[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my knowledge) a spoiler-free review.]
Though its plot seems to merely recall William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Renee Adhieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn, Anna Banks’s Nemesis stuns with sweeping world building, effective character design and development, and an addictive promise of romance, political intrigue, and refreshing fantasy.
Nemesis opens on the escape and flight of Princess Magar Sepora of Serubel. As the last Forger in her kingdom — able to produce the coveted element spectorium —, Sepora has had to withstand her father King Eron, who has abused her power, forced her to constantly produce their kingdom’s only tradable asset, and decided to use it as a violent weapon against their neighboring kingdoms. To save lives, Sepora evades her father’s abuse by fleeing to her kingdom’s greatest enemy, the desert kingdom of Theoria. Once there, she must survive and outwit bandits, harems, grumpy old royal advisors, and a perspicacious and intense but kind boy king who can decipher lies and truth and challenges Sepora to toe the line between love and enmity.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Nemesis is its focus on world building and developing distinct and unique kingdoms, a hot bed of divisive prejudice and unique cultures. In Sepora’s world, there are five kingdoms: Serubel, Theoria, Hemut, Wachuk, and Pelusia. Each kingdom is known for something significant. For example, Serubel is the mountainous, somewhat warmongering region whose land and alliance is most coveted for its abundance of mysterious spectorium while Theoria is a desert region considered “elitist” for their kingdom-wide search for knowledge and technological advances. The story is carried by the sharp prejudiced clashes of the kingdoms’ distinct cultures and nationalities. There are several times that Sepora and the Falcon King, Tarik, each note the despicable and insensible practices of the other kingdoms surrounding them. Sepora is highly judgmental of the Theorian people and rarely trusts any of them or their cultural practices and argues with Tarik most often because she wants to egg on her kingdom’s greatest nemesis.
Like many of the young adult fantasy and adventure books being released these days, Nemesis is split between two consistently alternating points of view: Sepora’s and Tarik’s. Sepora’s point of view is first-person present tense whereas Tarik’s is third-person present-tense. It’s an odd and startling narrative decision to switch between a first-person and third-person point of view, but I got used to the change as the book continued and I settled into the characters’ voices. These alternating chapters do, however, allow us to get to know both sides of the characters and perspectives of Banks’s enemy-ridden fantasy world.
Interestingly, because we get the story from both Sepora and Tarik’s points of view, we witness them squabbling and actively disliking each other at the same time we know they share morals and ideals. They both portray impeccable loyalty, to their kingdoms and to their people, and, while neither of them is a pacifist per se, they’re constantly working around each other to procure peace amongst the Five Kingdoms. Sepora’s greatest conflict throughout Nemesis is choosing whether to protect the lives of others or to protect her own life: Can she let others die for her secrets and for the safety of her kingdom? Can she protect others even if she lies and cunningly avoids the truth? For Tarik, his conundrum is about duty, to his late father’s legacy, to his kingdom, to his responsibilities as pharaoh, as a brother, as a Theorian, as a lover, as an individual.
What I enjoyed especially about Nemesis was the character of Sepora. She is a feisty little spitfire of a girl who, though she’s pretending to be a Baseborn citizen, has trouble leaving behind her wily ways of a princess and an individual with thoughts and opinions. As Tarik notes, Sepora has a fascinating relationship with the truth: She tells lies like its second nature, but only lies and bent truths that she believes in. Like Princess Leia Organa, Sepora doesn’t give up her personality or her strength when others attempt to subdue or subordinate her. She actively defies the Falcon King’s orders and dives headfirst into new ideas and plots she hasn’t fully planned out. Though she seems unafraid, Sepora actually struggles throughout the book to decipher what is courageous and what is right, always berating herself about being a coward or a pushover. She uses both her beauty and her brains as weapons, and always gets what she wants (especially from Tarik, the poor lovesick boy). Sepora is also an eloquent and feisty font of unveiled criticism of sexist and misogynistic cultural practices such as slavery, harems, and outright objectification. I would not go so far as to say Sepora is fully empowered, as many of her relationships with men — her father, Tarik, Tarik’s brother Sethos, and others — are problematic as they all use and abuse her in one way or another, whether for her power, her beauty, or her love. Still, just like Tarik, I’m watching wide-eyed and entranced to see what Sepora will do or say next, and can’t wait to see her kick some more ass across the borders of the Five Kingdoms.
In the end, Nemesis was a highly enjoyable read. A lot of the story and its plot have been done before and I’m not fully convinced Banks’s rendition has put a new spin on things just yet, but I can’t wait to see where the sequel(s?) will take us in this regard. That said, I couldn’t put this book down until I finished it — I got horrible sunburn because I refused to move till I knew how it would end!
Anna Banks’s Nemesis will be published October 4, 2016 by Feiwel & Friends.