Crown Prince Brier Snow is a nineteen-year-old shut-in, barricaded within his own castle under the guardianship of his stepmother, the Queen. He’s not used to being near anyone but his beloved nursemaid, and is unhappy that the Queen is sending him to Aire, a region of his land that’s populated by criminal exiles and dishonored Thenians. Roland, a huntsman and former Thenian lord, is tapped to be Brier’s Master for a year, to teach him to be a warrior. Brier knows his “sabbatical” is nothing but the latest attempt to shame him, yet he stoically rises to the challenge.
During the course of the next months of travel, hunting, and training, Roland and Brier develop a mutual regard. Roland thought the prince haughty, like all Aurelians. But, he learns Brier’s hesitance was insecurity, not arrogance. Brier’s training is aided by six of Roland’s comrades, who mostly take to Brier as well. Brier’s affection is greater than as student for his teacher, however, and he makes it clear that he has grown to love Roland, even if Roland will never accept him. Roland’s got a secret, however, about his training—that Brier was never meant to survive.
I think readers will quickly catch on that this is a take on (Brier) Snow White and the Seven (Thenians) Dwarves. It’s not much like the tale, excepting Brier is widely regarded as exceptionally fair and the huntsman being too smitten with the Prince to kill him. Just as Roland and Brier acknowledge their love, Brier’s fetched back to his castle and coronation. Not like a King could keep an outcast twenty-plus years his senior as consort, Roland thinks, but neither man is happy apart. Brier’s melancholy is compounded by his remarkable physiology. He’d been sequestered for years and hidden his “scars,” a slivery pattern of leaves that grow over his alabaster skin. These markings are not common, but three men of Brier’s lineage have exhibited them in the past few hundred years. And, those men seemingly became pregnant. Like Brier. Can he bear raising Roland’s child alone? He has a suitor at court, a young, beautiful prince from a friendly nation, who wants to be his consort. It would make surviving in his unstable court easier to allow this man to take credit for Roland’s bastard, but Brier’s heart is pledged. And Roland returns, taking a position as King’s Guard, since his rightful place as consort is unlikely to be accepted by the nobles who find Thenians completely unsavory.
This fantastical epic is bittersweet. Both Brier and Roland have had lonely lives, and Roland has a mountain of regrets. He feels responsible for the subjugation of his people, for the death of his wife and unborn child, for his brother, for accepting a contract on Brier’s life. He’s a man of honor who’s lost everything more than once, and he loses Brier more than once, too. His inability to trust Brier’s love leads to his disgrace, yet again.
I really liked the story. It had great elements of fantasy that were fully integrated into this tale of love and political intrigue. The mpreg business was described well, with real-life stakes that were heart-tugging at times. Brier’s a good man, and he learns to be a great leader. He has a fractured nation, and a scheming stepmother, and courtiers who are unhappy with the positive social justice changes he’s making. He’s vulnerable in many ways, but he makes decisions that keep him in the people’s favor, even winning over the Thenians—eventually. Expect there to be giant obstacles to overcome, for both Brier and Roland, and for there to be long separations, too. Roland does make the right choices in the end, and he saves Brier’s life on many occasions. But, can he rescue Brier’s shattered heart and restore his family?
It took me just a bit to get the hang of all the speech changes, as Brier learns to speak Roland’s native tongue. It was handy that there’s a glossary in the very beginning. It set the mood for exploration and open-mindedness for the reader. The imaginary setting was crafted with care, but I struggled with timing just a little. Some of the time frames seemed conveniently long or short, and this varied inexplicably in parts. That said, I didn’t feel short-changed on the world building or the culture-building, and felt very much transported into Brier’s world.
The Epilogue was so spectacular I want another book. Now. I think people who like fantasy, and are willing to give license to the Snow White fairytale, would really enjoy this one. It was also kind of sweet to watch Brier and Roland in parental roles. The characters are compelling, and the story doesn’t bog, much, having a span of more than two years from beginning to end—add a whole lot more for the Epilogue. There’s no doubt that the end is happy.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.