The Big Idea: Sarah Henning
In author Sarah Henning’s third and final installment of her The Kingdoms of Sand & Sky novels, The King Will Kill You, we’re taken on a journey through what real change looks like, and are shown how it is both quick and slow at the same time.
I’m extremely lucky that this is my third time in three years sharing The Big Idea about my gender-swapped damsel-in-distress books—The Princess Will Save You (2020, Tor Teen) and The Queen Will Betray You (2021, Tor Teen).
The first time I was here, I wrote a post about turning the damsel and her tale on its collective head by engaging with the archetype in a way that makes a male character the “damsel” and the female character in the position of playing “savior” while dissecting the patriarchal framework that supports and reinforces the generations-old damsel trope.
Then, last summer, I was welcomed back to discuss The Queen Will Betray You and the double-edged sword of being an ambitious woman in a hyper-patriarchal world. To quote myself, “When men do these things—gamble, lie, cheat—as characters or even in real life, they are often lauded as clever, intelligent, savvy. When women do these things they are called wicked, nasty, a shrew. The difference that hangs between these descriptions is the scaffolding of the patriarchy. So hard to escape, impossible to change, weighted in the direction that it is.”
Lots of wicked, nasty, and perhaps shrew-like things happened in Queen regarding the four women in that book who could easily be called queens, all of them maneuvering either within the societal rules or outside of them to achieve the power they wield.
And, what happens when you finally get the power you want? At the beginning of The King Will Kill You, Amarande has everything she wanted the first two books. Thus, The Big Idea of this post is about the after—happily ever or, well, not.
What happens when you get everything you want on the surface in a world that’s both changed and not? In many stories, we never see this adjustment period. There’s the big climax and then things are tied up in a bow or maybe glossed over or referenced in an epilogue that skips ahead in time.
That’s because the after is not smooth. It’s equal parts pedestrian—the world is completely changed but you’re wearing the same clothes—and ugly. It’s the cleanup after a rollicking party, when you’re mopping up spilled wine in your dancing shoes at 2 a.m, rather than skipping ahead to the house looking perfect the next morning when brunch guests arrive, a flashback and a tired smile the only indication of the between.
To avoid spoilers, three of the four “queens” make it out of the second book, including our main character, Princess Amarande, who, because of a certain fall of events is set at the beginning of The King Will Kill You to finally and fully take control of the Kingdom of Ardenia as its first unwed queen. (Previously, she would’ve had to marry someone to access her birthright power…which seems incredibly unfair.) Along with her true love Luca, she’s ready and willing to shake up the archaic and misogynistic laws of the Kingdoms of The Sand and Sky, rewrite them, and modernize the continent for the better.
And the timing does seem perfect—every single kingdom in the continental union has a new leader. A huge crisis was just adverted at the end of Queen, and Amarande’s neighbors seem poised to work with her and Luca to make change. And though Luca is resurrecting the Kingdom of Torrence from the ashes and formally joins the union, which gives her a direct ally and means at least two of the five kingdoms will always be on the same page as they navigate the growing pains that will surely pop up with modernization, Amarande finds…the patriarchy does not die easily.
In fact, it doesn’t die at all. Not really.
This is both metaphorically and actually true in King for reasons I can’t explain without a big spoiler. However, I can discuss the fact that the status quo moves at a glacial pace, even when someone like Amarande is dead set on shoving it downhill. And so, despite all she’s been through and all the growth she’s endured, Amarande finds herself and her kingdom set back in unexpected ways.
It’s only been days, the dead are still being buried, and people in far-flung places on the continent are still finding out exactly what happened in the previous fortnight. To everyone but Amarande and Luca, their thirst for change is almost like whiplash. Their subjects ricochet from one extreme to another, and even so, in Luca’s case because there hasn’t been an approachable ruler in what is now again the Kingdom of Torrence in years, he suddenly hasn’t done enough, even as he engages with his people for the first time.
But that discomfort is nothing compared to Amarande’s stated goal of making the continent a better, fairer place for the people. She tries unprecedented communication with the common classes, providing transparency of what has happened in the past fortnight, because she understands that knowledge is power, and she believes the people—of her kingdom and all the kingdoms—deserve to hold that power. That does not sit well with the surviving old guard who do not believe the common man of any kingdom should see the ugliness of ruling peeled back. A very “you can’t handle the truth” situation, to put it mildly—and they believe Amarande to be naïve simply for sharing the information in the first place.
Then, there’s her goal of allowing women to rule without marriage and to make all heirs equal. Though the other kingdoms stand by and watch Amarande’s coronation, she soon learns they weren’t silent in support, they were silent because they were plotting—using her own ambition as a wedge to steal the kingdom out from under her. At every turn, Amarande’s positive movement toward change is checked against the boards by the patriarchy…until she figures out exactly how to move herself and her people forward to truly make for a happily ever after.
I hope you’ll check out Amarande’s journey now that it’s complete.