Review: Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

There’s a sweet spot where sequels want to be: the fine line between derivative and different. Replicate too much of the magic that made the original work a success and the sequel becomes one-note; fail to recognize that magic and you can land anywhere between mild disappointment and total trainwreck. The good news for fans of Alwyn Hamilton’s rich world-building and nuanced characters is that while Traitor to the Throne may have changed its setting and slowed its pace, this dense volume loses none of its predecessor’s nuanced storytelling and characterization—in fact, it even improves upon it.

The action-packed Rebel of the Sands and its richly imagined world of gunslingers and magic took Amani Al-Hiza from her miserable home into the heart of a rebellion. She is a Demdji, the child of a mortal woman and a Djinn, and in Miraji, the Demdji are feared, abused, and even executed for their otherworldly powers. In Traitor, Amani ends up in the Sultan’s palace—the last place any rebel or Demdji would want to be. She also finds herself without allies or resources, just armed with her own wits and courage. If the first book was a test of courage, then this was a test of faith. By placing Amani within the palace, Traitor is able to show another side of the rebellion, as well as the complexities and consequences that come with it. Characters, no matter how seemingly insignificant, come to life with well fleshed-out motivations in the face of war and survival.

Another theme that resounds through the book is the power of words, the power of names. “I resented being called a fiction,” Amani declares to herself, bristling at how the Blue-Eyed Bandit has grown into a figure of legend that she barely recognizes as herself. Amani brings with her many titles: Demdji, Blue-Eyed Bandit, rebel. Some people know her as one thing. Others know her as another. Few know her as both. Through the book’s main conflict, Amani realizes that names have the power to trap and destroy, just as they have the power to reinvent and release and reshape.

Anyone who’s foolhardy enough to read the second book of a series without attempting the first will be pleased to know that Traitor does not only have a list of who’s who, but also a refresher chapter told as a legend. This device is repeated throughout the book, and while I wasn’t a big fan of it in the beginning when it felt superfluous, each succeeding legend managed to draw me in deeper. By the end, I felt like they came with a swelling soundtrack, especially the final dramatic legend.

So my sequel sweet spot was well met. All the elements that I enjoyed in the first book were present. Action? Check. Adventure? Check. Things that make you go ‘Crap, I didn’t see that coming’? Check. Romance? Ah, there. With so many plots and conflicts packed into this story, Amani’s budding romance with Jin merely hovers in the background. Jin himself isn’t mentioned in more than half the book. I loved the two of them together, but I appreciated how it took a backseat here, reinforcing that the stakes are much bigger than personal desires. And Traitor really raises the stakes. It forces Amani to confront her own politics—if her choice of leader is really the wise one, or if it has merely been thrust upon her by circumstance. I’d sacrifice romance for character development, but Your Mileage May Vary. (Mild spoiler: Also, there were no Buraqi. This could be your dealbreaker right here, dear reader.)

It’s easy to believe that Ms. Hamilton has a plan for the series, instead of focusing on making the first and second books disparate volumes that will be pulled together by the third one. What seemed to be pawns from the previous book have become major set pieces in the second. The plot and characterizations flow organically. Hopes are constantly being built and dashed. The stakes are greater than ever, and I can’t wait for this rebellion’s epic conclusion.

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