Akton is a shifter in a world where shifters are neither appreciated nor accepted. While on a trading run for his father, Akton encounters a group of shifters who give him a choice: Join us… or die. Akton is far too leery of armed strangers to accept their dubious offers of friendship and chooses option three.
Akton had no way of knowing that the village left behind would be put to flame, with every man, woman, and child left behind murdered. Akton manages to kill one of the shifters as they follow him, but he is no match for three or more of them, and so he runs. He manages to find an inn at the next village, but before he can do more than have a quick bite, he is attacked again. They followed him, they found him, and now they are going to kill him. If not for the quick actions of the apothecary, a handsome man with he power to command fire called Talfryn, Akton wouldn’t have survived. He also wouldn’t have discovered the terrible, true nature of his attackers.
They are only the beginning. The kingdom is under attack by someone who wants shifters to join his army — by hook or by crook — and if they choose to resist, they are to be killed and their skins brought back. This changes everything. This Basil isn’t going to stop at a few villages, he isn’t going to forgive the death of his recruiting group. If Akton and Talfryn don’t get word to the queen, the entire kingdom could go up in flame.
Talfryn has a secret of his own, one he hasn’t shared with his traveling companion. He not only knows Akton is a shifter… he’s one, too. How can he let Akton know that he knows the shifter’s great secret, and share his own, without chasing the other man away? Travel makes for strange bedfellows and lonely nights, and for these two men it offers ample opportunity to get to know one another. Scales and fur and skin; hearts and flesh and blood. Fire and snow.
This was a quick, charming, fun read that had all the ingredients I look for in a good book. Worldbuilding, an interesting villain with an actual motive, and a healthy, happy relationship between two people who work well together, warts and all. Not that there were warts on anyone that I could see. Well, maybe if there had been a toad shifter I might have seen one.
Akton is filled with pragmatism, self-preservation, and prickly insecurity. Considering that he’s been under attack at least twice in as many nights, it’s understandable that his first reaction to Talfryn is one of caution and suspicion. He’s not the most impressive shifter, being only a weasel — an ermine, to be exact — and the fact that Talfryn is keeping secrets from him only makes him more cautious and reluctant to share even a few words with the apothecary. Talfryn, for his part, knows that the secret keeping is a good part of what’s keeping them apart. He wouldn’t mind keeping Akton company at night, or being kept company, but he doesn’t know how to get around the secrecy that shifters have to endure. He’s also more open and optimistic than his companion, which gives their story an almost odd couple feel to it. They’re a fun couple and their relationship develops so easily and naturally over the course of the book that I almost feel cheated. I wanted a bit more sniping and snarling at each other, just a few more bumps in the road to watch them get over it, a few fights so they could make up. But that’s just my personal preference; the author wrote a lovely couple. I just wanted to watch them play a bit more, is all.
The villain, Basil, is a great mystery through much of the book. There are speculations as to what he is, whether dragon or human or just a powerful mage. There are also questions about the queen, an ageless figure who has ruled for hundreds of years, which is long even for a shifter. The obvious pairing there, and some comments Basil makes during his confrontation towards the end, make me wonder what, exactly, was going on in the palace.
Speaking of the palace, the world building was very intriguing. Shifters ranged from the more commonplace wolf, bear, fox and weasel to the unexpected salamander. But the idea of centaur shifters — again, a purely personal quibble — didn’t quite work for me. How does a centaur shift? To full horse, or to full human? And yet, pegasus shifters and sphinxes I had no problem with. Queen Ylenia was an promising character and one I wished to see more of. To see her when she was younger and more active, or to know exactly what she did and what she knew. I really hope there’s a second book on its way to show more of the Queen’s City, her palace, and the politics of shifters.
The writing was smooth and easy to read. The characters were fully developed and each with their own personalities and personal interests. Akton never saw their mission to save the world as the great quest Talfryn did, and Talfryn knew it. He understood that Akton felt more for the immediacy of a village in front of him than the vague, amorphous kingdom that surrounded him, even though Tal understood the complexity of the situation. This isn’t to say Tal is a hero and Akton isn’t, just that some Tal brought vision to their relationship and Akton brought a little more common sense.
I love pairs that turn into partnerships, with each bringing something different. Neither Akton nor Talfryn were less than the other and they complemented each other so very well. I also like a good villain, and Basil was a very good one. If you believe his version of events he had every reason to do what he did. He saw himself as a revolutionary, not an invader. In many regards he came across as more sympathetic than the queen and her advisors, a neat trick to pull off.
However, and it bears mentioning, the pacing of this book was a little off. Tal and Akton know the kingdom is in trouble. When locked up in a prison cell, they discuss the need to escape immediately, and yet they spend days doing very little, shopping or just romping through the woods. A week’s journey would take place in a paragraph; a day’s walk would take two pages. It’s a small thing, but it’s also one of those things that once you notice you can’t ignore.
However, it’s a cute, easy read with friendly, charming characters. The shifters are a bit vague, with more variety than depth, but the world they live in shows promise. I do hope the author gives us more of this world.