Book Review: The High King's Golden Tongue by Megan Derr
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
I wanted to start with a review of this book because it is a delight and one of my rainy day reads. It follows the journey of Prince Allen of Gaulden, a highly trained diplomat and impressive polyglot, who has been betrothed to the widower high king of the empire of Harken, Serrica.
Problem is, no one told Serrica he'd be getting a diplomat when he had asked for a soldier. (Or if they did, he wasn't listening.)
Needless to say, their first meeting does not go well, and Allen is left in limbo, unsure if the marriage will happen. Will he have to return home a failure at the most prestigious goal he could ever aspire to?
Despite his politically unsure position, Allen seeks to prove his worth to the high king, and embroils himself in a conflict that's only just beginning to bubble…
It would be easy to make a character like Allen purely reactive, but Derr doesn't. Allen is extremely active in the plot, and proves himself a hero, even if his combat prowess is mostly in hiding and enduring.
The political plot is well-done, and feels real—difficult in the first book in a high fantasy setting. I liked guessing at some of the real-world inspirations for the various nations, and as a linguist, I appreciated the realistic types of communication and translation problems.
Is Allen's high level of fluency in so many languages unrealistic? Yes, while there certainly are people who attain fluency in that many languages, 'perfect' fluency is kind of a myth. I speak English, but I would, for instance, quickly lose the thread of a conversation about in-depth computer programming. It would have been interesting to see him struggle with 'low-brow' language (since he's court-trained) or in a conversation about seafaring, or some other topic that would not have come up in his lessons. The dance of trying to find a word for a concept that doesn't translate or that infuriating tip of the tongue that leads to such hilarious constructions as "sea pancake", "Where is the mother?", or my very own saying "Guten Tag" instead of "Danke schön" at German customs despite literal years of classes, are some of my favorite moments of speaking a foreign language, and it would have been fun to see Allen stumble a little bit instead of being perfect, though I respect the background of his hypercompetence.
Still, a missed opportunity isn't worth docking a full point.
Derr has a very straightforward, snappy style I really enjoy. I'm a reader who gets really bogged down in purple prose and will definitely lose the thread if a writer meanders a lot. I don't have much use for pretty words that don't push the plot forward. And she has a fun sense of humor that doesn't feel anachronistic or inorganic to the world.
Minus ½ a point because there are a lot of characters in this story, and I definitely needed a second read-through to actually understand who everyone was (but I usually give books a second read-through, so it's not a large demerit.)
This final category will depend on the book in question, but in this series' case, I wanted to address the world-building. I mentioned above that the politics and cultures felt solid, but I did want to talk briefly about the gender politics.
This series shows us an empire without homophobia and transphobia, and it's really, really refreshing. The fact that Serrica's engagement is to a man is not even an issue, since Allen was the strongest candidate. Serrica's previous marriage was to a man, and that's fine, just what happens.
Allen's mother is (what we would call) a trans woman, and thus Allen's parents used a surrogate, termed a 'dame'. This is an established and quite ordinary part of the world. Serrica laments that his previous husband should have allowed them to use a dame, since he hated pregnancy as much as Serrica knew he would. Lord Tara jokes that bearing children won't be an issue for him when discussing marriage prospects.
It's such a nice change from ""historical accuracy"" (but plus magic) in fantasy stories.
The High King's Golden Tongue is an arranged marriage, enemies to lovers story with a whip-smart protagonist and I'm so here for it.
Today's song is True Love by P!nk ft. Lily Allen.