The Councillor is described in the blurb as a "Machiavellian fantasy," and that really is a perfect way to describe this book. This is a book for fans of highly political fantasy, with a focused lens on the subtle arts of negotiation, scheming, manipulations, secrets, and power. There are also some incredibly well-drawn characters that only add to the many layers present in this story.
The story kicks off after Queen Sarelin's death when Lysande is appointed Councillor. It is up to Lysande to determine who should become ruler next, while also quiet attempting to figure out who played a role in the death of the queen. Lysande is thus surrounded by a myriad of people with varying levels of power, all of whom want more power, and she has no idea who she can actually trust. This, as you might suspects, sets up a tense, unpredictable setting in which all the players begin their dance of politics. This book is basically the equivalent of an enormous jigsaw puzzle with oddly shaped pieces that supposedly fit together, but you aren't sure you're going to figure out how.
The story is told solely from Lysande's perspective, which I appreciated in the sense that it really helped to keep me on my toes in not knowing anything at all about the other characters other than what Lysande already knows. I might have liked more perspectives in order to better understand everyone's motivations and background, but I like the mystery this allowed, as well as the ability to thus spend more time in Lysande's head getting to know her and her strategies. I absolutely loved Lysanda's stoic determination in the face of every unimagined obstacle that is thrown her way. When this novel starts, Lysande may already be a close confidante of the queen, but she is also technically just the palace scholar. She is from a poor background and is not an elite and she has no seeming desire to be in any sort of leadership position. So, when she is thrust into the position of Councillor she is constantly aware of her perceived shortcomings and lack of knowledge around what she should be doing or how to handle various situations. Because of this, she often relies heavily on her own historical studies of past leaders and events, which allow her to shape her persona and actions as Councillor. I really appreciated this aspect and focus on the importance of having histories to provide guidance, as well as seeing someone who truly is not sure how to handle these situations essentially "fake it 'til you make it," as I think Lysande ended up executing her role excellently.
I should mention, however, that I would consider Lysande a bit of a morally grey character, which matches the many other morally grey secondary characters that appear throughout this book. It's hard to know what is necessarily "good" in this world since everyone has their own bias, but it was a lot of fun exploring everything via the different characters that we meet, all of whom have very strong and distinct personalities. A few of the more intriguing characters we meet are Luca Fontaine, Cassia Ahl-Hafir, and Litany. Litany in particular is full of surprises, and Luca is one of those mysterious figures that holds an abnormal form of charisma and intrigue that you can't help but find yourself drawn to, even though you know there's something uncertain and unpredictable about him. I'd go as far to say that there is not really any character in this book that I would deem 'unintelligent,' and it's precisely because this book is full of highly intelligent people that you never know what to expect or where something new is going to pop up.
The world of The Councillor also feels rich and teeming with culture and expansive lands. We get to hear quite a bit of background about various places and peoples, but I would have loved the chance to learn even more about the world (though that's certainly not a complaint, as I'm very satisfied with what was provided in this book). This also appears to be a sex positive and queernorm world, which I also find refreshing in fantasy where we can set aside the many prejudices that plague our own world and imagine something new. Because Lysande deals with a bit of a drug problem, we also get to explore some more details in this world in the way of things like the drugs and drug sources that helps to just make everything feel that much more expansive and detailed. There is also, of course, some magic present in this world, though I hesitate to say too much about it in fear of adding any spoilers. It's an interesting magic that I would really love to learn more about, as I feel as though it wasn't expanded on quite as much as it could've been.
The pacing of the The Councillor felt very steady throughout, and it's definitely a slower pacing overall. If you're looking for something with a lot of action, this isn't it. There are certainly some more action-heavy scenes, but for the most part this book's action takes place in the form of dialogue and more subtle activities and thinking. There are also a lot of fine details given throughout about the world, the politics, and the history which does keep things on the slower side at times. I thought the pacing worked extremely well for the story and have no complaints, but I also understand that some people will prefer something that moves a bit more quickly.
Overall, I had an amazing time reading this book, even if I did find myself a little lost at times because of all the details. This is a book I can absolutely see myself re-reading and getting even more from it. If you like an involved, highly political fantasy, then you must put The Councillor on your radar! I cannot wait to see what E.J. Beaton has in store next. It's five stars from me!
*I received an ARC of The Councillor courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*