I was not expecting a historical fiction/fantasy novel from an author who previously wrote silly (albeit very good) books about au pairs in the Hamptons. Alas, that’s exactly what I got with Melissa de la Cruz’s The Ring and the Crown, and I feel quite conflicted about it.
***WARNING: The plot is complicated, and the below contains spoilers.***
At the beginning of the 20th century, the British Empire is still going strong. It’s actually the Franco-British empire, and it encompasses basically all of Europe. Oh, and it still exists/is so successful because of powerful magics controlled by “the Merlin” and various “mages”. Marie-Victoria is the current princess of said empire, and she is being forced to marry Prince Leopold of Prussia because their countries were just at war with one another and Prussia almost won because they unleashed the dark magic of a Pandora’s Box but now they just want peace between the ruling families. Marie doesn’t want to marry Leo because she likes her personal guard, Gill, but she is holding her head high and trying to fulfill her royal duties.
Aelwyn is Marie’s childhood friend and has returned to the palace as a mage after honing her magic for several years, and her father is the Merlin. (As in, Camelot Merlin. De la Cruz references a lot of hybrid Camelot names: Genevieve instead of Guinevere, Artacus instead of Arthur, Lanselin instead of Lancelot, you get the idea.) Aelwyn is very powerful and mysterious and curvy and pretty and kind of wants to be the one marrying Leo instead of Marie. Leo is actually already engaged to Isabelle, a noblewoman from France, but he breaks off that engagement in order to marry the princess and keep peace between the nations, and he doesn’t see why he can’t just keep Isabelle around as a mistress. Leo is also sort of evil, but we’ll get to that.
Ronan Astor is a formerly-rich girl from New York traveling to London for “the Season”, during which other formerly-rich girls are debuted to society and seek rich husbands via parties, lunches, teas, etc. While en route to the empire via ship she develops a relationship with Wolf, a rough and rugged manly man who just so happens to be Leo’s brother and second heir to the throne. The two fall hard for each other, but Ronan needs a rich husband and doesn’t realize he is in fact the richest possible one, so she rejects him. She sees little success at the Season festivities until the big ball, where she realizes her darling Wolf is actually a prince.
What ensues after these messy character introductions and not enough background on this fictional Franco-British empire is pretty confusing: Marie develops a scheme to run away with Gill, a scheme which requires Aelwyn to perform a spell to make people think she is in fact Marie. The spell works a little too well, but then it doesn’t feel quite right and Marie decides she wants to ditch Gill and return to being princess, and Aelwyn is OK with this because it turns out Leo is planning on blowing up the castle. Not to fret — Louis, cousin/rebound lover of Isabelle (I know, ew) kills Leo during a duel to defend Isabelle’s honor, making Wolf the new prince and future husband of Marie. This turn of events is just swell because Wolf and Marie are also childhood friends and respect each other and their duty to their countries very much, so they don’t mind getting married despite loving others.
While I enjoyed the book and wanted to keep reading to find out what happened, it was a bit of a mess. I wish de la Cruz had spent more time introducing this alternate Franco-British universe and really developing the characters instead of diving right in and expecting the reader to understand this fake history, and I also think Ronan’s story could have been one book and Marie’s another. In fact, Ronan’s story was more compelling than Marie’s anyway (but perhaps that is because of the whole New York thing?). I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a new series because everything seemed to be wrapped up at the end, but I sort of hope it is so de la Cruz can flesh out the story a little more.