An unconventional life has instilled Nikolai Hartmann with incomparable skill as a man of science and a doctor. When his skill leads him to the backwaters of Europe, Nikolai is looking only to further secure his reputation and line his pockets. The hard journey over a harsh land with even harsher inhabitants does nothing to endear the treacherous country to him. In fact, the only bright spot began inauspiciously when a mysterious bandit snuck up on him while Nikolai slept in the open and graciously decided not to kill him.
Nikolai’s finally reaches the castle of Hesse-Davia where the king is near death. Where all the healers and priests have failed, however, Nikolai immediately recognizes the man’s symptoms. He also immediately recognizes one of the sons—none other than man he met in the dark of night, no bandit, but rather second in line for the crown, Prince Christian Aleksey. The two fall immediately into flirtatious friendship, sharing ribald comments and teasing. Yet for Nikolai, Aleksey is like a feast before a starving man for Nikolai is a lover of men. As enticing and exciting as the quick wits and surreptitious touches are, the times are not so forward as to permit an open relationship between men. In a land where the punishment for fornication with another man is a bastardization of that very same act save replacing a lover’s manhood with a iron spike three feet tall, Nikolai has little hope of sharing any intimacy with the fiery prince, let alone a future.
Yet as the weeks wear on while Nikolai works to bring the king back to health, the signs that Aleksey is amenable continue to grow. After a false start caused by dark events in Nikolai’s past, the two manage to grasp at happiness and know true contentment. Like all marvelous things, however, it cannot last. As a member of the royal family, Aleksey has pretenses to keep and he faces a myriad of obligations and scrutiny. If there is to be any future for Nikolai and Aleksey in the turbulent currents of a rapidly changing country, they will have to be vigilant, faithful, and patient.
This is an absolutely fabulous book. I just reread it to brush up for the sequel, which I’ll be reading as part of the Challenge Month TBR Pile challenge. Now that I’ve revisited the story, I cannot believe I didn’t jump immediately into the sequel…well, actually, I guess I can but we’ll get to that.
What makes this book so damn amazing is the fantastic chemistry between Nikolai and Aleksey. Their verbal exchanges have wonder levity to them that makes a period piece relatable in a very delightful way—while still definitely retaining that edge of angst that really draws me to books. In other words, while these two joke about illicit acts and later act most deliciously on them, they are dogged by the knowledge that the offense is punishable by a horrible death. The age difference comes into play as well, but not always because Nikolai is acting like the guiding hand to the younger Aleksey. In fact, there are plenty of situations where Aleksey is the one talking Nikolai out of a moody sulk.
I very much enjoyed the telling of this story in first person. Living through the action as Nikolai experiences it works extremely well and really hits home the emotional angst he tortures himself with before he and Aleksey actually get together…and during the drama that unfolds once they’ve reached a happy lull where they think nothing can ever go wrong (and invariably does). The tension ramps up to 11 at a few places and I was literally hanging on every word. There is this little hook at the end that casts everything in a slightly different light as well and I thought was a curious and fun inclusion.
As an example of the levity on the text, I present this excerpt, which is Nikolai after finally getting to wash himself properly after months on the road getting to Hesse-Davia and still very much in a mind to prove himself as a doctor:
As I shaved, I regarded my appearance for the first time in three months. My hair was very golden from the traveling I had done through the summer. Similar, my skin was a striking brown…I looked at my teeth as I cleaned them with the routine I had learned….They were as white and even as the green-eyed man’s. I frowned at myself. I did not like the overall effect. I was supposed to be a learned man, a man whose science and deep thought, a man whose skill would impress and whose erudition would astound. Perhaps I should stop cleaning my teeth and shaving. I squinted, imagining the effect. Perhaps I should stop thinking so much. I agreed with myself and dressed. I left my hair unpowdered, as was my custom, tied it loosely, and wondered idly whether Aleksey’s short hair would suit me. Berating myself for foolish vanity, I went to find [my horse] Xavier. He was looking pretty good too.
I needed an uglier horse.
Or when Nikolai and Aleksey are finally able to escape the ears and eyes of the court to discuss their first impressions of one another when they met that night in the forest:
“You don’t look at all like a doctor, trust me.”
I couldn’t help but smile back. “Well, then, I apologize for thinking you were a bandit with pretensions to land that was not yours. It was your land. I was trespassing.”
“You thought I was a bandit?” He laughed. “Do bandits share breakfast with lone travelers and then leave them with their honor and life intact?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met one before. I thought you might be having an off day.”
And later, when the two are on the way to war with a neighboring kingdom and break free to mount a two-man spy mission and they are discussing how likely it is that Prince Alexsey will be recognized by the enemy:
“My eyes? What’s wrong with my eyes?”
“Don’t be so dense. They are brilliant green. Do you know how rare a shade that tis? I have never encountered anyone with green eyes like yours before, and I have seen more of the world that you.”
“So…you have noticed the color of my eyes, Doctor? I am terribly flattered.”
There it was again, the flirting. I’d missed it, so replied in kind. “And you have noticed that I am very godlike. Shall we continue with our mutual fatter or think seriously for a moment?”
“Oh, continue the flattery. I love being flattered…”
Doesn’t that just make you want to stop reading a stupid review and go read this book? The whole first 3/4 of the book is like that, too! Every exchange is charged with this dynamic. It does taper off a bit once they finally consummate their feelings (an angst fest that will not disappoint). The last quarter DOES have a slightly different tone, however…this is what I was alluding to in the beginning.
My one complaint about the story is the handling of the end..not so much that the action/execution was lacking, but that it felt a bit rushed. Granted, everything happened in a neat and orderly fashion and gets Points! for being dramatic…but in retrospect, the events do mirror an event that closes out the section of the book where they’re bantering about being godlike and having beautiful eyes quoted above. As I read it the first time, I didn’t care and I don’t really mind it so much even after a reread, but I did notice…This Trope Was Used Before.
All in all, though, there is nothing else I can honestly criticize about this book. If you like period stories (I had a hard time placing this in time because powdering hair is apparently a common practice, but dental care is not common, trousers have pockets, but it’s still a death sentence to be romantically attached to another person of the same gender…but it’s probably the mist 1700s since The New World is just being colonized…I guess), you’d like this. Like I gushed about, it’s driven by fabulously interesting, complex characters that get on like a house on fire, too.