My Review for The Carver and the Queen: A YA Historical Fantasy of Imperial Russia

The Carver and the Queen is a smart, fast-paced young adult historical fantasy novel based on Russian folklore. It’s a modern fantasy perfect for families steeped in classic fairy tales and thoughtful fairy tale retellings.

Picture of the Young Adult historical fantasy novel The Carver and the Queen

I love encountering modern books that have an old-fashioned, timeless quality to them, and the newly-released fairy tale retelling The Carver and the Queen by Emma C. Fox is a gem of a find.

This young adult novel is based on a unique fairy tale most people won’t recognize. While retellings of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” and “Snow White” abound, The Carver and the Queen draws its inspiration from “The Stone Flower,” a Russian folktale from the Ural Mountains, reworked by Pavel Bazhov in 1938 and later included in his fairy tale collection The Malachite Box.

The Carver and the Queen released on October 3, 2023 from Owl’s Nest Publishers. Although I rarely do individual book reviews on Tea and Ink Society, this one I couldn’t pass up…the author is my sister! Thanks to Owl’s Nest for providing me with an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) so I could introduce you to this book!

Fox’s novel is a tale of two protagonists, and the story alternates between their perspectives. Petr is the hero; although an orphan and a poor serf, he has a passionate ambition to become the greatest malachite carver in all of Russia.

The heroine of the story is Lena, who forms a friendship with Petr despite the fact that he’s allowed to carve while she–also an aspiring artist–is not. Petr and Lena long for freedom from serfdom and the chance to shape their own destinies, but impossible obstacles stand in their way, both within their tiny, workaday village of Polovka and in a fantastical, magical kingdom deep within the mountains.

Fittingly for a novel with two protagonists and two worlds, The Carver and the Queen also presents two villains, each formidable in their own right, who want to claim Petr and Lena for themselves. As bailiff of the village, Gorlov is “king” in the overworld, brutally wielding his authority over the local serfs and seeking to bind Lena to himself in an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, the sorceress Malachinitsa reigns in the underworld kingdom, using her beauty and dazzling promises to enslave men–including Petr.

The novel ties together these four main characters and the two worlds ever more tightly, building individual narrative climaxes between each combination of protagonist and antagonist, between Gorlov and Malachanitsa, between Petr and Lena, and symbolically between the overworld and underworld.

This clever structuring creates an underlying scaffold that gives the entire book a tight, satisfying feel in which side characters, themes, and action overlay naturally on top.

Copy of The Carver and the Queen novel, with green, jewel-toned cover art

Besides the narrative cohesion, Emma Fox does a couple of other things particularly well, too. Her worldbuilding is concise, but natural and vivid. (And the “concise” part I feel is necessary for a young adult novel, as they tend to be shorter and more fast paced.) Of course, Fox builds two worlds: one is the realistic, historical setting of a village in the Ural Mountains in the early 1800s, while the other is the fantasy underworld of the Malachite Queen. Thanks to Fox’s word painting, both worlds are easy to picture in your mind’s eye, and by the time you’re finished reading you feel as if these are real places you’ve actually been to–not just some generic peasant village or fantasy kingdom.

The novel’s treatment of art and music is also evocative and closely tied to the plot. Fox draws on her own background in art and music as an undergrad, as well as her graduate work in art history, to build these motifs in a rich, authentic way.

One of the things I personally love about the novel is the way it beautifully incorporates the four elements of earth, fire, air, and water throughout the story’s settings and themes. Not only does this use of elements reinforce the book’s themes and symbols and provide opportunities for narrative callbacks, but it underpins the mythic, fairytale feel of the story as well.

Earth is perhaps the dominant element here, evident in the mines where many of the serfs work, the treasured malachite that Petr and Lena carve, and the gemstones and legendary stone flower that lie within the mountain underworld itself. Fire comes into play with a crucial scene during a village bonfire, as well as in the magical fire flower and the local forges. Air manifests in music, voices, and the power of words–one of the book’s themes. Water comes into play with snow, the bog where the spirit-maidens live, Mudrost Pond, and the quarry with its window-surface to the underworld.

Everything works in this novel…every facet is meticulously planned and skillfully crafted. The pacing is on point, the descriptions are lucid, the character personalities and motivations are clear. If there’s one thing more I would’ve liked in The Carver and the Queen, it would be to spend more contemplative time inside Petr’s and Lena’s heads, and more time dwelling on the descriptions. But, it makes sense why the author kept these things trim, as it helps to keep the action moving.

Content Considerations in The Carver and the Queen

Since this is marketed as a young adult novel, you may be wondering if there’s anything you should take into account before reading this to younger children. My take is that it’s fine for a younger audience, too, other than the fact that it might be a little intense in parts–not graphic, just very exciting! The one caveat to that is the whipping in the first chapter. You’ll probably want to edit that when you’re reading aloud.

The romance is very “classic” and chivalric, and not overly sensual. The main hero Petr does feel physically attracted to a sorceress due to her powers, but it’s not described in a way that would be awkward to read aloud. There’s a scene where the villain Gorlov is alone with the heroine and is clearly a threat. Older readers will recognize the danger she feels for her physical person, but younger readers will just see it as the bad guy being generically menacing.

There are also a couple of character deaths–including a gruesome death–but it does not go into detail. If your child has listened to or read The Chronicles of Narnia, they’ll be fine reading The Carver and the Queen. (And sidenote: this book has a very Silver Chair feel to it, which makes one wonder if C. S. Lewis was familiar with any of these Siberian folktales, as well!)

Definitely give this book to your teens to read, especially if you’ve ever felt like there’s a dearth of smart, wholesome fiction for teens on the new release lists these days! And of course, read it yourself. To quote Lewis, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty–except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.” (From Lewis’s essay On Stories.)

The Carver and the Queen is worth it!

More reading for fantasy aficionados:

Emma C. Fox’s Backlist

Fox has one additional novel out right now: The Arrow and the Crown. It’s a standalone historical fantasy set in a Germanic kingdom. Although not a strict fairy tale retelling, it has elements of the “beauty and the beast” story archetype. Fox has also contributed a story to The Lost Tales of Sir Galahad. You can follow her author news on her website.

My Review for The Carver and the Queen: A YA Historical Fantasy of Imperial Russia

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