“When you play the game of thrones…”
Let’s get it out of the way: The Wood Bee Queen is another fantasy novel about the struggle for the throne of a kingdom, replete with bargains made with enigmatic gods and tales of the ordinary folk affected by the manoeuvres happening above them. But this isn’t as grand a spectacle as George’s unfinished song cycle, and Cox – best known for The Relic Guild trilogy – keeps things close to a pair of twinned locations, Strange Ground by the Skea and Strange Ground beneath the Skea.
The hook comes in the shape of forlorn librarian Ebbie Wren, faced with losing his job, his best friend, and his entire life’s purpose all at the same time. Wren is drawn into the skulduggery of the latest claimant to the throne of the Wood Bee Queens, and is tossed into a world he’s studied for years but has no concept of its reality.
Wren’s discovery of The Realm acts as the reader’s guide to the new, strange world, and Cox’s world-building is decent enough; you will have to judge for yourself whether the gaps in the story and landscape of The Realm are frustrating or sequel-tantalising. There is a touch of things going the other way that would have made for a more interesting story but is left happening off-screen, puzzling for a novel that stretches to over four-hundred pages, but you read the book as written, not as you would – or more likely, wouldn’t – write it, yes?
Cox’s story plays out to a satisfying conclusion, and there are some lovely touches along the way, but you can’t help but wonder if the story justifies its page-length, torn between a feeling that this might have been better served as a trilogy of its own and a sense that he could have gotten to where he was ultimately going in half the time. Still, The Wood Bee Queen is an intriguing dip into a foreign land, and while Ebbie Wren is far from the most dynamic of protagonists, the characters he encounters are well worth the introduction.
The Wood Bee Queen by Edward Cox is out now through Gollancz.