A soldier desperate to prove himself.
A kingdom on the brink of war.
Thank you MacMillan for the review copy!
The Traitor’s Kiss was overall extremely disappointing and discouraging. My journey from learning of this book to finishing it has been a tumultuous one, but one that nevertheless left me wishing I hadn’t wasted time in it from the first place.
This book was first brought to my attention in being a Mulan retelling, which made me extremely excited. Mulan is one of my favorite Disney princesses – or, er, generals – and also celebrates my own culture. Although it uses minor elements in terms of plot and character description similar to ones in Mulan, The Traitor’s Kiss had no other resemblance. The biggest thing that made me pause was it being advertised as a Mulan retelling… then learning the characters’ white names. Now it’s marketed as “Jane Austen meets espionage,” which is much more fitting since it’s a very-much white fantasy where POC are described as having “darker” skins – making white skin the norm and maintaining an ambiguous air about what the “darker” characters look like in general. Seriously, it’s like the author’s vocabulary in describing characters was terribly limited.
The plot itself was an absolute snooze-fest for me. The pacing is horrendously slow, which I’m okay with. However, it was slow to the point where when it started picking up in the latter quarter, I simply stopped caring about the characters and story. Let’s backtrack to the beginning. Sage Farrow is not like the other girls. She makes this exceptionally clear from the very start, where she’s seen teaching her cousins. She’s so intelligent, she doesn’t need to be matched. She also has a fierce temper that makes her unsuitable to the matchmaker she was foisted on. All is not lost though, because the matchmaker isn’t a bad guy and decides to take Sage as an apprentice to help make matches. This gives Sage, the unwanted orphan relative with no prospects, the perfect opportunity to live life. This also gives Sage, the skinny, flat-chested girl with freckles, the distinction against the other girls who are obsessed with make-up and catching boys under matchmaking. It sounds like the author has something against girls with cleavage, because they’re all supercilious and extra. Sage isolates herself from the other girls waiting to have a match made because they are superficial and dumb and care about make-up. This behavior is further reinforced as the author writes in several male POV scenes where the male’s thoughts create a distinction between Sage’s sage scent and the other girl’s stifling perfume.
I’m really tired of reading girl-on-girl hate and the reasoning that in order to create a special heroine, she must be pitted – and won – against other girls. There’s a way to write characters unique to themselves without having to carry about prejudice against others, and I wish more authors would incorporate that into their works. Sage makes only one female friendship in this story that fulfills more of a “checkbox” than anything. The lady she makes a friendship with gets minimal page time, is wholly unimportant to plot/character progression, and has a caricature of a character. Instead, Sage is the epitome of tomboy and gets along with every soldier she comes into contact with really well. All the guys love her and most of the girls hate her – do you see why I’m upset with this characterization? A heroine can still be a tomboy and carry out unorthodox ways without diminishing the power of make-up and feminine wiles.
“Violet powder on her eyelids made her gray eyes appear almost blue, which was probably the intention, but they were barely visible between her curled and blackened lashes.
‘Is this what ladies at court look like every day?’ she asked.
Her aunt rolled her eyes. ‘No, this is what a nobleman’s bride looks like. What do you think?’
Sage twisted her scarlet lips in distaste. ‘I think I know why Mother ran away.'”
In the story, Sage must travel with the matchmaker and girls waiting to be matched with an army of escorts because of the political situation. While Sage is gathering information about the soldiers in the chances of pairing them off with prospective girls, the Captain is suspicious that she’s spying for the enemy. The situation is that there is a traitor who is trying to help the Kimisar, the enemy nation that Crescera is currently fighting. Which brings me up to another point: the use of the dark-skinned aggressor trope in this book.
“The man nodded once from inside his hood but said nothing. Kimisar were even darker than Demorans from Aristel, and this close he almost faded into the shadows. Swirling tattoos on his exposed forearms added to the shapeless effect.”
Not only is this exceedingly lazy and discriminate world-building, but could it have been written in a worse way? I have no clue what it means by “darker” than another race that’s described as “dark.” While Sage is described as having these golden freckles and strawberry blonde hair, the only descriptions given to other characters, especially POC (including the love interest!), are “dark hair” and “dark skin.” There are numerous other more creative, less offensive ways to describe POC, and it’s extremely disappointing to see that the words used in this book are limited to “dark” and “darker.” Also note in the quote that the Kimisar general has tattoos and fades in the shadows… tattoos because of an equally vague culture that is not explored, and fading into shadows another inapt description of his skin color.
And truth be told, the world is written with such ambiguity that I’m really not sure why the nations are fighting in the first place – nor do I really care. I do recall that the Kimisar are undergoing a famine and the traitor in the court holds the prize of food over their head to ensure that they continue following his orders. Apparently the Kimisar also really like holding hostages as well (like every country at war doesn’t?), further separating the distinction between them and the country where the main characters are from. Sure, I can’t see the racist undertones of their characterization at all.
Honestly, the espionage in this book was one of the largest snooze-fest I’ve ever read as well. You would think that Red Queen’s “Anyone can betray anyone” adage would remain true to a book titled The Traitor’s Kiss, but the only momentous betrayal this book conveyed was the fact I was actually excited about it in the first place. There is a lot of boring dialogue where you get to read how Sage is so fierce, so intelligent, so worldly that the soldiers actually use her as their own spy to uncover the traitor in their midst. The captain of the soldier escorts also take a liking to her, all the while pretending to be another undercover soldier to ascertain information. Cue clandestine meetings of two tiresome characters that deserve each other. Captain Quinn is super loyal to the crown and wants to use Sage’s spying abilities, all the while keeping her in the dark about important information for the purpose of plot. On the other hand, Sage is ascertaining things left and right and charging forward towards danger anyhow. Throughout it all, Sage proves herself “different from the other girls” by hanging out with the guys, wearing breeches while riding horses, and reading books in different languages. Also, she can manipulate others but they can’t do the same because that’s not how things work, even if the other party loves her. Sage also never makes mistakes because everything she discovers, learns, and does is picture perfect. I cared almost nothing for the romance in this book, which is pretty momentous considering I love romance. This is a kind of unequal romance that reinforces unfeminist ideals, constant undermining of the other party, and overall an imbalance between characters that, no matter how important it is for the whole “espionage” portion of the plot, I could not get behind.
By the end of the book, I was practically counting down the pages. The sad thing is that I think I would have genuinely liked the book, if Sage weren’t such a snowflake that isolated herself from other girls, sans one cardboard character and the writing didn’t extend towards such racist undertones in world-building and characterization. Nevertheless, I’m surprised at all the 4-5 star raving reviews, no one caught the offensive writing and equally disappointing characterization that showed minimal character growth and empathy. There are numerous fantasies out there with more down-to-earth characters (even if they are special snowflakes) and non-offensive writing. Also if you’re looking for a Mulan retelling, do yourself a favor and skip this one. The lackluster world-building, lazy writing, and tiresome characters made it an exasperating ~340 page read for me that had me cheering when I finally finished.
If you choose to pick this book up, consider the implications of having the mostly white main characters fighting against a black nation that adorn themselves with tattoos and have no other description. Also think to yourself if you would be a friend to Sage, because with her obvious prejudice against other “superficial” girls who wear make-up, I know I wouldn’t. Also check out the romance, which is built on distrust and keeping the other party in the dark about important information – no matter how intelligent Sage is advertised as. If those sounds unappealing to you (as they should, being a reader in the twenty-first century), then I would advise you to not waste your time on this one.