Rating: 4.25 stars
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Mike Carlson is a practical guy, one who works with numbers and doesn’t believe in fairy tales. So he is shocked one night when a woman claiming to be the goddess Agata appears in his apartment in California. Mike is even more shocked when she transports him to another world, claiming Mike needs to participate in a pilgrimage to appease her sister, the angry goddess Alina.
As it turns out, Mike has another version of himself in this world, a version that takes the form of a selfish man who offended Alina. In response, she issued a curse on the villagers that can only be broken by one doing penance. Since there is no chance Mike’s doppleganger will do his duty, Mike is being called in to take his place. With very little in the way of guidance, Mike is sent on his way to journey through this strange land to visit a series of shrines to Alina.
Mike is helped along the way by Goran, a man who offers to work as his guide and bodyguard. Goran is huge and strong, a skilled hunter and a powerful swordsman. Mike knows he will need Goran’s help if he is going to have any hope of making it through his quest. As the men get to know each other, they grow closer and begin to fall in love. Mike finds everything he has been missing in love with Goran, but he knows there is no hope for them. Mike isn’t even allowed to tell Goran who he really is or why he is on the pilgrimage. There is no way they can have a future when they live in different worlds. All Mike originally wanted was to complete his task and go home, but as his journey nears an end, he realizes that he doesn’t want to leave true love behind.
Pilgrimage is a delightful fantasy story with a clever premise and a romantic, heartwarming feeling. I loved the setup for this one. To some degree we have seen this before: modern man gets whisked away to another world where he is out of place and must find a way return home. But Fielding gives us some clever touches here that make the story stand out. I particularly liked the idea of Mike having a double. As Agata describes it, they are like two spoons made from the same mold, originally identical but changed and shaped by life. It is a clever idea, that out there we have others just like us, people who started out the same but have grown and changed throughout their lives.
The rest of the world building is also well done. Fielding takes us on a journey through the land, each village and town a little bit different. I was impressed that with all the stops these men make and people they meet, the author manages to make each place unique and interesting. There were times, especially early on, when the journey felt a little slow as they went from town to town, but overall I think Fielding created a really interesting world here and does a nice job developing the places the men go and the people they meet along the way.
I enjoyed Mike as the modern man who has his life view abruptly changed. Although at first he is in disbelief, he sets upon the journey with a sort of resigned bemusement, like he can’t really believe it all but he is going to do it anyway. Mike enjoys his life at home and has a close relationship with his family. But romantically he was hurt badly by a cheating lover, one who convinced Mike that he is too cold and reserved for love. Mike thinks of himself as too practical and cold-hearted for thoughts of love and fate and magic. So it is nice to slowly see him open up as the story goes on, to become more in touch with his emotions and to really feel both love and pain.
For me the real highlight of the couple is Goran, and I just adored him. At first Goran comes across as this big, happy-go-lucky guy. He is eager to please and seems to just go with the flow of the journey. He is also strong and brave and handsome and will do anything to take care of Mike. But as we get to know him, we see that he is a man masking a lot of pain. Goran has met with a lot of tragedy in his life, circumstances that left him alone after the loss of his family and his lover. It is clear he still feels the weight of those loses and a sense of responsibility for their deaths that haunts him. He is an interesting mix of strong and fragile, with a powerful body but a heart that is hurting. Some of the most poignant moments come in the story when we see how badly Goran wants to be with Mike, how he needs to be with him, and how hurt he is when he finds that he can not come along when the journey is over.
Part of the appeal of a story like this is the fish out of water aspect as the newcomer tries to navigate the new world and the culture clash that inevitably results. But I did think the story makes it all a little too easy. Mike actually manages to adapt pretty well, and I can sort of accept that with Goran as his guide, though he does adjust awfully fast. But there are so many times where Mike talks about life in California that seem to be accepted far too easily to make sense. Mike can’t tell Goran why he is there, but does tell him he is from California, which Goran assumes is another land in his own world. For a man who spends his life traveling and seems to know every inch of the realm, including what street to turn down in almost every town they visit, the idea that he so easily accepts there is a mysterious land he has never even heard of seems surprising. And then Mike makes no effort to disguise any aspects of his modern life, talking about it freely even though Goran would never understand half of it and would certainly find it impossible to believe any land in his world to have these modern amenities. Mike discusses his father’s cancer treatment, for example, and mentions being good at Google searches, etc. The explanation is that Goran just thinks it is all part of life in Mike’s distant land, but as I said, that seems too easy an excuse for me. At one point, Mike even mentions something about his apartment and the person he is talking to immediately understands he means his home, when that is not a word people in this world would have ever heard. It just was too hard to suspend my disbelief that Mike could talk this freely about things that would be impossible in this world and nobody ever seems fazed. For all the detail that Fielding puts in to the world building, I think this should have been tightened up.
I think the best part here and what really made the story for me is the sweetness between Goran and Mike. For all that this is an adventure between them, it is also such a lovely, comfort read. The two men are so loving together, healing each other’s emotional wounds. The climax of the story was so romantic and heartwarming and all I wanted was for these guys to make it together. So I really liked this one. It is a really nice mix of clever world building and sweet romance. Very enjoyable.
Cover Review: Oh, I love this cover! It is so perfect for the story, with that fantasy feel and the perfect depictions of Mike and Goran, right down to the blue briefs Mike is wearing when he is whisked away to another world.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.