Jean Rivard and Marion Casterline have history. Sent as young boys to the island of exiles, Malachite, they grew up thick as thieves under the ruthless tutelage of a formidable pirate lord, Aureo. Killing their enemies, those who would challenge Aureo’s power, and the weak kept both the gang and Aureo in power. As the years passed, however, Marion grew to despise the mean life they eked out in the slums of Malachite. He decides to turncoat and work instead for the city proper as a warden and Jean follows. As wardens, they work to keep the city safe. While Marion’s ambition takes him to the top seat among the wardens, Jean finds he can use his considerable social currency to maintain some control over the slums from which they came. They’ve saved each others lives working under Aureo. They watch each others’ backs as Wardens. Through it all, the deep bond of love, lust, and sheer being grows ever stronger between them.
Until one day, Marion reveals his plans to wed the son of the Magestros, the most powerful man in Malachite. Suddenly, Jean is momentarily adrift like an unattended sandolo drifting down one of the city’s innumerable canals. He resolves himself to reconcile with Marion, just like they have after every bumpy patch for the last twenty-odd years. When the whispers of a man gaining influence and traction among the disenfranchised of the slums of Malachite—another man like Aureo, but with considerably loftier goals—begin to surface, Jean suddenly finds himself not only fighting for Marion’s love, but at times for his life. And sometimes, for the life of his betrothed. At times collaborating, at times clashing, Marion and Jean struggled to come to terms with the turn their personal lives have taken while trying to unravel the ruinous uprising brewing just under the surface of the city.
That’s where I’m going to cut things short as far as blurbs go…it touches on the two main points in the story: the rollercoaster ride that is the knot of interpersonal relationship(s) between Jean and Marion and Tris (Marion’s betrothed), and the brewing political mess. It’s a horribly truncated synopsis, but I wanted to focus on the two big elements that I enjoyed: who ends up with who and whether or not the social order gets blown apart. Things missing from this review but that play a key role in setting the scene for the book: this island is all-male, it’s where two other lands send their exiles. The life they live, however, is not of slave and master or jailer and jailed. It’s just like pushing “reset” and ending up in a males-only society that’s literally a monarchy, but mostly carries on in that fashion with the Magestros equivalent to a king (meaning Marion’s engaged to the city’s crown prince). I imagine that if the rest of this series gets written, we’d be exploring some of the two lands mentioned here (who dump their exiles on Malachite). The whole process of bringing new boys/men into the island is called Aequora. Despite its prevalence and importance, it felt more like a backdrop for the action. The whole setting is Venice themed, I’d say. There’s canals galore down which gondolas (called sandolo/sandoli) traverse, the dress is reminiscent of the Carnival of Venice, and there’s liberal peppering of Italian phrases. It goes a lot to build a mental picture without having to create everything from absolute scratch…PLUS, it’s artfully and consistently done.
First and foremost, I was enthralled by the relationship dynamics in the book. These are uh-may-zing. The book has a LOT of delicious angst that revolves around complex interpersonal relationships between complex characters. I found it utterly compelling because I was geared up for Jean and Marrion reconciling. Given their history and devotion (and how Marion seems likely to cave at certain points), I got the impression that these two are soul mates. It primed me to view Tris as nothing more than an interloper flashing his power and influence to snag Marion (whom general consensus paints as a very good catch, physically and professionally). Yet when we finally get introduced to him, Tris is neither loathsome, shallow, or petty. Which forced me to expand my scope of “will Marion and Jean get back together” to “who will Marion end up with, Tris or Jean?” About two-thirds of the way through the story, this dynamic shifts slightly yet again and gets solidified at the end of the book. When it comes to these three characters, I’d say their thread is delightfully tangled and definitely as messy as you could ever hope for. As far as I could tell, the resolution never really came until the last couple chapters of the book though there were hints at it earlier. As much as choices get made, I was still left with the impression that we’re left with a “happily for now” kind of ending, too. Part of that depends on what ultimately happens with the city of Malachite and the rising threat against it, and part of it lies with the characters themselves.
And that doesn’t even touch all the other relationship links in the story…Jean is extremely promiscuous and this comes into play a bit in Malachite, but the full implications of his nature aren’t highlighted much. It was part of the reason Marion decided to move on and part of the strife between Jean and the Magestros’ family. Then there are also the filial relationships that come into play in interesting ways (as mentioned above, this is an all-male society, so there’s a wide definition of “family” I’d say but it’s definitely common to pair up and adopt new arrivals as boys to make a base family unit). This is all noted at different points through the story, but again, the full implications of these revelations aren’t the focus of this book.
The plot definitely came in second for me. I must admit, I was turning pages to find out what happens with Jean and Marion. In fact, it was the main way I engaged in the plot…each turn would send me atwitter wondering if this was some development that would pull these two back together or render them apart. Set-ups where their warden duties had them going on daring rescues and so on got my hopes up they’d experience that trope-y thing where disaster pulls people together and so on. Forgive me for the blinders I had on, because it’s obvious the plot is a lot larger than what’s shown on-page here. There are glimpses and a full-isn picture finally develops that reveals just what forces are at work against the status quo of Malachite. In summary, a man going by the epithet Archer has a personal vendetta against the Magestros that, if achieved, will throw Malachite into the chaos of war. Halfway through the book, I was convinced I knew who Archer was. My pick would have certainly kept the action/politics contained to the players directly related to the on-page action/angst, but the Archer’s actual identity opens up the story much wider. Soon after the identity is revealed, however, Archer retreats. Even though the social unrest caused by clear class distinctions (slum-dwellers versus city-dwellers) is building an ever bigger head, Archer realizes he doesn’t have a force sizable enough, skillful enough to subdue the city and that’s pretty much the end of that in this book. Despite this wrap-up not really resolving anything, the whole thread didn’t exactly feel like the crux of the plot (obviously, I was too concerned about Marion and Jean). That said, I’m keen to know what develops in later installments.
I found the first third to the first half of the book majorly compelling. Crow flip flops between chapters told in the present and chapters told in the past. The chapters about the past serve as clever/surprising reveals about how and why the present is what it is. Even better, this dove-tailing of times didn’t come across as the author suddenly trying to justify why a character acted or felt a certain way. Not to mention how it helps substantiate the deep connection Marion and Jean share and shapes the image of the slums of Malachite (in the past) and the city proper (in the future). Also, the flip-flopping times were arranged along a path of convergence, meaning each chapter about the past gets progressively closer to the present. Therein lies one of my few complaints—the converging timelines primed me to expect something HUGE to happen when the past finally caught up to the present (like that war that’s brewing), but this doesn’t happen. It just seems like there was a lot of effort and thoughtfulness put into the structure of this part of the story and then not follow through with some kind of huge event (or at least not one that I can readily remember).
Malachite is a great read. It has richly written prose that helps the reader form clear mental pictures of what’s going on and captures the mood and action. Our principle characters are delightfully complex and well-rounded with qualities that make them at times relatable, lovable, and sometimes loathsome. In all honesty, the plot sort of takes a backseat to the ridiculously elaborate interplay of the characters’ personal lives yet the framework for what’s wrong is mostly clearly laid out for future books to explore. All this takes place in a world fantastically built up with familiar elements yet clearly distinguished by its own unique culture. I would recommend this book to anyone.