Melissa de la Cruz's novel The Ring and The Crown (Disney-Hyperion) is dripping with beauty and elegance — from the cover art to the inside pages to the descriptions of each place characters visit, their clothing, and the magic around them. The world building alone is stunning, but de la Cruz comes with the one-two punch of a great setting and great characters.
You know you're in for a different kind of fantasy YA novel when the first section's epigraphs include an excerpt from an Emily Dickinson poem juxtaposed with a line from a Beyonce song (Who run the world? Girls!).
The Ring and The Crown is set in an alternative present, with strands of history and stories of Camelot intertwined. Charles VI and his "dark witch" Jeanne of Arkk of France — a thinly veiled stand-in for, yes, Joan of Arc — are defeated by the British in at 1429 battle, forming the powerful Franco-British Empire, the only place in the world rich with magic. Nearly 500 years later, a truce has been called in the war between Prussia and the Franco-British Empire after Prussia's Kronprinz Leopold used Pandora's Box on the battlefield. Now, Leopold is set to marry the princess dauphine Marie-Victoria to finalize peace between the nations. For this, the wealthy come from all over the Empire to London for London Season, to participate in the festivities and seek mates. In this world, the queen is aided by a powerful Merlin, a magician, who serves and protects her.
Along with Leo and Marie, there are several other teenage cast members. Wolf, Leo's younger brother, is an underground fighter and the black sheep of the family. Aelwyn is Merlin Emrys' bastard daughter, a powerful magic user who has come to take up her duty of serving the royal family. Ronan Astor is an American teenager whose family has lost their fortune, and she is coming to London with the duty of finding a husband that can offer her financial safety. Isabelle, daughter of the displaced French royal family was promised to Leopold, and she must come to London in order to dissolve their promise.
Despite the numerous primary characters, de la Cruz gives everyone their due and is able to draw well-rounded and interesting characters.
Perhaps the most compelling is Ronan, a "modern American girl" who is stuck between loyalty to her family and her own wishes. She is realistic, but she's not cynical. Ronan is well aware of the repulsive position she is in seeking a husband, but it doesn't stop her from dreaming of princes and true love.
Because of my circumstances I must marry for money, and not for love. I might as well be one of those painted ladies in Amsterdam, with a red light over my head.
But this feeling doesn't stop Ronan from falling for a second-class passenger on her sea voyage to London. And she bases her decisions of their relationship on familial duty, not on lack of belief in love.
This feeling of duty also echoes around Alewyn, who returns from Avalon to take her place beside her future queen, Marie. But Alewyn represents a divide in the magical community, between serving royalty and letting their magic be free.
Alewyn's thoughts flitted back to Avalon. She could chat the shield spell in her sleep. She was so incredibly disinterested in the humdrum nature of the Order's magic. It was strictly by the book, whereas in Avalon magic was wild and mercurial, but extremely powerful.
But the divide doesn't just exist within the magic-user community. As the Franco-British Empire controls all magic, major societal issues arise. In a world where money can buy access to magic, and magic is power, the impoverished are unable to gain a good education, and thus never learn how to hide their souls from magic and are keenly susceptible to its powers.
Because of this and other issues, some citizens form The Iron Knights, who "believed magic was a tyrant's tool, and agitated to end the monarchy's control of its source; they believed magic should be for all, not just the rich and titled."
Amid all of these power struggles, de la Cruz manages to create a book that also can be described as a romance novel. The plot is almost Shakespearean, with each character longing for one, stuck with another, and getting trapped in complicated situations. De la Cruz interweaves echoes of great tragic literary loves, such as Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights — which Ronan and her sea voyage partner call each other instead of using their names — and Guinevere and Lancelot, with Alewyn's former love being a stand-in for the knight. These references to tragedies do not go unnoticed, leaving readers with an uneasy sense as the romances build.
Some people may argue that The Ring and the Crown, the first in a new series, takes too much time for set-up, but I would counter to say that it allows these romances to simmer — the opposite of many YA novels that rush their characters to love — allowing readers to truly invest in the outcome of romances. Because, at it's core, readers have to believe in the love in order to keep reading.
De la Cruz has written a magical book about love and power, duty and sacrifice, that awes with its world building. The title itself ties love (the "ring") to duty ("the crown"). It's so easy to get lost in the setting and characters, that before you know it, it's the end, and it has ended too abruptly. The pacing races to the finish without giving plotlines their due, and you can feel it rushing to tie up stories and conclude. Sometimes events happen so quickly, even "offscreen" and told through exposition, that I found myself turning back pages to make sure I didn't accidentally skip a page. This was particularly disappointing considering the deft hand de la Cruz had displayed for the majority of the novel. However, with it being built into a series, there may be a chance to give these stories and characters their due time.