For fans of S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, and George RR Martin’s The Game of Thrones, this high concept medieval/high fantasy by Kelly Braffet is a deeply immersive and penetrating tale of magic, faith and pride.
The Unwilling is the story of a young woman, born an orphan with a secret gift, who grows up trapped, thinking of herself as an afterthought, but who discovers that she does not have to be given power: she can take it. An epic tale of greed and ambition, cruelty and love, the novel is about bowing to traditions and burning them down.
For reasons that nobody knows or seems willing to discuss, Judah the Foundling was raised as siblings along with Gavin, the heir of Highfall, in the great house beyond the wall, the seat of power at the center of Lord Elban’s great empire. There is a mysterious–one might say unnatural connection–between the two, and it is both the key to Judah’s survival until this point, and now her possible undoing.
As Gavin prepares for his long-arranged marriage to Eleanor of Tiernan, and his brilliant but sickly younger brother Theron tries to avoid becoming commander of the army, Judah is left to realize that she has no actual power or position within the castle, in fact, no hope at all of ever traveling beyond the wall. Lord Elban–a man as powerful as he is cruel- has other plans for her, for all of them. She is a pawn to him and he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Meanwhile, outside the wall, in the starving, desperate city, a Magus, a healer with a secret power unlike anything Highfall has seen in years is newly arrived from the provinces. He, too, has plans for the empire, and at the heart of those plans lies Judah. The girl who started off with no name and no history will be forced to discover there’s more to her story than she ever imagined.
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My Review | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Unwilling by Kelly Breffat took me on a journey to a world in turmoil, where bad becomes worse in the blink of an eye. But, there is a glimmer of hope that only one character can see and make a reality. Unexpected and heart-rending, this fantasy tale explores themes of survival, independence, and love in a way I will not soon forget.
While I was reading, I kept thinking of Gone With the Wind, and one of the main reasons is because Elly reminds me of Mitchell’s character, Melanie. A girl who plays a part in which she is born, seeming weak and “mealymouthed,” when in actuality, she’s strong and resilient. Elly is the most prepared to live through hard times, and her will to survive is strong, as is her determination and resourcefulness. She is a very admirable character who will stick with me as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes has.
What I Liked
The emotional journey The Unwilling took me on is one that I have not experienced with any other story. It is intense and often dark. I often found myself repelled and drawn in at the same time, yearning for some glimmer of hope as things felt unbelievably hopeless. Looking back at my reading experience, I am very intrigued by the strength of a plot and of the characters that could take me on such a journey.
Elly is my favorite character, but it was a close choice between her and the main character, Judah, who has the characteristics that I typically find appealing. She is strong internally with a rebelliousness that brings a bit of fun to the role. Thumbing her nose at the rules of society, as well as the adults in charge, is something she does daily. She is smart, quick to take in a situation, and wears her differences as a badge of honor. She has moxie, and I do love a character with moxie.
The world-building is good with a history woven into the current day story that makes it pretty easy to understand what is going on and how things got to be where they are. I found that there is a stark contrast between the prologue and the rest of the story. Most of the story is set in the colorful city of Highfall, but the prologue takes place outside the city in the caravan’s travels. The caravan’s world read very stark and basic, which was in direct contrast to the courtier life in the city.
What I Wish
I wish that the ending could have been different. I can’t say any more than that because I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it, but I felt that I needed to say at least that much.
To Read or Not to Read
If you love intense emotional journeys and impossible choices, this is the book for you!
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
Meet Kelly Braffet
Kelly Braffet is the author of the novels Save Yourself, Last Seen Leaving and Josie & Jack. Her writing has been published in The Fairy Tale Review, Post Road, and several anthologies. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives in upstate New York with her husband, the author Owen King. A lifelong reader of speculative fiction, the idea for The Unwilling originally came to her in college; twenty years later, it’s her first fantasy novel. Visit her at kellybraffet.com.