At first, The Betrothed seems like your typical courtly romance — but there’s a much different story lurking under all the silk and jewels.
I’m a sucker for palace intrigue, so The Betrothed felt like the perfect book to indulge in during my time off during finals week. This is the first book of a two-part series by Kiera Cass, and follows Hollis, the daughter of a noble family in the kingdom of Coroa, who happens to catch the eye of its dashing young King.
As Hollis draws closer to the King, the opportunities for success seem endless. She’s the frontrunner to gain the much coveted position of being Queen of her kingdom, is finally on her way to gain her parents’ respect, and might also be able to elevate her dishonored best friend to a higher rank by association. But the arrival of a group of foreigners proves to be a double-edged sword, and leaves Hollis questioning if this is the life she really wants for herself.
King Jameson is exactly what cynical me imagines Disney Princes to really be like: charming, attractive, incredibly rich and maybe a little too controlling. From the beginning, Hollis sees their relationship as exactly what it is: a profitable business plan for both sides, but she starts to fall for the King’s charms as he becomes more and more enamored of her.
Meanwhile, the refugees from Isolte — a nearby country whose relationship with Coroa is somewhat strained — prompt Hollis to become more informed about the realities of her country. A young man named Silas in particular becomes her close friend, and against her better judgement, Hollis begins to measure Silas against the King… leading her to ask herself some dangerous questions.
Personally, I wasn’t very drawn to either Jameson or Silas; I found Hollis to be the book’s most interesting character. She isn’t a particularly avid reader or good student. The quality she’s most known for is her beauty, although she also has great social skills. It’s unusual to see this type of character as the heroine of the novel — I’m very used to the pretty, sociable girls being the villains — and it’s a great break from a tired old trope. Hollis’ greatest skills are her ability surround herself with good allies and manipulate situations through polite conversation and well-chosen outfits.
Cass’ skills really shine with the arrival of Isolte’s royal family, which requires Hollis to put on a show to impress Isolte’s aloof Queen while Jameson negotiates a new deal with Isolte’s King — all while navigating the awkward presence of Isolten refugees in the Coroan court. Here, Hollis proves herself wonderfully capable, and I enjoyed this so much that I can’t help but wish there was more of it.
Hollis’ friendships are also a big focus in the book. Cass does a great job of avoiding infighting among the women, solving every argument with excellent, honest dialogue. Delia Grace is probably the only character who I liked more than Hollis: she’s loyal, practical, and not easily impressed by the shimmer of court life. It’s Delia Grace who, in the end, helps Hollis remember who she is — and who also proves to be the most rational person between the two of them.
The Betrothed is an enjoyable novel, but it doesn’t always deliver when it comes to romance. The romantic connections between characters often feels contrived and superficial, even though you logically know you should be feeling something. Worldbuilding and character development also suffer a bit, with the exception of Hollis herself, but that may be because there’s still one book to come and Cass is hoping to keep questions open-ended.
There is some unfortunate word choice in the novel. Cass has her characters repeatedly use the term g*psy, both referencing a particular group of people and as an insult. This word is a slur aimed at Romani people, and while many people aren’t aware of its discriminatory background, the fact that it made the cut to a book published in 2020 is pretty shocking. I think it would be great if Cass could acknowledge this misstep and correct it in future books, because it often made dialogue uncomfortable to read.
The Betrothed is a duology, so there’ll be a second book down the line that will probably resolve some of the unanswered questions left by this first book. I expect we’ll get to see Hollis put her skills to use in an entirely different environment, and maybe start to heal the rift between two nations — presumably through her ability to manipulate situations and through the excellent allies she made along the way.
I wonder who her loyalties will be with, in the end. But I guess that’s the whole point of The Betrothed!