The Twelve Kingdoms: The Mark of the Tala
Kensington / May 27, 2014 / $15.00 print, $12.99 digital
The tales tell of three sisters, daughters of the high king. The eldest, a valiant warrior-woman, heir to the kingdom. The youngest, the sweet beauty with her Prince Charming. No one says much about the middle princess, Andromeda. Andi, the other one.
Andi doesn’t mind being invisible. She enjoys the company of her horse more than court, and she has a way of blending into the shadows. Until the day she meets a strange man riding, who keeps company with wolves and ravens, who rules a land of shapeshifters and demons. A country she’d thought was no more than legend–until he claims her as its queen.
In a moment everything changes: Her father, the wise king, becomes a warlord, suspicious and strategic. Whispers call her dead mother a traitor and a witch. Andi doesn’t know if her own instincts can be trusted, as visions appear to her and her body begins to rebel.
For Andi, the time to learn her true nature has come. . .
The fairytales we are told as children live on in our memories and in our collective unconscious. One of the most enduring themes is that of sisterhood, be it Snow White and Red Rose, or, the adult incarnation, King Lear. The Mark of the Tala, the first book of The Twelve Kingdoms trilogy, reframes an intertwined story of three royal sisters for a new audience.
Everything changes for Princess Andromeda, known as Andi, after her youngest sister, the beautiful Amelia, marries Hugh, the prince intended for her eldest sister, Princess Ursula. When Hugh and Amelia set eyes upon one another, it’s a coup de foudre. As happy as Andi is for her sister, she wishes that everyone, her father King Uorsin in particular, would look upon her with admiration too. Distressed by her unsettled feelings, shamefaced at her jealousy, middle sister Andi rides her beloved horse Fiona further and further away from the castle each day, coming perilously close to the edges of the king’s land. One day she is accosted by a mesmerizing stranger who seems to know all about her.
“Look at me, Andromeda,” he commanded, sapphire glints hypnotic in his dark eyes. “I’ve been looking for you. Don’t you recognize anything about me?”
I couldn’t help but look. The press of his hard body, the searing heat of his skin, the eyes like midnight and twilight wrapped together—they reminded me of something.
Even though Andi scratches the trespasser’s face with her dagger, she cannot easily escape, so she agrees to one kiss, in order to gain her freedom. She’s rather insouciant as she banters back and forth, a sensible princess who does not allow her wits to be scrambled.
I shrugged as best I could. “Whatever gets me closer to freedom. Either you’ll keep your word or you won’t. Either way, I’ve given up nothing of importance. And I seriously doubt your kisses are that spectacular.”
“No?” he murmured, lowering his head. “We’ll see.”
What I particularly liked about The Mark of the Tala is that the romantic elements—and there are many—did not overshadow the unfolding fairytale. A kiss is not just a kiss when the blood on the stranger’s face is matched by a welling of blood when he bites her lip:
On his lips, the blood seemed to shimmer, then move of its own accord. A tiny bird formed, darkening from the scarlet of fresh blood to black. Then flew away. Aghast, enthralled, horrified, I watched it go, an impossible pinprick disappearing against the sky.
When Andi whispers, “That’s impossible,” she speaks for us all. The taut, terrifying, mesmerizing encounter between the princess and the stranger sets the stage for the unfolding story. Andi left the safety of her childhood home because she felt alienated from the changes that are happening in her family, beginning with the marriage of her youngest sister. It’s almost an adolescent response—discomfort within the family circle leading to a hunger for freedom.
Yet freedom, as Andi discovers, carries risks. In the world of faerie and fantasy, risks are different than for ordinary folk—the stakes are higher. When blood is shared between two strangers, through a passionate kiss, it triggers events that change the lives of the three sisters, Andi especially. Her flight to freedom triggers a struggle within her, and within the kingdom, between familial ties and equally compelling demands from a man who is bound to her by blood.
Andi escapes from the stranger and returns to the castle in disarray. Her oldest sister and her father interrogate her and they decide, after this adventure, she needs to leave her home and travel with Hugh and Amelia to their castle. The expression, “her home has become too hot to hold her,” comes to mind. Hugh understands Andi’s fears about losing her freedom and whispers, “When you come visit, you can ride all you like.”
