Sebastian Swift was framed for the murder of his twin sister at age 13 and has been locked away in a mental hospital ever since. He has no idea that each night he is drugged and his magic stolen so that his cousin, Emrys, can use Sebastian’s power over the waters of Cantre’r Gwaelod. Not only that, but Emrys has placed his bastard son, Macsen, in Sebastian’s position as earl, pretending that he is really Sebastian so that the two can rule the land.
Eight years after being locked away, a freak storm allows Sebastian to escape. He is led to freedom by the ghost of his sister, August, and taken in by a group living in Thievesward. There he recovers from his abuse at the asylum and learns more about what is going on with his home. With August’s urging, Sebastian assumes her identity and returns home to Llys Mawr as August, pretending she hadn’t died, but instead was rescued but had lost her memory for years. Sebastian plans to expose Macsen and Emrys as frauds and reclaim his title and inheritance.
Things don’t go entirely to plan, however. Sebastian had no idea he possessed power over the water, let alone that Emrys is stealing it violently from him every night. And though at first Mascen and Sebastian have nothing but animosity towards one another, Mascen turns out to be an unexpected ally. He suffered greatly at his father’s hands as a child, and once he gets to know Sebastian better, the guys turn from enemies to allies to lovers. However, the two of them face a dangerous enemy in Emrys. He is determined to use Sebastian’s magic for his own gain and will stop at nothing to achieve the wealth and power he desires. Now Mascen and Sebastian must figure out how to stop Emrys from destroying their world and wielding great power, all while trying to stay alive.
The Water Thief was like the tale of two stories for me. I loved the first half, and then things kind of took a down turn. But before I get into that part, I read this book for Friends & Enemies to Lovers Week, so let’s start with the relationship end of things. I love the enemies to lovers trope and I think it is handled quite well here. The conflict between Macsen and Sebastian stems from when they were both children, and Sebastian lived the life of the future earl while Mascen suffered at the hands of his abusive father. Although Mascen is clearly in the wrong by impersonating Sebastian and claiming his title, we can also see how he has always been under his father’s thumb. He also had no idea just how violently Emrys was stealing Sebastian’s magic. So he is a guy that starts out as a true villain with the men clearly set up as enemies, but he is still redeemable when the men begin to fall for one another. I love that they start as enemies and end up as lovers and allies, and I think despite some issues at the end where Mascen’s waffling and doubting lead to some trouble, this element of the story works well.
So as I said, this ended up being one of those books where I really enjoyed the first half, then was disappointed in the second half. The first half of the book focuses on Sebastian’s escape, his time in Thievesward, his arrival at home impersonating August, and the start of his relationship with Mascen. I loved the mix of paranormal elements in with this historical. I found the story exciting and fast paced. I enjoyed the way that Mascen starts out as the villain, but as we (and Sebastian) get to know him, we see that there is much more to him. And I loved the twisty plot where there are layers of deceit and con on top of con, each person playing the other for different motives, until Mascen and Sebastian finally team up together. It is clever and kept me engaged, and there is a nice balance of clever plot with a light paranormal mix.
Unfortunately at the halfway point things get kind of crazy. I won’t say it went totally off the rails, because there were still enough threads of the story I was enjoying to hold things together, but there were also many elements that just didn’t work for me. First off, the story takes a leap into kind of a time travel thing as they travel between realms and one is much further in the future than the other (legends that Cantre’r Gwaelod once was part of a different realm are apparently true). At this point, there was just so much craziness happening and so many things that didn’t quite make sense. It just seems like the author was throwing things in and nothing felt fully explained or tied together. We get all these surprising revelations that aren’t clearly tied to the rest of the story, and I found myself full of questions about things that suddenly didn’t quite work. I realized I was kind of reading with a WTF face much of the time.
Ok, so to avoid too much in the way of spoilers, I’m going to get into specifics behind the spoiler tag. This doesn’t give a tremendous amount away of the plot, but does give information what is really going on with August, so if you don’t want to know any details, skip this part.
So it turns out the other realm moves at a different speed in time, so they are in what is essentially present day Wales. When they arrive, the guys have so little reaction to the modern world they see around them that I was totally thrown. August picks them up in a car, and no reaction. All this technology, different clothes, different world, and Sebastian barely reacts (Mascen has been there before but still, he has lived his life in a totally different time period). Later, Sebastian does express surprise at a few things, like movies. But he also notes that August is using a glass and metal cell phone and is unfazed (I mean, I don’t think they even HAD phones in his time period, let alone cell phones). On the day of their arrival, August sends them to a gay club. And somehow these guys who just arrived from 100 years in the past are able to pass in a club? I mean, the story treats it as if they are guys from the country having some sort of jaunt to the big city, rather than people from one hundred years in the past blending in with barely any trouble. I just felt so blown away by the idea we are supposed to accept these men from 100 years ago come to present day and aren’t freaking out. It just totally took away any sense of realism from this part of the story.
There are other issues as well that all just seemed so unrealistic. August manages to get them ironclad IDs within the day of their arrival. No one knew they were coming, and clearly no one took a picture of them in the other realm. Yet somehow she can get high end, foolproof IDs in a day? But she is also somehow super connected with people working for her and access to technology, allowing her to manage this whole elaborate plot from her life in another realm. There are just so many things that don’t make sense. August sneaks in somewhere, but tells Sebastian he can’t go because if someone monitors the cameras they may recognize him, but she can go safely. Yet we are told that they look so much alike, Sebastian pretended to be her for months.
The one place things do go off the rails for me is as we learn more about Emrys’ evil plot. It is just so over the top, so unrealistic. In particular his plan for what to do with Cantre’r Gwaelod is just crazy. How is no one going to notice in the modern realm when his plans come together? And then when we learn August’s role in things, which kicked my disbelief up another notch.
This visit to the other realm also raised all these questions for me. What time period are these two realms in specifically? Obviously historical enough to still have lords and earls ruling over their their peasants, and far enough in the future to have fancy cell phones and computers. But nothing is ever clarified. And is Cantre’r Gwaelod part of the rest of the real world? Half the time they talk about it like it exists as a completely separate entity.
I just felt in the end that things get too crazy, too over the top, and the nice, tight, fast-paced story gets turned into something sort of off kilter. It seems like so many elements are thrown in and not everything makes sense and things don’t quite work together. It was so disappointing because the first part of the story was so good! So then to see things fall apart quite a bit in the second half and the story take a turn into a new direction is just so sad. In the end, my rating conveys my feelings about both parts of the story together. I still liked the book overall, but didn’t love it the way I did in the beginning. I think if you enjoy a paranormal historical mix, and you are ok with the time travel element as well as for things to go a bit wild in the second half, that this story will still work for you. There are lots of good things about it, including the enemies to lovers aspect, it just unfortunately didn’t fully live up to its potential for me.
P.S. Two quick notes that I wasn’t able to work in. First, the story is told in first person when in Sebastian’s POV, and third person when in Mascen’s. Surprisingly this didn’t bother me at all, and the POV changes are clearly marked at the start of the chapters, but I mention it because I know some folks don’t like that format. Also, for folks who care about such things, Sebastian has an on page sexual relationship with another character before things start up with Mascen. It totally worked fine for me.
Note: The Water Thief releases on Tuesday, March 15th but is currently available for preorder