The mountains are dying. Tatsu can see the clear demarcation between the green grass and lush trees of his forest to the blight beyond, but he can’t understand why. When asked by his ex-lover, Alesh, to watch her sister Ral, Tatsu can’t find it in himself to refuse. And if it weren’t for Ral wandering into the woods one afternoon, Tatsu wouldn’t have seen the horrible devastation beyond his forest, the same woodlands he’d lived in all his life. Things only get worse when Alesh returns from her mysterious mission bloodied and frightened and with the royal guard hot on her heels.
Tatsu never approved of Alesh’s smuggling and thieving lifestyle, and he disapproves even more now that he’s been beaten and thrown into prison for the treasonous act of harboring a fugitive. At their sentencing, the queen offers Alesh, Tatsu, and a warrior named Brund a chance to redeem themselves. The neighboring kingdom of Runon has a magical device that has been killing the land of Chayd, destroying crop lands, woods, even villages full of people in order to weaken them and, in the end, conquer them. If Alesh, Tatsu, and the others can find and steal this device, bringing it back to Chayd, she will pardon them of all crimes.
The journey takes them through the Weeping Forest where the life siphon’s blight has already corrupted a once lush swampland into a wood of nightmares and unliving monsters where the trees scream in pain, through the byzantine and labyrinthine halls of the Runion palace where they come face to face with the magical threat: a young man chained to a chair, dosed with poisons and only half-alive. A mage whose powers will do anything to save him, even drawing life from the world around him as his body is starved, tortured, and left near death. The group is able to save the siphon who, grudgingly, begins to open up to his rescuers as he struggles to regain the use of his body. His pain and rage at the betrayal that led to his abuse cause him to lash out, but Tatsu can see past the pain to the young man beneath them.
It’s a race to get the prince to safety before the powerful mages of Runon catch them and return Yudai to his so-called ‘throne’ where he will be starved, poisoned, beaten, his powers used to destroy Tatsu’s home. While struggling to protect Yudai and Ral, Tatsu comes face to face with a man who claims to be his half brother, the son of the woman who gave Tatsu away for not having enough magic to be worth keeping. The same woman who consigned Yudai to a life of poisons and pain.
It’s too much. Tatsu only wants things to go back to the way they were, when he lived alone in his cabin, in his woods, and thought nothing of politics or magic. Can he really go home again to live in ignorance now that he knows what evils exist in the world? Can he really let Yudai go? In his dreams he’s asked, again and again, to choose. Soon Tatsu will have to listen to those dreams. Soon he will have to choose, between a peaceful life or a life of purpose. Between what might have been … and what might yet be.
Tatsu is stubborn, opinionated, and judgemental. He’s also deliberately indifferent the world around him. He and Alesh, his friend and once-lover, are both orphans, but Alesh has a sister to take care of — Ral, whose wits and mind wander like a lost child’s, the result of a fever when she was younger — and she will do what it takes to feed, clothe, and protect her. She takes actions Tatsu can’t and won’t approve of and so he turned his back on her. There is no sense that he ever offered to help, other than occasionally babysitting Ral while Alesh went out to earn the coins she needed for survival.
He’s so unaware of the world outside of his cabin he doesn’t even know about the military parades that are held almost daily in the city to mourn fallen soldiers. He honestly doesn’t seem to care about much beyond himself and doesn’t even care about the blight until this mission all but rubs his face in it. Even upon seeing the blight for the first time, his thought is “oh no!” and then it’s back to his daily routine. In a way this is refreshing; not everyone wants to be a hero. Some people want to be bakers or plumbers, some people are just people and it’s nice to see a story that takes a normal, selfish person and forces them to look at the rest of the world.
Much of the book is a story of self-realization and character growth for Tatsu with the relationship between he and Yudai only hinted at near the end. This is book one of a duology so I expect more romance to happen in the second book. This story was mostly to lay the ground work and introduce us to the world and to Tatsu and Yudai.
Yudai is — or was — a spoiled brat taken down a peg by an ambitious and ruthless father, though we only hear about his past through Yudai’s eyes. He’s angry and frustrated and he focuses and fixates upon Tatsu as his rescuer. Tatsu is the only person he has to talk with save Ral, who isn’t much for conversation, and knows him only as a victim, which doesn’t sit well with Yudai. But, as their mountainous trek goes on and they get to know one another you can see him softening towards Tatsu even if Tatsu, himself, remains mostly oblivious through much of the story.
The world building and magic system are compelling, and I appreciate that Tatsu has to deal with the fact that he’s mixed race on both sides of the border. Even when they make it into Chayd, Tatsu has to still deal with people regarding him with suspicion even as he’s trying to save them. It’s interesting that, even while actively rescuing Yudai, Tatsu remains mostly reactionary and passive — emotionally speaking — through much of the book. He does what he has to, rather than doing anything of his own volition until, at the end, he finally has to make a choice. It’s only then, in the last few chapters that Tatsu begins to be the hero of his own story rather than just a messenger or errand boy.
This was an engaging book, well-written, and a fun, quick read. I am very much looking forward to book two.