That night, a huge raptor crashes through the stained glass window high above the banquet hall and drops a cylinder into the throng below. The parchment roll inside explains to everyone what transpired earlier that day—and what the consequences will be. Addressed to the king and his family, it accuses Uorsin of severing the bonds between two families, two realms, of breaking an agreement:
Therefore, I call upon you to live up to your promises and repay blood for blood. You will deliver your daughter to me, specifically, the very lovely Princess Andromeda. I had the pleasure to become acquainted with her today and was delighted to find her heritage is true.
The missive is signed, “With all due respect, Rayfe.” This demanding letter sets the stage for Andi’s journey of self-discovery. As much as the king and her older sister might want to make Andi a pawn on a high-stakes chessboard, Andi thirsts to understand the meaning of Rayfe’s letter. What does it mean to “repay blood for blood”? How is “her heritage true”? Like every fairytale heroine, Andi has allies in her quest. Lady Mailloux, Dafne, the court librarian, unlocks the keys of Andi’s past. She shares ancient stories with her and helps Andi interpret her prophetic dreams. Andi asks Dafne if she has “heard of a person or place called Onnafen.”
Her eyes opened wide, “How did you hear that word?”
“Would you believe me if I said in a dream?” I answered weakly.
But she nodded, solemn. “I would. Annfwn is beyond the Wild Lands. Ancient home of the Tala.”
What Andi hasn’t shared with Dafne is that her dreams are haunted. Rayfe has come to her, feeling more real that her waking reality, pleading for her love, sharing with her the tangled story of her past, attempting to soothe her.
His fingers twined in my hair, possessive, impatient. Tugging me close. For a moment I thought he’d kiss me, and my heart pounded in fear and elation. “Your true people await you. Your home is Annfwn and it needs you. Won’t you see? You only wound us all by resisting.”
Andi’s fears and elation continue to war with each other. The wise castle librarian, Dafne, points out to the princess that this moment of crisis is forcing her to “wake up and make decisions”—and what’s more, that, “The people around you who are accustomed to you going with their plan won’t like it if you no longer are.”
Clashes and fighting break out along the way when Andi travels with her youngest sister Amelia, and her husband Hugh, to their castle. The castle proves to be no refuge when Rayfe and his men set siege. Rayfe also continues to set siege to Andi in her dreams—or are they? He tells her:
“Dreams are just a different reality, Andromeda mine. Touch me. I’m just a man. One who wants to make you his queen. I would never hurt you.” But a lean hunger infused his face, half-lit in the pink light.
Bloodshed, battle, and incongruously, the boredom of a long siege, all conspire to shake Andi from her half-life of confusion and doubt. Rayfe tells her “I know you’re afraid, but I do not have the luxury of your inaction.” He begs her to come to him and she resolves to accept his proposal. The events that transpire sweep everyone into their maelstrom but at the heart of the storm are two lovers, pledging to love one another, sealing their pact with a kiss:
His lips brushed over mine, warm and soft. Just a whisper of a kiss. He pulled back and I opened my eyes, surprised. He flashed a grin at me, then wrapped his arms around me and pulled me tight against his hard body. His mouth captured mine again, lips feeding on mine, coaxing and pulling, until I opened up and his tongue swept mine, hot, arousing.
Fire blazed through me. That animal something that had been pacing through my heart, clawing at my veins, swelled up and rose to meet him. I kissed him back, ferocious, starving.
Take note of “that animal something”— shape-shifting is just one of the magical elements skillfully and believably woven into this tale. Also noteworthy is that although The Mark of the Tala is Andi’s story, her relationship with her sisters and her father, the burgeoning memories of her dead mother, the torn-asunder relationships between the kingdoms—all of these elements conspire to weave a tale that is both satisfying and tantalizing. This promises to be a trilogy that will leave readers enthralled.
Learn more or pre-order a copy of The Mark of the Tala by Jeffe Kennedy, available May 27, 2014:
Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. When I rediscovered the world of romance, my spirit guide was All About Romance's Desert Island Keepers — I started with the “A” authors and never looked back.