Review: Sands of Deceit

Few authors are able to pump out lengthy fantasy novels with fantastic character and world-building as quickly as Celeste Baxendell. The latest book in her Bewitching Fairy Tales series is Sands of Deceit, an adaptation of "King Thrushbeard" and "Bluebeard," two lesser-known fairy tales that rarely get adaptations. I was pleased that this story was a direct tie-in to my favorite of her books, Cinders of Glass. Instead of a sweet, naive, and reckless protagonist like Liora, this book is about the "mean girl" who bullied her, Lady Gisele, who is equally relatable in entirely different ways. Gisele is cold, calculating, and worldly with an unexpected vulnerability at her core. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her redemption arc, especially since it reminded me of one of my own books, The Stolen Slipper.

Sands of Deceit by Celeste Baxendell

Lady Gisele has just about given up on her chances of succeeding in life. She comes from a ruined family, and to top it all off, the prince she was seeking married her rival, Liora. When Liora offers her a second chance if she agrees to do an undercover spy mission for her kingdom, Gisele has nothing left to lose. The mission requires her to pretend to be married to Hakim, a man she finds insufferable while working for his cousin, Karim, as a singer and doing demeaning labor when she isn't performing. What she doesn't know is that during the entire course of their mission, Hakim is using magic to disguise himself as Karim, who has a secret mission of her own. Unfortunately for them, Gisele is very good at discovering people's secrets, a skill that nearly gets her killed on multiple occasions.

This book does a great job of combining the stories of "King Thrushbeard" and "Bluebeard" with a unique twist that this series is prone to. Both fairy tales are about a bearded man keeping potentially deadly secrets from a woman. In this case, the bearded man is Hakim in disguise as Karim. While the real Karim is living happily ever after with his true love, he entrusts Hakim to run an undercover operation where he pretends to marry troubled women while pretending to be him, claims that each wife has tragically passed away, and then sneaks the "dead" wives off to a life of freedom, kind of like a medieval witness protection program. The problem with this scheme is that it looks like Karim is killing all of his wives to the general public. Gisele quickly becomes concerned about the fate of his wives until she learns that he is involved in the same mission as her. After that, she begins to fall for Karim because she thinks she isn't good enough for Hakim.

Gisele and Hakim have a unique relationship that is not portrayed often in fairy tale books. They are constantly at each other's throats, but each secretly desires the other's approval. This is a pretty classic romcom trope for couples who must pretend to be married despite not being able to stand each other and then falling in love later on. The writing in the book adds new depth to that trope by focusing on both characters' perspectives and how different their inner feelings are from the way they present themselves to the world. This gives them an opportunity to get to know each other better through their fake marriage by having private moments to reveal their vulnerabilities that they would not have had otherwise. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how all the pieces of their relationship came together after each secret had been revealed.

Overall, I thought this was a much stronger book than the previous one in this series, and I loved all the throwbacks to Cinders of Glass. Gisele and Hakim are fascinating characters with complex goals and motivations. It's nice to take a break from the sugar-sweet gentle princess archetype once in a while and read about one who prefers to take charge of her own destiny. These characters are easy to relate to despite their complexities. The author did a fantastic job of combining two less popular fairy tales in an appealing way. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves classic fairy tales and wants to experience something that strays a bit from the beaten path.

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