Rating: 4 stars
The Kingdoms of Kari and Jede have been at war for ages. When the death of Kari’s King brings about an opportunity to mend the rift between the nations, both countries jump at the chance to end the war and bring their Kingdoms’ casualties to a halt. Prince Rinnen is the only son of Kari’s late King and a male capable of bearing children. King Merinej of Jede needs an heir to carry on his lineage. An heir with the combined bloodlines of both countries would heal the wounds left behind by the war and bring both peoples together, or so the thinking goes. But Prince Rin won’t settle for being just another “uralain,” or concubine, of the King’s. Rin wants a contract stating they will be married and the King will pledge his fidelity to Rin alone or Rin will call the whole thing off no matter the price his people will pay. Rin wants to be safe and have his place assured by the side of Jede’s King.
When King Merinej agrees to Prince Rin’s terms, the marriage is on. Surprises lie in wait for both men after the ceremony is finished. Rin is far from the calculating prince Merin expects. Rin is an innocent, kept locked away in his father’s castle, ignorant of politics, customs, and sexual practices of any kind, a blushing virgin who captivates Merin with his beauty and innocence immediately. Rin is also surprised to find that instead of a hardened warrior who treats him harshly, Merin is tender, considerate of the unschooled, virginal Prince and gently passionate in their lovemaking. But the harsh necessities of their marriage mean that Rin has to become pregnant as soon as possible and a child could mean Rin’s death in childbirth. And not everyone is happy that their King has married one of their enemy. An assassin lurks in the hallways of the palace, waiting for their chance to kill the Prince, even if it means the Kingdoms will be at war once more.
Valentina Heart has all the beginnings of a very interesting series here, complete with vivid characters, magic, male pregnancy, and constant territorial conflict, as well as assassins that constitute a constant threat to our main characters and their children. Each nation has a certain physical type to them. Kari’s people of pure lines have black hair, silver eyes that proclaim their nobility, and small, lean physiques. Jede’s warrior race is comprised of beings of large statue, huge frames of muscle, with blue hair tightly knotted and braided according to custom, brown eyes and facial markings whose patterns differ with each person. Both nations have intermarried and half breeds are common. Each race uses magic to communicate and heal. With relatively few facts, Heart gives us some wonderful world building.
Also interesting is the male pregnancy aspect of the stories. In this universe, children are becoming rare as the ruling class refuses to risk itself in childbirth. Even in the lower classes, the birth rates are falling. Some males of Kari are able to give birth to one or more children, but only at great personal risk. Magic must be used to assist in the birth and magic must also be used to keep the “birther,” or the being carrying the children, from bleeding out. This becomes problematic when only the father and birther are allowed to touch the children and each other, their magic spread so thinly between all the parties that either the children or the birther is lost.
Heart has really worked out some unique twists to the male pregnancy subject here that really kept me engaged in that part of the storyline. Males do not carry children like a female would. Instead they have 3 scars on their side that accept sperm much like an incubating pouch, a neat idea that has its basis in nature here. Another great idea is that each book is told from the POV of one of the main characters. This brings us in close to each person and we able to feel each character’s emotions and thoughts as they occur. However, both books suffer from a “evil voice” that threatens to kill Rin and then Merin in each book. It pops up between chapters to let us know that an assassin is on the loose who threatens the safety of our beloved Rin. To me, this narrative took away from the main story and quite frankly seemed a little hokey. I could have done without this device as there are other ways to let the viewer know that someone is trying to kill one or both of the main characters.
King’s Conquest (Mending the Rift #1) is told from Rin’s POV, starting with his father’s death and the Council’s proposal that he wed King Merinej. He grabs our sympathy immediately. We learn first hand of his innocence that is combined with a practical, pragmatic nature which makes sense when we learn of his isolated childhood. It is almost a necessity that we see King Merin from Rin’s viewpoint. With his eyes, we see what the various Jede look like, including their facial patterns. We learn about Jede customs and practices as Rin does, sometimes to his horror as the Jede don’t have problems with nudity and sexuality that the Kari have. The relationship between Rin and Merin is handled beautifully as two strangers try to find a common ground on which to build a marriage. All told, Heart did a great job with a story that is only 96 pages in length.
Owner of My Heart (Mending the Rift #2) is told from Merin’s POV and picks up almost immediately after the first book has ended, with Rin pregnant with their children. This is a far more difficult book emotionally as it starts off immediately with an attack on Rin and the death of the children he was carrying. (This is not a spoiler as it is mentioned in the blurb for the book.) Even while I was expecting it, the descriptions are still heartrending as both Rin and Merin feel their children die under their hands and they are unable to save them. Indeed, Rin almost dies himself in the process. In the aftermath of their loss, Rin withdraws from Merin in his pain even as they must press forward to have heirs, something Merin is loathe to do as he has come to love Rin. Heart handles this with delicacy even as our hearts break along with the couples. Well done in every wa,y although some will find this almost too vivid in the descriptions of what the couple and the children go through before all is lost.
Owner of My Heart sees a growth in the relationship between Rin and Merin as you would expect after some time and shared traumatic experiences would bring. And we are left at the end of with a HFN instead of the typical HEA, a far more realistic way to leave this couple. In this book, there is some stilted dialog as Merin talks about “the males, the females” in a manner that did not occur in the first book and that threw me off somewhat. But outside of that example, each character has a clear and distinct voice that I appreciated. The use of magic within the Kingdoms brings me to another quibble. Both races use magic to communicate, it is employed during battle, and to heal. So why not use it to determine who is trying to kill the Prince? That did not make any sense to me. I would think that magic users would have across the board applications for it, but here its use is hit or miss, with little consistency. A more even handed treatment as far as the use of magic would have satisfied my need for a logical implementation of magic throughout their society. Perhaps an explanation is coming in future books.
I am looking forward to the next in the series and hope that Heart continues with the alternating points of view. Read these books in the order they were written. I started with the second book to my utmost confusion and the series only made sense once I started over with King’s Conquest where most of the backstory resides. There are many elements here that will scare people off. Male pregnancy for one, the death of unborn babies for another. Both are handled here with care and a certain inventiveness. Don’t let either put you off this series. I can’t wait to see where the next one takes us.
Cover art by Reese Dante. I think both covers are missed opportunities. The vivid descriptions of the facial markings combined with blue hair and intricate braiding patterns would have been far more interesting than the torsos featured, however lovely they are (and yes, I did notice that one has the three scars for Ren).