Cenric, a lowly scribe in a small village, believes this is his lucky day. He’s about to propose to the girl he’s fancied since they were both children, and he even has a special trinket for the lovely lass. But… the day turns out to be the worst in his life. The girl is engaged to someone else, his house burns down, and a monstrous shadow is chasing him. To his aid comes a mysterious magic-wielding stranger, Rylan, who knows far more than he’s telling and who seems to know his way around the wilderness. Cenric’s journey takes him through wild country to the halls of the palace, all because of a trinket, two coppers worth. And it turns out no place is safe—for either of them.
This story starts out with a bang! I was immediately drawn in, the immersion total and complete. The world-building is done subtlely, with scarce few details dropped here and there. It’s as though we are Cenric, an ignorant scribe from a tiny village, who learns about a huge world beyond the boundaries of safety. That was a good call by Miller as it inspired wanting to learn more and to keep reading. Slowly we discover the rest of the world, how dwarf clans are at war, or how elves lurk in the shadows wanting to claim magic from the kingdom, and so on. There’s also political intrigue, as nations collide in games of subterfuge, played by spies and hunters.
Part 1 is told from Cenric’s point of view, part 2 from Rylan’s. That wasn’t necessarily the best way to approach, since at times I felt a certain scene would have made more sense or opened up better had the other person been the POV character. In the palace especially I longed to hear what Cenric thought about it all.
Cenric may not know a lot about the world but he’s a spitfire, learning his own strength and capabilities along the way. He’s a great protagonist, at once shy and inexperienced, and yet possessing an inner strength he might never have known had he not ended up dragged into his grand adventure. Rylan is more steadfast—but only until they arrives at the palace where he feels too confined and becomes somewhat irritating, wanting things to be done his way. This showed him as a real personality, someone who thrives in the wild, in adventures, but feels like a prisoner if forced to stay put for too long. Inaction doesn’t work for him. Plus, he has an unfortunate habit of coddling Cenric, who doesn’t appreciate it at all.
Cenric and Rylan’s interactions are the best sections in the story. Their banter is wickedly fun to read, and their battles with curses and dangers showcase the author’s ability to create wonderful interactions and smartass dialogue. However… There are several lulls in the tale that keep Cenric and Rylan apart, mainly as a result of having to heal for weeks on end due to curses and hexes. I realize this book is more an adventure than a romance but keeping the main characters apart for such long periods of time simply seemed wrong. It was like the author deliberately kept Cenric and Rylan apart so they couldn’t deal with their emotions about one another too soon. To me it felt like a needless delay tactic that never works well with romantic plotlines. Nonetheless, it gave the characters a chance to interact more with their surroundings, and through sacrifices to save each other’s lives their bond solidified.
Despite the fast-paced action scenes, however, there are lull moments that happened with the tree-dwelling dwarves (do we really need to know each of their names, habits and professions?), at the palace (boring family dinners that did very little to advance the plot), and the magic training (while intriguing, it seemed like reading a magic manual). When Cenric and Rylan were traversing the wilderness, the book was fun and exciting, and then with these slow-motion sections… not as much.
Nonetheless, the plot is fascinating, if a bit predictable. The nature-loving dwarves were full of surprises, which I liked, since the traditional Tolkien dwarves have been done to death. The royal family dynamic had its moments, and there are quite a few unforgettable characters, the queen and Pearce in particular. The many curses plaguing our heroes show that the author knows her Snow White fairytale, with poisoned apples and combs. Funny stuff.
The writing may lag a bit at times, but mostly this is definitely a well worthwhile read. Sure, when Rylan used modern curse words, it brought me out of the story in a snap, being totally wrong for the setting. But this tale is a grand adventure, Tolkien-style, with uprooted heroes who must travel through the wild to end up in palaces with kings and queens—and learning that they are special too.
I’m aware that it must seem like I didn’t like the story, noting so many negatives. But… I loved reading this. I was tempted to keep reading, and I did, till the wee hours of morning. This is one of those books that you start and then have to finish in one sitting. I can’t really put my finger on what it was about the story that was so alluring. It simply is. Miller has a definite grasp of telling fascinating stories that grip you from start to finish, and I admit I’ve become a fan.
I’m pleased to find that the author is writing a sequel, and I’ll be anxiously waiting for new journeys. The story does have a happy ending. I can foresee this fantasy world offering many, many new plot lines to develop into large novels, even a series.
I highly recommend this to all fantasy and adventure lovers, even if gay romances aren’t to your fancy, because that element is really a small one here. The friendship and trust between Cenric and Rylan becomes far more important than their romantic relationship. There are but a few kisses, nothing more. So this is safe for all readers.