Kiera Cass’ Royal Romance Returns in “The Betrothed”

At first glance, Kiera Cass’ new courtly romance sounds eerily familiar. Hollis Brite, a young woman whose mother is utterly consumed by her marriage prospects, suddenly and unexpectedly becomes the favorite of a member of the royal family.

A Note: This book contains two brief but troubling uses of the word “g*psy,” an ethnic slur used against Romani people. (Some context.) Many Americans remain unaware of its racist connotations, but its use and the surrounding context in this book could and should have been caught and rectified before going to print.

Three leading ladies front Kiera Cass’ lush new romance. Collage by Pippin Hart, with some help by an early 20th century painter. Credits in this post.

At first glance, Kiera Cass’ new courtly romance sounds eerily familiar. Hollis Brite, a young woman whose mother is utterly consumed by her marriage prospects, suddenly and unexpectedly becomes the favorite of a member of the royal family. But––gasp!––her head is turned the other way by an entirely different suitor with far less status, and to come clean is to jeopardize her future and crush the hapless royal’s heart.

Many would quickly dub The Betrothed The Selection reincarnated, only with a dark mirror of the latter’s love triangle where the prideful, old-fashioned Aspen Leger has a fighting chance. Yes, The Betrothed, with its palace antics, dress descriptions, and love story, brushes hems with a few of The Selection‘s ball gowns, but it’s concerned with an entirely different status quo. Where The Selection follows a lower-class protagonist suddenly thrust into the palace and all its oblivion, The Betrothed trains its eye on power’s almost soul-numbing capacities, with a delicate and deeply personal focus, from the point of view of someone raised in the inner circle and poised to go even higher. With an entirely fictitious country, Cass gets to flex some world-building muscles while keeping her consistent charm, and in this long-awaited follow-up, she manages still to criticize the seat of power while assembling generous, full portraits of the people who hold it and the way it clouds their judgement.

There are very few monsters in a Kiera Cass novel, and a satisfying, real-world proxy take-down is nowhere to be seen. She offers instead something far more precious––where it’s the obvious decision in most fairy tales to marry the prince, Cass makes a compelling argument that even with the capacity to make change, even if he’s a generally well-intentioned person, this path, at least for leading lady Hollis, isn’t worth it.

This book, despite its marketing, has far more to offer than romance. In fact, one specific place where it even improves on the work of Cass’ Selection is by way of its friendships. Two vital connections push this book forward, one with Hollis’ lifelong friend at court, Delia Grace, and a visiting royal who proves a tough nut to crack but ultimately yields insight on the position better than Hollis’ own suitor, King Jameson, ever could. Here, without spoiling too much, Cass presents the reality that the arm of a powerful man is, more often than not, an ornamental place, a status that makes it astonishingly easy to be isolated, and hardened to the rest of the world in turn. Cass, through Hollis and Jameson’s courtship––and a vision from years down the line with the visit of another royal family––explores some of the consequences that have nothing to do with the easier targets of corruption and debauchery. Consequences like the pain of being silenced, the indignity of being on display. None of the people ultimately behind these consequences are made to be truly evil in Cass’ work. She allows almost every major character the luxury of a soft side, from King Jameson’s genuine but miscalculated attempts to be a good suitor, to the miserable past and desperate practicality of Delia Grace.

Delia Grace, who’s spent most of her adolescence clinging to Hollis’ side, has suffered the slings and arrows of a scandal-rocked family, and Cass truly puts the calcified result of her situation into perspective. Where Hollis can consider whether the king’s attention will ever make her happy, Delia Grace has to sit to the side quietly, where she would’ve been beyond elated to be granted that same status and stability, no consideration of true love to be made. She’s like the Charlotte Lucas of The Betrothed, with a bit more bite, and like Charlotte Lucas, she takes a magnifying glass to our lead and shows us that romantic love, in a society like hers, is a consideration most cannot afford to make.

Hollis, when paired with these enlightening friendships, emerges as a character who’s multi-faceted, but also very broadly defined by her inexperience. She doesn’t know love until it hits her in the face from the direction she isn’t supposed to turn, she fails to consider Delia Grace fully most of the time, and she generally lacks the concerns anyone from her situation would lack: of the poor, of other countries, of other people. But because The Betrothed throws her through the loop so much, it reveals a kind of beauty to this approach, one that runs through all of Cass’ work. We see it in the rash decisions her main character makes in The Selection‘s sequel, The Elite, and with Hollis’ general deferment to the best interests of a rich young woman in search of a safe and easy hand to wed.

