Review: Coal

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Reasons for Inclusion: Black protagonist. Elves are matriarchal and have varied skin tones. 

Publisher’s Summary: Coal has lived most of his life in the fey realm with his elven best friend, but when a human child he promised to protect unintentionally breaks a law in front of the fey elite, he will have to choose between betraying his best friend or saving the child’s life. 

My Review:

(4/5 stars)

Coal, a human boy among elves, has always been seen as just the barely-tolerated pet of Princess Chalcedony. When he protects a human child against elvish law, he risks destroying the few friendships he has, and might even lead the fey to war. 

The tense and often hateful relations between elves, dwarves, and humans allow for a look at racial dynamics free of generalizations or preaching. The elves, humans, and dwarves usually hate each other. While Chalcedony has managed to keep the political battles between elves and dwarves from boiling over, the disdain is still there. As for humans, they live apart from elves ever since a vicious war several centuries ago. Because of that war, elves see humans as stupid brutes and nothing more, leading to the discrimination against Coal. 

I loved the characters: principled, hard-working Coal, powerful and well-meaning Chalcedony, Coal’s mixed-species swordmaster Grigory, who also faces discrimination. 

Chalcedony’s ability to change her hair and skin color (and her preference for dark skin when the rest of her family has light) raises interesting questions about the perception of race in this world. Coal is disliked by most elves for being a human; his race doesn’t come into it. Nobody really calls attention to Chalcedony’s choice, seeing it as just another part of her being. Little Elizabeth is curious about Chalcedony’s color-changing, but not critical, and in the way of a child she accepts it as just another new thing in the world.

I like how the characters change over the course of the book. They’re confronted with real issues of responsibility, trust, loyalty, right and wrong, no longer the hypothetical ones of lessons. Coal has to decide if it’s worth going against everything he knows to do the right thing, and then what to do after that. Chalcedony has to decide how far she’s willing to go to enforce her will as heir. How they deal with these issues permanently affects them and their relationships.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, and it looks like the rest of the trilogy is going to get even darker, with more ethical questions and difficult choices.

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