Review: Crown of Coral and Pearl
Mara Rutherford’s debut novel, CROWN OF CORAL AND PEARL (Amazon), follows twin sisters Nor and Zadie who have spent their entire lives being (literally) groomed to be the next queen of Ilara. Nor and Zadie’s mother is obsessed with ensuring one her daughters becomes queen, and after Nor scars her face on a blood coral, their mother turns all her efforts on Zadie.
When Zadie is indeed chosen to be the next queen, she defies everyone’s expectations and secretly injures herself, making it impossible for her to travel from the small island nation of Varenia to Ilara. The last time the Varenians sent ‘the wrong girl’, Ilara cut off supplies to Varenia for weeks. Desperate to avoid another reprisal, the village sends Nor masquerading as Zadie.
Nor has never been on land before. She’s never seen a horse, or a castle, or almost anyone from outside her village. It’s overwhelming, and only becomes more so when Nor-as-Zadie meets Prince Ceren, her betrothed, and Talin, his half-brother. Ceren is difficult and mercurial. Although Nor doesn’t have the words for this, readers will recognize him as having a strong ‘mad scientist’ vibe. Talin is everything his brother is not, strong, handsome, and self-assured. He also spends about 70 percent less time than Ceren creeping around corners and attempting nefarious experiments, so he has that going for him.
While the contest and Nor’s time at the Ilaran court are at the foreground of the story, it’s clear that Nor and Zadie’s village is suffering. Surrounded by the sea, Varenia’s waters are overfished and Ilara seems set on increasing the demand for pink Varenian pearls, which are said to have healing powers.
There’s unrest in Ilara, intrigue at the court, and Nor has to fight to ensure her own survival as well as the survival of Varenia.
While the central plot (beauty contest? Terrible prince with a hot and charming brother?) didn’t strike me as immediately compelling, Rutherford won me over with Nor’s strong character voice. Nor’s relationship with Zadie is compelling and sweet, and her strong moral compass and sense of compassion give her bravery nice depth. Contest-focused stories can often lack room for protagonists to make real choices, but Rutherford guards Nor’s agency and pushes her towards difficult character moments that pay off.
Nor is also forced to fight an actual monster at one point, which is pretty thrilling.
There were world building elements that I liked as well. While the central myth explaining why Varenians have to send a girl to Ilara every generation felt thin, the setting of Varenia as an ocean city is interesting and gives Nor struggles with societal and cultural differences when she arrives in Ilara.
CROWN OF CORAL AND PEARL is largely successful, with unique elements and a compelling protagonist that will leave readers satisfied.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on EBR, I struggle when novels introduce new questions/threats/characters at the very end of the novel. There’s a difference between leaving with me lingering questions or untied plot threads and introducing entirely new information. CROWN OF CORAL AND PEARL brings in a lot of new information right in the last fifty pages, which robs Rutherford’s otherwise good ending of some of its punch. The shock of revelation is cheap compared to the insistent tug of compelling characters that pull you to continue reading the narrative.
While I have a fundamental hesitation about beauty contests as a plot mechanism, Rutherford tries to twist this trope, showing what happens when society weights beauty as the most important characteristic and how competition, especially between girls, can lead to isolation. While I think she could have pushed this further, Rutherford’s novel is largely successful, with unique elements and a compelling protagonist that will leave readers satisfied.
- Recommended Age: 14+
- Language: None
- Violence: Some people are stabbed & tortured. Threat of domestic abuse.
- Sex: K-I-S-S-I-N-G