I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Falling Kingdoms. I was expecting a novel that was somewhat Game of Thrones-lite but instead the storyline was fairly complex and the setting, although not overly original, was interesting and richly detailed. The story takes place across three very different kingdoms: Limeros, Paelsia and Auranos. Limeros, the Northern kingdom, is ruled by a tyrannical King who instills fear in the populace and rules with an iron fist. Paelsia is the middle kingdom and is ruled by a chieftain who is rumoured to have magical abilities. Paelsia is a poor country and its people suffer, struggling to survive in an increasingly impoverished environment. Auranos is the Southern kingdom and is the most envied, as its denizens enjoy a life of prosperity under the more benevolent leadership of their King. There are tensions between each of these nations and violence and bloodshed will soon overtake the lands.
The book follows the viewpoints of several main characters and each get their own third person point-of-view chapters. Princess Cleo is the first main character we are introduced to. Cleo and her companions are visiting Paelsia from their neighbouring kingdom of Auranos. It is during this visit that a tragic event occurs. One of her companions Aron, a young nobleman who Cleo greatly dislikes but is forced to accommodate due to him having some kind of leverage over her, has an argument with a young man from Paelsia and ends up killing him in cold blood. Cleo does nothing to stop the argument from escalating and she feels terrible guilt about this throughout the rest of the novel. This tragedy serves as a catalyst for the events which are to come. Cleo is a likeable yet somewhat naive young girl whose great beauty often allows her to get away with acting immaturely and selfishly. Cleo has very noticeable character flaws but you feel for her, especially when she is forced to endure a betrothal to the young nobleman she so thoroughly despises. Cleo shows an enourmous amount of character growth throughout the novel and what she has to endure throughout the book only makes her stronger and more determined. I ended up really rooting for her towards the end, though I could not really get interested in the side-plot of her romance with her young personal guard Theon ****spoiler begins****I could not really bring myself to care very much at his death either - I wish there had been a bit more development with him and his growing attachment to Cleo****spoiler ends****.
Jonas is the brother of the young man who was killed and he puts the blame firmly on Princess Cleo, who stood by and let her companion drive a knife through his elder brother's throat. Jonas, filled with grief and thoughts of vengeance, vows to destroy Princess Cleo. He soon joins forces with the chieftain of Paelsia, who is determined to take down Auranos and is willing to work with the King of Limeros in order to do so. Jonas was an interesting and conflicted character. I felt sympathy for his loss and could understand why he hated Cleo but his memory of the tragedy that happened before his eyes is warped by his own misapprehensions of the situation. Jonas had very little page time in comparison to some of the other characters and I wished that he had been fleshed out a bit more. As it is he comes across a little one-sided and his thirst for revenge is a little bit tiresome ****spoiler begins****I do have high hopes for him in book 2 though and I can't help but feel that he does kind of have the hots for Cleo - there are too many scenes where he describes her as being beautiful even if he views her as deadly and cunning - I think he may have a change of heart regarding the Princess in the next book****spoiler ends****.
Magnus is the heir to the kingdom Limeros. In many ways I found Magnus to be the most interesting character, albeit one whose actions became increasingly hard for me to overlook. Magnus holds a shameful secret. He is deeply in love with his sister Lucia, who is the only person who has ever shown him any real affection, as his father has never much cared for him and his mother, the Queen, is a cold and distant figure in his life. To be honest, having read many fantasy novels which include incest (George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, Katharine Kerr's Daggerspell etc.) this element never really bothered me as much as it probably should. In real-life I would most certainly not be so understanding of it mind, but in a fantasy setting it seems I can just easily accept it and move on.
It is soon revealed that Magnus and Lucia are not blood-related but I can see why many people would have a problem with this part of the story as Magnus only becomes aware of this during the course of the novel and his feelings go much further back. They have been raised as brother and sister and Lucia certainly does not share her brother's feelings. Magnus starts off as a deeply troubled young man and the events in the novel only serve to make him more cold and self-loathing. He is on a dark path and the choices he makes get darker as the story progresses ****spoiler begins****it is Magnus who kills Theon, earning Cleo's enmity****spoiler ends****. Magnus, somewhat in spite of himself, wants to gain his father's approval and joins with him to bring down his long-time enemy, the King of Auranos.
Lucia is the only main character who I never really developed any attachment to. Although she has her own point-of-view chapters and her story may become more interesting, her character was a bit of a cypher. We are told she is destined to become a very powerful sorceress, which that is why the King took her in and raised her as his own, but her character did not have much weight for me and fell a little flat.
There are a lot of familiar elements in this novel which are standard fantasy-fare: political manipulations, nations fighting each other for the throne, magic, romance, a long-awaited prophesied one, even the mysterious Watchers who have been keeping an eye on Lucia and her developing abilities are a fairly common fantasy trope. However, while this novel may not be overly original, it is a lot of fun. The plot is exciting, most of the characters are interesting and the climax leaves you anxious for the next book. I wasn't completely bowled over but I was very entertained. It was hard to get to grips with the characters at first as the book flips between the different and varied point-of-views but you did get to see every perspective of the conflict and feel sympathy for characters who will be soon pitted against each other in the forthcoming war and what follows thereafter. I am really looking forward to the next book Rebel Spring as I think the story has the potential to be even better than the first.