The world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms is a world ruled by the fairy tale traditions; there are Godmothers who oversee parts of the kingdoms and make sure that the Tradition is followed in such a way that everyone gets what they deserve; if necessary, they can nudge events to follow a different traditional path or create new traditions. People who find themselves in Traditional situations often have a buildup of magic around them, which can attract the wrong sorts; the Godmothers often use that magic to ensure a satisfactory resolution. This is the fourth in this series, but it’s not really connected to the others beyond being in the same world; the Godmother Elena (from the first novel) is a character in this, but her being a Godmother is more relevant than her history. Instead of being a straight fairy-tale retelling, the books take bits and pieces from various stories and attempt to create a cohesive story from them. This book had its flaws, but overall was an enjoyable bit of fluff; she actually addresses that in an author’s note, that there is a place for escapist literature and happily-ever-afters.
Aleksia, Queen of the Northern Lights, the Snow Queen, etc., is the Godmother for some of the Northern Kingdoms. She lives alone in her ice palace in the north, with a revolving group of brownies as servants; one of the main things she does is take men who are in danger of becoming overly obsessed to the point of becoming at least amoral if not villainous and keeping them until they remember the important things; usually they have a woman following to attempt rescue. The current one is Kay, who has the potential to become a Clockwork Artificer (intent on creating life, no matter what cost), if an evil magician didn’t find him first; his girlfriend Greta is searching for him, and at one point is captured by bandits and given to the chief’s daughter as a servant. Aleksia is keeping an eye on her as well; she is good but selfish and may end up taking over the bandits and leading a revolution in her kingdom in a few years (the current king is a bit of a tyrant).
Nearby, but not really under Aleksia’s purview, are the Sammi; they are a loose confederation of nomadic reindeer herders instead of an actual kingdom. The Wise Women read the runes for the children and the runes decide what path the children should take in life. Kaari has the unusual rune for Heart, which makes everyone love her; she somehow manages to become engaged to Veikko, the son of Annuka, the village’s Wise Woman, without causing too much chaos of disgruntled suitors. Veikko had the runes of Warrior and Mage; there was no one in the village who could train him, so he left in search of teachers. Eventually word gets around among the Sammi (and also to Elena) that the Snow Queen is killing villages overnight and taking men; Aleksia is not happy to hear this and ends up taking a role in the story itself instead of just overseeing others. Kaari has a silver cup that shows Veikko’s health, and it turns mostly black, so she and Annuka end up searching for him; eventually they meet Aleksia and later Veikko’s teachers and they all end up working together.
I liked this book better than the previous volumes, possibly because it was more fantasy and less romance than the others; Gerda and Kay and Kaari and Veikko were pre-existing couples, and the other characters only met possible romantic prospects near the end. This book does have its flaws; she does have a distinct style, and all of her characters have similar thought processes and speech patterns. The ending seemed a bit anti-climatic, but I can’t put my finger on why; the final confrontation followed normal fairy-tale logic (taken straight from some tale that I can’t immediately identify), and the motivations of the various characters were fully presented, but it wasn’t entirely satisfying. The story of Gerda and Kay seemed tacked on instead of integrated into the main plot; their story was resolved partway through and I halfway expected them to show up later, but they did not. It seemed to be there more for a source of exposition as to how the Godmothers worked and why Aleksia was different than to actually contribute towards the story; I do wonder if the bit with the bandit’s daughter and the Tyrant might be hooks for another novel. It’s an interesting world, and I like the concept, but there was a bit much infodumping and explanation in this book. I was vaguely annoyed that random animals were capitalized: Bears, but wolves; Swans, but geese. There was also a bit of an editing issue, with two slightly different versions of a scene (the aftermath of Annuka and Kaari and the bandits) appearing; Annuka and Kaari were cleaning up after dealing with the bandits, the action shifted to Aleksia, and when it shifted back to Annuka and Kaari, they were cleaning up after the bandits again with enough repeated actions that it was obviously a different version instead of slightly later.
These are published by Luna, which is an imprint of Harlequin; I was not aware of that until after I had read the first two, and felt that that explained some of the issues I had with them. The first (The Fairy Godmother, the Elena who is a recurring character) had more of a focus on romance (and more sex, though it was the only one with much) than I really expected; I felt the ending of the second (One Good Knight) was a bit of a cop-out and it would have been better with lesbians; and I don’t really remember the third (Fortune’s Fool) at all; I think it was the book that I felt needed more conflict or suspense or something; happy endings are nice, but some trouble along the way would have been nice as well. This one had more of a focus on the action than the romance, and the focus on the action added a little more conflict to the story.