Heidi Heilig is the kind of author who comes up with the kind of clever premises that make other writers wring their hands in envy. In her first book, The Girl from Everywhere, she asked: What if there was a boat that could sail through time? In her new series, which began last year with For a Muse of Fire, she turns from time travel to necromancy. Jetta is a shadow puppeteer who animates her puppets with the souls of dead animals. In the course of trying to protect her family and secure a treatment for her malheur (the term she uses for her bipolar disorder), she falls in with rebels set on overthrowing their country's colonizers, and finds herself in constant peril.
In A Kingdom for a Stage, we return to colonized Chakrana and pick up right where things left off: Jetta has traded her shadow puppet stage for a leading role in her country's troubled political theater. The ruling Acquitans are searching for her — they want her alive, so that they can use her powers to animate their flying war machines and stamp out the Chakran resistance once and for all.
All of that is bad enough, but Jetta has even more to worry about. Her father suffered devastating injuries from his time in the hands of Acquitan torturers, her brother is tormented by the acts he committed while serving in the Acquitan army (not to mention being resurrected from death by his necromancer sister), and Leo, the one person she's come to trust, has abandoned her because of who she is. As she struggles to make good choices for herself, her family, and her country, she keeps edging ever closer to the bad kind of necromancy — and power so great that it will inevitably be abused.
A Kingdom for a Stage is a true sequel, in that it rolls directly back into the story begun in For a Muse of Fire without feeling much need to catch the reader up. It's a power move, and I am here for it. There's little worse than diving from one book in a series to the next and having to wade through three chapters of, "Well you see, person I shouldn't have to explain this to, when we last met our hero, he was being a great big hero in these four ways." That said, since it had been a year since I read For a Muse of Fire, there were a few moments where I had to stop and mull over my memories of it and try to piece together the exact implications of what was happening. This is a book that would most definitely benefit from a direct re-read of its predecessor before diving in.
Heilig tackles difficult issues very deftly in this series, including the horrors of colonialism and the struggles faced by someone with bipolar disorder. The depiction of Jetta's malheur feels deeply visceral and compassionate. Her relief at finding a treatment for her condition turns to anxiety as she wrestles with its side-effects, she fears that her illness is driving her loved ones away, and at times she almost embraces the malheur and the free-fall of emotions that it creates inside her. Heilig has spoken often about her own mental health journey, and I think that only someone with personal experience could have captured Jetta's challenges with such deep understanding.
Sequels are notoriously hard, and I have to admit that if asked to choose a favourite of the two books, I would have to give it to For a Muse of Fire. There was something so intimate about Jetta's gentle necromancy, her artistry, and her search for a better life for herself and her family. A Kingdom for a Stage is a different kind of book by necessity. Necromancy has lost its innocence, puppetry is used only for violence and subterfuge, and magic cures come at a terrible price. All of the horrors that Jetta faces are happening on a bigger, grander scale, and now it feels like the fate of an entire nation hinges on her choices.
As with all middle books, A Kingdom for a Stage exists in a state of liminality. It's no longer the eager beginning, full of new ideas and promise, nor are there any satisfying wrap-ups to be had at its conclusion. We leave Jetta and her cause in a more uncertain state than ever, providing the perfect set-up for an intense and rousing conclusion to a series with a stunning premise and really subtle handling of difficult topics. I eagerly anticipate the final installment.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.