Two kingdoms are enemies. Wodenburg is relatively stable, with a saint-driven religion, and a place where everyone has a special kir-magic talent within them. Suevia, on the other hand, was conquered by the Arcean Empire, and now famine, poverty, slavery, and violence fill their lives. Also, in Suevia practicing the old saint-religion and having even a little kir-magic are a guaranteed death sentence.
Heathric is a poor shepherd who is drawn against his will into stealing sheep from Wodenburg by his violent, egomaniacal cousin, Dunstan. I admit, I haven’t read any stories before where the plot begins due to hoof rot. That was a hoot! In any case, Adal is a Wodenburg Ranger who, with his fellow Rangers, is tasked with finding the sheep and killing the thieves. Adal’s special kir-gift is hawkeye vision. Both Heathric and Adal are gay, but unable to reveal this about each other. The roles of hunter and hunted get confused pretty quickly.
That’s the story in a nutshell. I have mixed feelings about this tale. We’re given a map of the area, and nothing more. No time is wasted explaining how this alternate world works, as the tale dives straight into the action. Little tidbits are given along the way, giving you chance to form a bigger picture without a huge info-dump at the beginning. The worldbuilding is done meticulously, with obvious traces of deep period research having gone into making this world believable, in which it totally succeeds, probably the best I’ve seen in a long while. There’s an appendix at the end, dishing out deliciously fine details about this nuanced world. The language is complex, the phrasing vivid and striking, and the multitude of characters are each more interesting than the next.
But considering how intricate the characters, their names and background, and the fabulously constructed worldbuilding, there are two things that are all wrong here: Heathric and Adal. Namely, their romance. This story is about 140 pages of actual text, but the main couple meet at about page 95. Everything in this Suevia—Wodenburg situation is so well created that the immediate insta-sex and insta-love felt rushed and unrealistic. I was so disappointed. What this story needed was about a hundred pages more to give the romance depth and chance for the characters to blossom into their true selves and for their relationship to get forged into something lasting.
I mean, two men from enemy kingdoms see each other in the bushes—and wham, bam, thank-you-man, it’s full-on anal sex right off the bat for the first time? It was hot, to be sure, since Blankenship can write quite well, but was it right for this stage in the story? It was rushed and just lacking in credibility. For a shorter novel, two people engaged in a romance first spend three quarters of the book unaware of each other’s existence, and then upon first meeting go at it like rabbits in heat; that is throwing away all the potential the great worldbuilding had laid out. Plus, both men have other lovers in the story before they finally get together with each other, so if you consider that cheating, steer clear.
In essence, this book has a lot to offer. Blankenship can definitely write, no question of that. It felt like every word and phrase was carefully chosen, the author obviously loving this part of storytelling. But the romance, or lack thereof, was executed at the last minute, with a slapped-on happy-ever-after that had no plausible basis… well, it ruined some of the enjoyment for me. I’m truly hoping this turns out to be only the first book in a series, and that there will be much, much, much more. If so, then I will wholeheartedly recommend this. If not… then, like me, you’ll be left with some pretty deep frustrations and plenty of unanswered questions and unresolved issues.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.