The Foxglove King: A Stunning Series Opener With Death Magic Laced Through Every Page

Books Reviews Hannah Whitten
The Foxglove King: A Stunning Series Opener With Death Magic Laced Through Every Page

Hannah Whitten’s Wilderwood duology immediately marked her as an author to be reckoned with in the high-concept fantasy space, and her story of two sisters (one a vague Little Red Riding Hood retelling, the other a pseudo-Snow White stand-in) mixed fairytale staples, folklore elements, and delicately inverted imagery across the two novels to create something both visually gorgeous and intellectually thoughtful. Series conclusion For the Throne was one of my hands-down favorite fantasy novels of 2022. I say all this to provide a bit of context, if only so that when I tell you that her latest book, The Foxglove King, easily outstrips both of them, you’ll understand, dear readers, I mean that this novel is e x c e l l e n t.

Featuring a complex and refreshingly unique system of magic based on the powers of literal life and death as well as incredibly detailed political history and religious hierarchies, this book has the sort of rich, fully-lived-in worldbuilding that makes you wonder why it isn’t already a very expensive Netflix show. (Even when this particular trilogy is over, I already desperately want to read more stories in this universe, if only because it’s so unlike almost anything else I’ve seen before.)

Set in the kingdom of Auverraine 500 years after the event known as the “Godsfall,” when the death goddess Nyxara died and took most of the other gods and goddesses with her, the land is now dedicated to Apollius, god of life and the single deity that survived. The capital city of Dellaire sits atop Nyxara’s buried corpse, which occasionally leaks a force known as Mortem, basically the essence of death itself, into the city. Those who have had near-death experiences can sense and even control this power, often leading people to seek out so-called “death dealers” for instructions on how to poison themselves just enough to access it and/or perhaps manipulate it enough to extend their lives. 

The story follows Lore, a young woman who doesn’t remember much about the first 13 years of her life, just that she has a preternatural ability to navigate the catacombs that sprawl underneath the city, and she was born able to channel Mortem, a skill she uses in the run cons and spy for her adoptive poison-smuggling mothers in Dellaire’s criminal underworld. But when a job goes wrong, Lore finds herself arrested by the Presque Mort—a band of warrior priests who are officially permitted to channel Mortem and siphon it out of the city—-and dragged before Priest Exalted Anton Arceneaux. When he offers her a deal rather than death or exile—enter the Sainted King’s court in disguise and spy on the Sun Prince Bastian, whom the king believes to be traitorously conspiring with a neighboring kingdom—she has no choice but to say yes. 

Her task drops Lore into the heart of Dellaire society, with all the intrigue, backstabbing, and politics that come with it. She’s given a partner she doesn’t trust—Presque Mort soldier Gabriel, himself a disgraced noble with his own complicated past—and an impossible target in the prince who carefully guards his steps. But as her masquerade continues, Lore becomes increasingly convinced that all is not what it seems: Where did her powerful Mortem abilities come from? Why do both Gabriel and Bastian feel so familiar to her, even though they’ve never met? And how is her magic getting so much stronger now that she’s in regular proximity to the Buried Goddess’s tomb?

The answers that play out over the book’s pages and complex and thorny, weaving in everything from political loyalties and family history to religious fanaticism and moral philosophy. The world of Dellaire is decadent and richly imagined and the contrasts between the sumptuous setting of the city’s inner sanctum and the struggles of those outside its walls simply to survive are sharply drawn. Having essentially grown up on the streets, Lore serves as a useful bridge between these worlds, and her struggle to both make peace with where she comes from and her find a place to belong offers an emotionally rich interior journey for her character. 

The book’s larger mystery—-surrounding a series of local villages where all the residents keep inexplicably dying—provides a propulsive external push to keep the plot moving at a brisk pace with constantly increasing tension as Lore is asked to use her abilities to raise the dead to investigate.

And though romance generally takes a back seat to larger plot developments, the complex relationships that develop between and among Lore, Gabriel, and Bastian are compelling and as important to the larger story of the novel as they are to the question of who may or may not end up romantically paired with whom. By the time you reach The Foxglove King’s thrilling final pages, you’ll be desperate to see where the story goes next—and a likely full convert to the Hannah Whitten Fan Club. This is, without doubt, destined to be named one of the best fantasies of the year.

The Foxglove King is available now.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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