Edmund, the prince and heir of Thalassa, is to be married. While not terribly thrilled about the idea, he’s also not too upset, either. Edmund always knew he’d have to marry someone, after all. It’s the ‘produce an heir’ clause in the contract that’s making him uneasy. Edmund is neither very experienced nor overly interested in sex. He needs an emotional connection, to get to know and — hopefully — love, or at least like, the person he’s supposed to bed.
Fortunately, Edmund is sent to Aither a month or so before the wedding to get to know his new home, his new people, and his new queen. Holis, queen of Aither, seems to be as interested in Edmund as he is in her, and urges him repeatedly to spend time with her brother, Arden. Not that that’s a hardship; the young man is, in a word, beautiful. He’s also friendly, intelligent, funny, kind, and pretty much everything Edmund ever wanted in a partner. If only he weren’t betrothed to the man’s sister…
But politics and plots spun by other players in this game of royal matchmaking and alliances seem determined to get in the way. The Kingdom of Tycen is thought to have killed the King of Aither, Holis and Arden’s father, and the young queen is paranoid and fearful, relying heavily on her ministers and councilors, none of whom seem interested in seeing this marrage between Aither and Thalassa continue. Indeed, there have been almost no wedding plans made. And, once Edmund is accused of trying to kill his bride, it seems unlikely there’s any hope of an allliance at all. Not when Holis is screaming for blood and determined to bring about war between the Kingdoms of Thalassa and Aither.
The best part of this book is the part that’s supposed to be the twist, but it’s not much of a twist and I think it’s both important enough, and well-done enough, that it doesn’t need a super-secret reveal to give it more of an impact. Indeed, the very lack of drama about the situation is part of what makes it both admirable and … normal. Arden is a transgender man living in a time when there are no hormones, no surgery; just chest binding, wearing men’s clothing, and both behaving and being treated like a prince of his kingdom, not a princess. The very lack of interest anyone shows about it is refreshing. Arden is treated, from start to finish, like a man. He is always described as, treated as, and behaves as a man. Even when his sister is yelling at Arden, she’s yelling at her brother. It’s so… ordinary. If it weren’t for the few mentions of Arden’s chest binding, or the love scene between he and Edmund, you’d never know because Arden’s sex (while it does play a role, later on) has nothing to do with his gender or his personality.
As a character, however, Arden is a bit perfect. He and Edmund are both very much Prince Charmings, with neither flaws nor failings. Both young men have been raised to know their place in the world and their duty to their kingdoms. They will marry where politics and alliances take them, they will perform their roles and duties to their people, and eventually rule when their fathers and family pass. It’s a cold, glittering cage and neither man fights against it, though they do both wish there was a chance at happiness in their marriages, or a chance of honest friendship that has nothing to do with rank.
Arden is smart, resourceful, and perfect. He is skilled at magic, good with people, and politically astute. He and his sister have been at odds since their father’s death, but Arden can’t seem to find the magic words to put them back together; she keeps pushing him away, little by little, replacing his advice with that of Jago — a man who made a pass at Arden and who Arden finds to be rather slimy and unpleasant — with whom she is infatuated. When Edmund comes, he’s the perfect distraction as Arden turns away from his sister completely to flirt, charm, and entertain the young prince, which makes the murder attempt on his sister and the immediate blame on Edmund a complete surprise to him.
Edmund is, despite greater physical size, the softer of the two. He’s been pampered and, while he’s supposed to be the heir of his father, he’s … not very good at it. When politics are brought up, or when councilors and ambassadors are making veiled threats, Edmund gets confused and the points miss him completely. Considering that his Kingdom is often at war, it doesn’t seem like Edmund really understands the situation around him. Ever. Even when, later, he’s making comments on the ongoing political alliance that will be ruined by Holis both ending the wedding and having him executed for attempting to assassinate her, he only brings up points after everyone else does, often repeating what other characters have alluded to. It’s a good thing he’s pretty and his father’s important.
Edmund is also demisexual, requiring emotional intimacy and closeness before he feels any interest in physical intimacy. He has nothing against his bride being female, and no desire for his husband to be male. It’s because of the friendship with Arden, their growing closeness of shared days and weeks, followed by the emotional escape from the dungeon that have Edmund falling in love and in lust with Arden. One of the most romantic scenes in this book, for me, is a very small snippet where, while walking in a dark tunnel, their fingers happen to touch. Edmund’s reaction, his sudden awareness of Arden as a person, and his awareness of his own desire, was very well written.
While the book is entertaining enough, and the world building competant, there’s something so very forumlaic. There were no twists, no surprises, just a pleasant story being told well. Maybe it’s because of their perfection, especially contrasted with the shrill, harpy like evil of Holis and the all-but-mustache twirling of Jago and the Tycen ambassador, but I found it hard to connect with any character. I just wanted a little more from this story. Some small bit of tarnish on the princely perfection, some color in the black and white world, or some humanity on the side of the villain. Still, for all that, it’s a quick, fun read and I did enjoy this book; I’m also looking forward to the second one in the series.