Hidden away in the Valley of Lost Things is a man who isn’t quite what he seems. When Emory of Fontaine, the Autumn Prince — so named for his lovely auburn hair — comes looking for bandits, the last thing he expected to find in this storybook meadow is a handsome young man who makes his heart skip a beat. Gray is no bandit horde. He’s not even a bandit at all, just … a man. A man who has known more of the ways of kings and princes than he’d like.
When guards come into the valley on the hunt for the young prince, Gray is spurred into action, rescuing Emory and taking them both on an adventure that will test the limits of their endurance and their slowly growing friendship. It turns out that the Regent Queen of Fontaine is the same woman who stole Gray’s life from him, and the love of his father. Gray swears vengeance for both of them, but will completing their quest destroy the slowly growing love between Gray and Emory?
Emory, who prefers to be called Rory, is a bookish young man who should have claimed the throne two years ago, but the woman who calls herself his aunt has made that all but impossible. Rory always knew she would one day make her move, but sending him — the heir to the throne, a scholar prince with no idea how to use a sword other than to avoid the pointy end — off to catch bandits seems a strange choice. Knowing he’s risking his life either by facing her now and refusing, or by taking his own guards and leaving the palace, Rory decides to go and catch the bandits.
Rory isn’t a coward, but he knows better than to be foolishly brave in the wrong situations. There’s a time and place for everything, and he’d prefer to think his way out of a situation than to simply rush in and hope for the best. With Gray, though, he finds himself acting first and thinking later. The other man is handsome in a way Rory’s never seen before; Gray is such a physical creature, all muscles and browned skin, that he makes Rory weak in the knees even before he gets to know him.
Gray was 11 when he was forced to leave his home and hide in the Valley of Lost Kings with only the King of Unicorns for company. It was an impressionable age and he’s never quite gotten past the hurt and anger of his own father being willing to see him dead, all so he could use dark magic to live a little longer. Over the fifteen years or so he’s been alone in the meadow, he’s nurtured his dislike of nobility, and seeing Rory — a useless, helpless prince who is throwing away his kingdom (Gray has only rumors to go on, before he gets to know Rory) — he’s absolutely disdainful of him.
The two of them have an instant, animal attractions and Rory, for one, is more than willing to take that plunge into a relationship — even if it’s just a physical one. As they get to know each other, they easily become friends, which is helped by having so much in common, both being hunted by the evil sorceress, and each as easily irritated as amused by the unicorn king. However, both young men are able to see ahead to the day when Rory will have to take his throne, and Gray will have to reveal his true self to the world … and neither of them yet knows how they’ll be able to have their cake and eat it too.
I did not really enjoy this book. I kept swinging from bored, to irritated, and back to bored, and I was very tempted to DNF this story. So much of this book is telling, and so little of it is showing, I felt like I didn’t have to work at anything. I often felt like I was reading one story while being told something different by the author. One character makes a simple, obvious statement, but it’s treated as if it’s a sign of genius. The author even called it a sign of his sharp-edged intelligence because he repeated the events that had just happened. Every character is tagged with an appropriate adverb so I don’t have to wonder if this one is good or bad; I don’t have to rely on their words and actions. I can just, instead, accept the label helpfully pinned to them. There was never any point to me trying to figure anything out or have an opinion on anyone; it’s been done for me.
And then there’s the cheap insta-love. I call it cheap because 1) we’re not so much seeing it through the character’s POV as being told how each character thinks; it doesn’t seem as if there are any emotions or feelings (even of lust), it’s just … yep, that’s the guy the story says I’m in love with, and 2) it’s so shallow and superficial. It’s all “his legs, his chest, oooh, his arms! I swoon!” or “so frail and fragile; those lips, that skin, oh, if only he weren’t a prince!” I don’t get the feeling that it’s Gray that Rory wants to take to bed, it’s whatever strong, handsome farmer first ran across his path with sweaty pecs. At the same time, Rory is everything Gray hates (which is nobility and royalty), but he’s pretty and Gray’s lonely, so hey, guess I’m in love.
Gray goes from helping Emory (when saving him from the queen’s guard) and asking the unicorn to let Rory see him as a unicorn, to turning his back on the other prince and declaring, haughtily, that he will not assist a silly princeling. It’s such a sharp 180 that it couldn’t help but feel contrived, to me. While there was a hint of a set up as to why Gray might be less than thrilled at being tasked to help Rory, he went from 1 to 10 in the space of a sentence, and then back to 1 because how else would the plot happen? So much just doesn’t feel consistant. Later on, Gray suddenly doesn’t want Rory to cut his recognizable auburn hair because then he wouldn’t be Rory! After all, if Rory weren’t beautiful, Gray wouldn’t be tempted to sleep with him and fall in love with him, and without his hair, he wouldn’t be beautiful? It was just so strange.
Gray was unlikable, more due to the way he was moved around by the story, rather than being unlikable on his own. All the pieces were there to make him who he was: Exiled at 11, living 15 years alone with only a unicorn for company, hatred for all that was taken from him, dislike of those who abused power to hurt other people, dislike of the prince throwing away everything Gray wanted, and so much more … but because everything was told, and told so quickly, Gray never had a chance to show us he was a person beneath all the plot armor. Rory fared better, but he was flat out told by the unicorn that he existed to make Gray feel better about himself, to make Gray less lonely and unhappy. So, yay for Rory, he’s both a reward for Gray for existing — and thus doesn’t need to be a person — and he’s pretty.
The book did get better as it went on, but there were moments in almost every chapter that had me either rolling my eyes or sighing and looking to see how much longer I had before the book was over. There were two grand revelations that explained certain moments of the story — including one with which I had issue — but those explanations came too little too late, for me. Even when the unicorn king is making these reveals, we’re still being told how the characters feel. We don’t get to see them feel them, or react to anything with feeling … we’re just told he’s angry, he’s embarrassed, he’s this, he’s that, and all I wanted to do was get to the end of the book.
A major part of the story that completely didn’t work for me was when King Gideon, Gray’s father, tells his son to yes, go kill the evil sorceress …but wait, I ought to let you know that when you kill her, you kill me at the same time. Anyhow, have fun storming the castle! Love you, and thanks for coming home! It’s brief, it’s casual, and it’s ridiculously cruel. Why does he tell his son that by finishing his quest he will kill his father? Because, now — even though he has never been before — he’s going to be honest? He was willing to kill Gray when he was a kid and it’s been 15 years and they don’t know each other, but Gideon doesn’t want Gray to murder him without knowing that he was the one to kill him. It feels like angst and cruelty for drama’s sake, and done poorly. Gideon’s reaction to Gray, Gray’s reactions to his father (I love you, I hate you, no I can’t kill you!) just left me tired and kind of offended.
The writing isn’t bad. The plotting isn’t bad. But the relentless telling, the way everyone and their cousin seemed to have an appropriate adverb so you didn’t confuse the good guys from the bad guys, the random and indifferent world building, it was all the things that don’t work for me all in one book. I haven’t read any of the author’s other works, but I would be curious to see something they wrote in another genre because, again, the writing was solid. But this story and I didn’t get along in the least.