Rating: 4.5 stars
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Tomas Kemp and Cathal Emerys have finally returned to Tomas’ home after escaping from Naearu, Cathal’s world in an alternative universe. And while the men hope they are finally safe from Cathal’s cousin, Lady Deryn, and the laws governing his world, neither man really believes it. The cost of their escape is high. Christian, another of Cathal’s cousins, has lost almost everything he loved and is confined to the shape of a cat for as long as the magic of his punishment holds. Cathal is also confined within the boundaries of the inn where they now reside, chained by magic to the oak tree that is the portal between the worlds.
Cathal’s nightmares are increasing now that he and Tomas have consummated their relationship and Tomas seems to be acquiring some magic of his own in the interim. Naearu’s enforcers, the Falcons, are still capable of coming after them, and nightly Lady Deryn whispers threats in Cathal’s mind, promising to kill Tomas if Cathal doesn’t return to their world and marry her. Cathal and Tomas are struggling with their relationship. Cathal is still keeping secrets from Tomas and Tomas is still trying to overcome his self centered impulses and isolated ways to find a way to have an equal relationship with Cathal. Only when the portal is closed, can both men feel safe to plan for their future.
Magic’s Muse is the second book in the Hidden Places series, but the first that I have read by Anne Barwell. The first book, Cat’s Quill, centers around Tomas’s meeting Cathal and their time in Naearu. It sets out Barwell’s world and myth building that is so important to the events that occur here and introduces us to characters in the continuing storyline of the Hidden Places. That said, I am not sure I wish to go back and read what must be a very bittersweet story. If I do, it will be because Barwell has such a beautiful way with the English language. Her sentences flow with a magic all of their own, transporting us easily to places we have never been to meet people not of this world. Her narrative is rich in its descriptions and the tumultuous emotions of all the characters involved. From the lyrical passages of the countryside with its fields and magical oak tree, to the dust motes in the attic of the inn that has been the focal point of time travel, it makes us feel that we are there, listening to the floor boards creak and the branches sigh with the wind.
Her characters are as rich and complex as the story she is telling. Tomas is a author of popular books and initially a tough character in which to invest your affections. He comes across as extremely self centered, oblivious sometimes to the feelings of those closest to him. Tomas’ attention is all about his writing; he is consumed with his stories, one of which will bring him into contact with Lord Cathal Emerys of Naearu. We can recognize Tomas as one whose social skills are sadly lacking and whose focus is always somewhere else, even when someone is talking to him. Indeed while Tomas can come off as quite dour, Cathal shimmers with magic and vulnerability. Cathal easily endears himself to the reader, for Tomas it takes a little longer. Cathal misses his family even as he recognizes that Tomas’ world is the only place they will be safe and have a future. Cathal is filled with guilt over his role in Christian’s punishment and struggling to find a balance in his relationship with Tomas. So much is going on in Cathal’s head and heart that sometimes he is feel estranged from the every day moments in the inn. Barwell imbues all of her characters with so much heart, soul, and intelligence that everyone breathes and bleeds across the pages.
And bleed these characters do. Whether is it actual blood, or their emotions bleeding out of them, there is so much sadness and loss within these story that your heart hurts from reading it. Christian is an especially tragic figure. Condemned to being a cat, he was torn away form his wife and newborn son. His beloved wife continued to wait for him to return up to her last breath, as what is months in one world is years in Tomas’. And now his son is dying in a nursing home and his grandson needs him badly. Christian’s wife’s sketches and paintings pop up throughout the story bringing with them the bittersweet memories of their time together. He too awaits the closing of the portal, the only thing that will restore his human form. No character is left untouched by regret or sorrow. Looming over all the events occurring is the threat that the Falcons can reappear to pull one or all of them back to Naearu for judgment and jail. Over and over we are told their reappearance is eminent and the foreboding builds incrementally. And that brings me to my only quibble with this tale.
We are left with quite a few dangling ends of the saga, so many that I assume that another book will follow this one. A child is still missing, two characters have just paired up, and all agree that Lady Deryn will never give up on her goal of marriage to Cathal and her need to destroy Tomas. With all that hanging over our couple and their friends at the end, I would classify this as a happy for now, not the happy ever after others see it as. Perhaps I am wrong, but I think not. That would let Cathal and Tomas off too easily, something I would not expect of Barwell and her saga building. With descriptive passages and a richly enthralling narrative Barwell conjures up a tale of two worlds and a rising rebellion that will effect both. This story can only be part of a much larger plan. I look forward to seeing what comes next.