It’s been a long few days for Winter. While on a jaunt around the Empire to learn the ways and manners of other kingdoms and courts, he discovered something truly horrific. The ship he was sailing on was carrying slaves, something not only morally repugnant, but illegal as well. Unwilling to be silent, Win instantly — and foolishly — confronted the captain of the ship and both he and his valet were thrown overboard to ensure his silence. Win survived. His servant did not.
Ever since then things have been going downhill and now, hungry and thirsty and penniless, Win’s finally resorting to physical labor. Being among the men chosen to help pick apples at an orchard is an almost magical stroke of luck. Not only is Adam, the farmer’s son, a handsome and kind young man who instantly catches Win’s eye, but the farmer, a brute of a man, has a ring on his finger with Win’s family crest upon it. Not just any ring, a ring with a Star-fall stone.
Win wins free of the farmer’s cruelty, as well as swiping the Star-fall, and heads off with Adam to the city of Serein in the hopes of finding a way to speak to the Great Council. Surely these powerful men and women will have some way of dealing with the slave ship, and perhaps find a way to rescue those on board. However, the ship has vanished, along with all hands, and is presumed sunk. So too is Winter Aeling, son of Lord Aeling of the Province of Thorn, reported dead. With his papers and any identifying items lost at the bottom of the sea, Winter can only hope that his uncle Ivon will manage to sober up long enough to recognize him.
Between politics and plots, Adam and Win struggle to find a moment alone. In a city of debauchery where no one minds how much you drink or who you tumble, the two of them barely have the chance to do more than fool around in the bathtub before someone or other is knocking at the door. As their romance begins to heat up, so too does the magical power Win can feel every time he has the Star-fall in his hands. And when he and Adam hold the stone together, it’s more than just magic.
This book has an interesting, fluid style, going from an almost 18th century feel for the first third of the book, with the light, affected manners and morals of a young noble slumming with the common folk, before it becomes more modern as Adam and Win begin their adventure, until it is almost completely modern as the boys find themselves in the city and magic begins to make an appearance. Some of the stylistic choices made by the author — such as italicizing place names, titles, dice games, and sometimes (but not always) people’s names — were not to my personal taste at all, and at times were very inconsistent.
Winter is a blithe, self-interested, feckless young man who thinks very, very highly of himself. For all that he’s not a worldly man, he has had a very solid education in politics since he was young. He is, after all, his father’s heir. Win knows he’s attractive and even calls his own ass “pert,” in an admiring tone, especially when he notices Adam looking at it. He’s also a very unreliable narrator as he has an opinion about everything and everyone. People don’t just talk to him, they bluster, shout, flirt, or snarl. Win has a flair for the dramatic, and it’s something to keep in mind as you read this story, which is told entirely from his point of view.
Adam grew up on a farm under the heavy fist of his father. From a young age, Adam has been called “apple boy” due to his interest in young men, rather than women. An apple is, after all, a fruit. Adam has no interest in staying at Blackdown farm, especially not when the handsome young noble who tempts him is leaving as soon as he can get away from Adam’s father. Adam also has an ulterior motive that has nothing to do with Win’s posterior; his older brother left the farm for Serein and has never sent so much as a letter home. Adam hopes to find him if he can. If his brother is even still alive.
For Win, Adam is the first touch of compassion and gentleness he’s had in … weeks. Long, long weeks. He was thrown into the ocean, washed ashore with nothing — knowing his valet had died as well, due to Win’s inability to be silent — and has spent days walking in dirty clothes. He’s hungry, he’s tired, and he’s so very lonely. Adam’s brief touches and cautious flirtation make him feel loved and cared for, and Win leaps on that. (He’s also, of course, quite horny, and Adam is very good looking.) For Adam, Win is the only other person like him. The only other young man — and a beautiful young man with beautiful manners and a well-endowed title — who is interested in other men.
Unlike parts of this book, there is a good set-up for the relationship between Win and Adam. That two young men whose brains have decided to take residence beneath their belt buckles end up using their lust and passion as a doorway to friendship is quite natural. Unfortunately, Adam is either entirely smitten with Win or furious at him. One moment he’s glaring at him, the next he’s pinning him against a wall. He ignores him, but then can’t live without him. And Win is more interested in Adam as a lover than either a friend or a partner, but he is only 19.
The relationship almost works, but other parts of the book just don’t. There is no set up for the magical intrigues. There is no hint that magic plays a large part in the world until — suddenly — it does. The biggest jarring point for me, though, is the McGuffin. The slave ship Win was on was supposed to be carrying gold, gold given to the city of Serein by the twin kings. However, it’s only after Win appears to tell them about the slaves that any member of the Great Council thinks to bother to look at the contract between their city and the Empire. These are powerful, intelligent — I assume — people who have managed to keep their city from being absorbed into a powerful empire … and not one of them thought to read this contract until now? I’m sorry, but when characters have to turn their brains off in order for the plot twist to happen, I lose both interest in and respect for the book.
While there were some other minor issues — the italics everywhere and inconsistently used; grammatical mistakes; Win having an identical twin sister instead of a fraternal twin — my primary concerns were with the overly florid and dramatic narrator and the lack of preparation when it came to introducing plot points. Adam and Win’s relationship felt rushed and it was sadly pushed to the side in order to make the plot happen. I honestly think the story hiding beneath everything else has a great deal of promise. I am quite curious to see what happens in the second book.