[tw: emotional abuse]
Look it’s another one of those books that I got months ago and I’m only getting to review now because my to read pile keeps growing (seriously though it’s been a hard month or I would have finished it sooner). I’m actually more familiar with her partner’s (Tanya Huff) work, which are very hit or miss for me. I loved the Blood books, hated the Smoke series, and was meh regarding The Enchantment Emporium.
For centuries, the royal line of Branion has possessed the power of the Flame, a powerful magic that can rain destruction down on one’s enemies if it doesn’t drive its vessel mad or consume them as easily as their enemies, you know, standard magical stuff. Crown prince Demnor has other things on his mind, however, foremost among them having to deal with a formidable mother who only seems to want to berate him for not being strong enough, when neighbouring
Scotland Heathland rises up in rebellion against Branion, Demnor will find himself embroiled in a struggle that might tear the realm apart.
My favourite thing about this book has to be the world-building. Everyone uses masculine titles and women are just as likely to serve in the army or run towns as men. There are a ton of fantasy novels that either present themselves as egalitarian with every prominent position being filled by men or stick all women in homemaking and support roles out of a sense of “realism” (which isn’t all that realistic, when you think about it). Not so here, there are a great many female characters who are kind, cunning, and every bit as ruthless as any man in a similar position in a dime a dozen fantasy novel. I wish more authors would get this, but I digress. The world itself is nothing you haven’t seen before, Branion and the surrounding areas are basically the U.K. with slightly fantastical names and the major religions are both Crystal Dragon Jesus traditions with the Essusiate religion having a literal dragon as the companion of
Jesus Essus, and they also have nuns and a Pontiff (who can be a woman, in case you’re wondering) and the Triarchic faith worshiping a trio of deities known as the Triarchy as well as the Living Flame, which is embodied in the ruler, the Aristok, in addition to having Mass-like services. It doesn’t exactly score originality points in the religion category, but I’ve seen some really half-baked attempts at writing religion in fantasy novels. However, religion does occupy a central role in the major conflict in the book, so i can forgive a lack of originality.
Unfortunately, I initially wasn’t too impressed with either Demnor or his love interest. Demnor just rubbed me the wrong way, and it took me awhile to warm up to him and realize that the emotional abuse he suffers at the hands of his mother would mess up any kid. I can’t say the same for his love interest, Kelahnus. He’s set up as a hyper competent spy and courtesan with combat training (top of his class, in fact) and yet, when push comes to shove, he hides in the corner. I just found it kind of ridiculous how he’s supposed to be top of his class in an organization of powerful information gatherers who are loyal to their Guild first and use the nobles to advance the Guild’s position and he never really demonstrates that he is.
Speaking of Kelahnus, in Branion it’s common to have relationships with one (or more) Companions of the same sex. This is apparently to cut down on the number of bastard children. The Companions, however, are not permitted to reciprocate their client’s feelings, as nothing is to come before their loyalty to the Guild; the fact that Kelahnus does reciprocate Demnor’s feelings is a major part of the plot. At the same time, Demnor being forced into a politically motivated unwanted marriage complicates things, and to be honest, the unwanted marriage thing got on my nerves, like why couldn’t they just be a couple without dragging out the unwanted marriage trope? I know this book is a bit old now, but it’s still frustrating. I did like how, unlike in almost every other book I’ve read with a central m/m romance, the women aren’t completely ignored or treated with disdain, Kelahnus in particular has a good relationship with Tania, Demnor’s intended’s Companion, and although Demnor would rather not marry Isolde, they get along well enough. Although, in my opinion, I think referring to Demnor as “gay” is a stretch, because he certainly spends a lot of time admiring how Isolde looks and stuff like that. He read more as bisexual to me but his first love will always be Kelahnus.
The other frustrating part about this book is the flashbacks. The flashbacks are very lengthy and tell of how Demnor and Kelahnus met and elaborate more on the tension between Demnor and his mother. The flashbacks take up such a big chunk of the book that you could almost say it’s telling two stories. Now I don’t mind flashbacks, but I felt like the ones in this book might have gone on a little too long.
As much as I find the way this book handles gender to be refreshing, I’m not sure if I want to read the other books in the series. (Note that the other books in the series are actually prequels and The Stone Prince is a self-contained story.) At this time, I’m interested in continuing with this series but I think I’ll hold off a bit before ordering the next one. I didn’t hate this book. In fact, as of right now, I actually prefer her writing to Huff’s, but the issues above just leave me uncertain about this series.