as the story went on, mainly because of what her power ends up doing to her. The occasion where she discovers just what she can do is quite offensive, and yet she really doesn't show any remorse for what happened. If she did, I'd probably find her more likeable and interesting to read about.
That's not to say that the book is poorly written, as I did quite like Murphy's prose. The plot moved along at a brisk pace, except when Belinda (at least, mostly Belinda) stopped to spend a couple of pages trying to work through something, whether it's how her power works, just what she's going to have to do to fulfill her mission, or the conflict she feels between her affinity for Javier because of their shared power and her duty. I've often criticized Terry Brooks for this, and Murphy almost reaches that height (though not quite).
The plotting is so intricate that occasionally you'll see what looks to be a gaping plot hole only to discover that it was part of the ruse one of the characters was running. I also enjoyed the fact that there is just a touch of magic in this world, and that few (two, perhaps one or two more) people actually have this power. It made it feel like a historical novel with a touch of magic instead of a fantasy novel, and that's a nice change of pace occasionally.
Overall, I liked The Queen's Bastard, finding especially the last half of the book hard to put down as things started to fly and fall apart. I just wish I liked it more, as Murphy's writing deserves better than that. Her characterization of these people is fine, but the result is a bunch of characters who I don't necessarily care what happens to them. The plotting is what kept me intrigued, and I can't imagine the sequel will be any different. Consider this a moderate recommendation, though only if you don't mind the sex.
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