The love stories that take up a sizable amount of the book (but not all) are a fast-paced and tantalizing look at Cass’ character work, positioning Hollis between the safe, known royalty, and the risky, frowned upon, much lower-status match. Besides some very quick development in her relationship with the underdog, Silas, both love interests do precisely what love interests should. They expose the flaws in the manner of thinking she’s been raised with: follow status, climb as high as you can, ignore any feelings otherwise. Some bold choices Cass makes near the end add some welcome complication to the argument, but it rings all the same. Now, the choices of the heart Hollis makes must exist beyond the love interest, entwining more with family, honor, and obligation than the same choice might have in The Selection. A closer look at her past books, however, equips The Betrothed‘s forthcoming sequel with ample material. As always, following one’s heart is the obvious answer in Kiera Cass books. But it’s fixing to get a lot more complicated.

‘The Shadows Between Us’ A Villain Romance That Can’t Quite Commit

The Shadows Between Us reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even toss Alessandra a kiss scene until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial.

Whatever comes after, The Shadows Between Us takes the cake for a phenomenal first line.

“They’ve never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart,” the inimitable Alessandra Stathos tells us on page one, unsheathing her gilded dagger of wickedness from the get-go.

Then comes the final nail in the makeshift coffin, the sign that we are about to read the shameless first-person account of a stylish evildoer. Alessandra’s next line: “And they never will.”

After a long YA tradition of rejecting the dark side of the love triangle, to mixed effect, Levenseller does away with the safe option immediately. The Shadows Between Us is entirely free of moralizing Macbeth-style consequences, and the Right Thing in any form, instead preferring to see its main character plot murders, practice tyranny, and ruin reputations in peace.

In a way, it’s liberating.

The Shadows Between Us is fun in a way plenty of YA titles can never be. It doesn’t care a whit what you think about it, and in the meantime engages in girlish delight as Alessandra’s diabolical pieces fall into place. As she goes about seducing the secretive and closely-guarded Shadow King, fully intending to kill him, she doesn’t begin to question her choices because of an epiphany––by all metrics, Levenseller has written a heroine who is epiphany-proof––she simply begins to suspect that the Shadow King likes the way she thinks and is quite possibly unbothered by her body count.

We don’t see much of the kingdom Alessandra’s looking to rule with an iron fist––and indeed, the less the better––but this riotous and raucous 300-page power-play has everything it needs to make for a good time, and squeezes in some levity, light subplots, and fluff besides.

Where this devil-may-care angle gets messy, though, is this villain romp’s attempt to have its own villains. The courtesans (locked tight in a competition with our had over who gets to slay the Shadow King first), feature little enough to be throwaways, and yet, pitifully, aren’t.

The aggressor’s motives are shallow, petty, and profoundly uninteresting, but what really rings false about this mutinous plot is how eagerly Levenseller allows her characters to slip into condemnation. Yes, the Shadow King and Alessandra have discovered a clandestine plot against his life, but, well, you know.

They react indignantly to this admittedly short-lived threat, where Levenseller could have probably made a much sounder character choice if she had given them the bandwidth to coolly acknowledge their rivals’ wants as tandem to their own, before putting out the fire without a second thought.

The Shadows Between Us would have been perfectly structurally sound in the third act without this unnecessary extra pound of intrigue (and soap-operatic last twenty pages) ha the apex just focused on romantic resolution. But Levenseller isn’t quite faithful enough in her pair’s morally grey status to give them a truly selfish, unheroic conclusion. Instead, someone’s life has to be at risk, and the story of these cruel, calculating main characters has to end with a good deed.

To Levenseller’s credit, the truly well-crafted plot doesn’t go neglected as her story stretches to accommodate this one. She somehow manages to make 300 pages crackle like a slow burn, giving these sparring forces reasons to love each other, and every better instinct to turn away.

When the lead-up is this faithful to the characters, it doesn’t matter that it seems like the entire world conspires to get the two of the alone in a room, or that all the court drama Levenseller writes has to quiet for a moment so her leads can bicker. Romance in fast-paced fantasy stories can often feel obligatory, but instead, everything else feels that way, because the substance of The Shadows Between Us isn’t undermined by a kissing interlude.

The romance is the substance. It reads like the very best of Archive of Our Own’s enemies-to-lovers tag, what, with its deeply significant material gestures, and infuriating restraint. Levenseller doesn’t even throw Alessandra a kiss until both she and her love interest are thoroughly steeped in denial. The Shadows Between Us as a romance far exceeds it as anything else, and in fact its “YA fantasy” label may even do it a disservice. To some degree, what Barnes and Noble calls “YA fantasy and adventure” is sort of expected to deliver on conflict that isn’t about characters and their feelings on one another, so The Shadows Between Us has to chip in on an assassination/secret identity plot at the very end in order to avoid being minimized. So it goes.

When the book isn’t busy with its love story, or its B-villains, it takes some time to expand the lives of Alessandra’s much-tamer friends, giving them their own romantic exploits and personal scruples to overcome. Levenseller goes all in with these side stories to satisfying effect, giving an element that doesn’t usually have much weight a clear distinction of importance. This is where the real value of her story lies, in things that make you giddy to witness, in the small exploits that make for good fluff.

It isn’t flawless, but there’s undoubtedly merit of some kind in a book that flies by in a day.