Nor and Zadie are twins, identical to each other in every way except for the scar on Nor’s cheek. While diving for pearls (the only resource they can trade for food and water), Nor was scraped by the lethal blood coral, surviving the incident only to retain a mysterious healing agent inside herself. Part of the Varenian ocean-dwelling village, the girls must compete with their peers to be selected as the future queen of Ilara. To the most beautiful will come honor, riches, and the chance to leave their manmade island of floating docks and set foot upon dry land for the first time.
When Zadie is chosen for this honor, both girls are slightly jealous of each other’s opportunities. Nor wants to see the world. Zadie wants to stay in Varenia and marry her sweetheart Sami. After a dreadful “accident” occurs, Nor takes Zadie’s place as the tribute sent to Ilara. But where Zadie might have been content to be a dutiful wife for the prince, Nor is determined to spy out what’s really going on in the Ilaran court, to advocate for her people’s welfare, and to find a way to free Varenia from centuries of oppression. She soon discovers that the sinister evils lurking in the Ilaran court are like nothing she has ever seen, and while crown prince Ceren has monster stamped all over his pale face, his charismatic and charming brother Talin might also be as poisonous as a lionfish. It is up to Nor to find a way to conceal her identity, save her people, and maybe find true love along the way.
I really enjoyed the world-building and unique storyline in this book, and the prose was well-written. The “message” of the novel seemed a little heavy-handed, however, and I found it odd that the protagonist felt she had to “give up her values” in order to stop evil. A few plot points could have been fleshed out better to make motivations clearer, but the action of the story was fast-paced and exhilarating, and for a debut novel, this was a fantastic YA fantasy.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.