Nicki Pau Preto’s debut fantasy, Crown of Feathers, opens 16 years after the fall of the legendary Phoenix Riders, fierce warriors who rode their mythical mounts into battle. The war saw two royal sisters battle for the crown, but when both died in the fighting, the empire was left fractured and dangerous. Despite the hazards of their world, war orphans Val and her sister Veronyka have made it to their teen years and get by as best they can. Older and more savage than Veronyka, Val is in charge of their lives and will do anything to protect them as they work to survive and reach their goal: to find two precious Phoenix eggs and hatch them, becoming Phoenix Riders themselves.
But just when a bit of luck touches their difficult situation, Val does something unforgivable. Veronyka, feeling like she is seeing her sister’s true self for the first time, strikes out on her own. She travels far and eventually dresses up as a boy to gain entrance to a community that is also seeking Phoenix eggs and a return to the old ways of Phoenix Riders. Only once Veronyka – now “Nyk” – has finally found a place for herself does Val show up, threatening not only Veronyka’s new life but revealing secrets about their family that affect the history and fate of the entire empire.
Crown of Feathers is epic in the truest sense; it draws on Game of Thrones–worthy military history and political machinations, weaving letters and historical documents into the narrative. And Val’s reveal is a fantastic turn for the book – and the inevitable series. Best of all, Val is a fabulous antagonist; Veronyka’s feelings for her are understandably complex and Val herself is convinced her brutality is in the service of the greater good. Veronyka is equally appealing as a hero: she’s quick, bright, and tough, and the tension between the two stays bowstring-taut throughout.
Preto’s story is also an inclusive one, with racial diversity represented among the characters without fanfare and one character’s growing discovery of his potential queer sexuality treated the same as any other emerging YA romance, with butterflies in the stomach and near-kisses interrupted by dramatic action.
Crown of Feathers serves up a fair amount of exposition and background, but for readers who love an epic, it’s the perfect series kickoff. The characters are strong and, by the end of the book, the pieces are all in place for a truly wild ride.