Alera, heir to the patriarchal kingdom of Hytanica, is coming of age to marry and be crowned queen. Her father has chosen his successor, Steldor, and will abdicate as soon as Alera weds. Being a traditionally-raised girl, Alera tries to comply with her parents' wishes, but her instincts keep getting in the way of her good intentions. At the same time, a nearly twenty-year stalemate with the belligerent, matriarchal Cokryi nation is falling apart as an ancient prophecy's reckoning draws near.
Hytanica, the setting for this series, is a medieval-ish city-state. According to legend, the country is protected by a magical sacrifice performed by the first king. There doesn't appear to be any magic in Hytanica other than that legend, though. The country has a chauvinistic philosophy (women defer in everything to the men including submitting to beatings, men are protectors, all women should aspire to be devoted housewives, blah, blah, ugh), conservative social mores (modesty in dress, strict adherence to manners, knowing your place), an agrarian economy, a reluctance to change, and a state religion (thinly veiled Catholicism). A recurring theme is chastity, which I thought was brave and unusual in a mainstream YA novel because it actually plays a key role in the plot and it's not preachy in the least. Of course, chastity is in keeping with temporal setting, but it's handled logically and not judgmentally. Kluver's ability in peeling back the layers that make up teenage thinking and feeling is uncanny. Her insight into her characters' behaviors rings so very true to their established personalities and how people that age feel.
Alera, as the Hytanican heroine is interesting because she is in keeping with her times for the most part. She's not assertive or particularly sharp - her foresight is pretty pitiful on a couple of occasions. Thankfully, the first-person voice narration saves her. She may not act like the gung-ho girl heroes (but neither is she a snively clumsy damsel-in-distress) I've come to expect in this genre, but her thoughts tend to be independent, wanting to reach her own conclusions and get at the truth whenever she can. I respect her thinking and motivations and that's the way she earns her way into your heart. Alone, her personality isn't that appealing. Her main redeeming qualities are wanting to do right and learning from her mistakes. As far as I can tell she has no hobbies, no real friends besides her younger sister, no great skills at anything. In retrospect, that's not that strange, right? We're supposed to identify with her and if she's too specific, it's harder to get there. She even appears sort of nondescript with brown eyes, brown hair, not small, not big, not sweet, not mean.
Next, Alera's husband-to-be, Steldor (OMG, why? Why not just Stell or Eldor or Keldor? Is this an anagram? Why, why did you go there, Kluver? Half the time I read this as Skelator - not really sexy.) is the golden boy of Hytanica: a top military commander, best fighter in the country, his father's son, a successful flirt, arrogant, a bully, gorgeous, condescending, and hot-tempered. Total alpha male. My goodness, could he be more revolting both in good and bad ways? Yet there is something in flux about him that bears hoping for the best, although I do not hold with 180-degree personality flips. That earns a chucking across the room - or, supremely less satisfying, a deletion from the e-reader. Alera has her work cut out for herself getting around him. Of course, there is a broody new guy in town, Narian, who looks to make things a little bit more complicated. Eh, it's not like the kingdom is at stake or anything.
A deliberate dichotomy is set up not just with Steldor and Narian, but also in the two warring countries' cultures. Cokyri (again, WTF?) is feminist (to the point of being offensive if you believe in sex equality), magical, arid and mountainous, technologically advanced, and godless. These two countries couldn't find anything in common if they were wiped out in a single meteor strike. It reminded me of our Democrats and Republicans, actually. Haha.
Although there a quite a bit of background to establish, the first-person POV is well-done by Kluver. First-person narration has gotten old, but we live a culture of navel-gazing so it's probably not going anywhere. Alera trying to find her identity through how she deals with the conflagration of conflicts in her life is a perfectly natural way to analyze the why, where, how that gives the reader plenty of exposition in a mostly non-awkward way. All the action and dialogue give the story a good pace and the beginning takes off right away with Alera and Steldor's first date. Make some time because it's hard to put down after that first page.