4 out of 5 stars.
Think “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Cinderella” mixed in with political intrigue. Elara is an unpaid servant in a family that is paid to care for her. Wilha is the kingdom’s princess who has never been seen without an ornate mask covering her face. It turns out they are twins. Wilha is being sent off to marry a Prince in a kingdom (Kyrencia) that has long been an enemy of hers and Elara is being bundled off as an unwilling decoy for the trip.
Both of the girls are understandably angry and hurt. Elara was abandoned to a heartless family that abused and neglected her. Wilha has never been told why she must constantly cover her face, so she is distanced, if not feared, by everyone she meets. Both are being treated like pawns by a father that never cared for them. They get a taste of the others’ life when they arrive and Wilha runs away, leaving Elara to figure out how to imitate royalty and Wilha to survive alone on the streets.
Both girls are very different and express their anger in different ways. They are both well-written and complex characters. Their relationship runs the full gamut of emotions, between “I have always wanted a sister” and “I hate you for ruining my life”. It is fascinating watching their different personalities clash and work around each other.
The girls grow even more in the second book, when their father dies, their brother takes the throne, and the two are pushed forward as possible contenders for the throne. Elara has a natural empathy for the poor that makes her a good candidate, but is impulsive and knows nothing of ruling. Wilha knows the protocol and the manners, but is timid and has never disobeyed orders before. Both are pushed around by rebel factions and any loyalty they once had to their brother, who is now king. Neither is comfortable with the other being the sole ruler, but they cannot rule together (the kingdom has a long-standing mythos of twin queens betraying each other). Since being summoned back to their home, the betrothal and alliance with Kyrencia is also in question.
The political aspects of the books are complex enough to be intriguing, but not so complicated that you need a spreadsheet to keep track of everything (looking at you George R. R. Martin). The focus on the sister-relationship alongside the romantic and political relationships gives the reader a really faceted look at the princesses and develops the characters into real people. Elara and Wilha have to both find new identities and roles as the fate of two kingdoms rests on their shoulders.