Story Rating: 2.5 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Philip Alces
Length: 9 hours, 13 minutes
Somehow Jasen’s father has managed to do the impossible. He’s gotten Jasen a position at court where he can, if luck is with him, find himself a rich husband to help pay his father’s numerous debts. Unfortunately, it’s harder than Jasen thought it would be — and he already had a low opinion of court — with the rich and frivolous wardrobes, the strict etiquette lessons, the careful protocol, and the watchful eyes of the guards who are there to keep the collection of potential consorts safe, secure, and pure.
Jasen fits into the throng of lovely ladies and lordlings as well as a cat at a dog show. His plain clothes are mocked, and his provincial manners leave him the butt of jokes and feeling hurt and uncomfortable. Escaping the palace to take a walk, Jasen is drawn to the Draemere where he finds not only a magnificent dragon, but a handsome man whose kindness and attentions make Jasen regret the man’s station as a Drae, a priest of the dragons. Imagine Jasen’s delight and discomfiture when he finds out the man is, technically, a priest … but he also happens to be the king. A king who is looking for a consort.
This Cinderella retelling doesn’t stray far from the fairy tale origin. Jasen is not only beautiful — especially when dressed in beautiful clothing — he’s also sweet, kind, and forgiving. When the evil and beautiful girls of court play pranks on him, he rises above it and won’t tattle on them; when one of those same girls is bereft of her dearest friend, alone and heart-broken, Jasen is there to give comfort and friendship. When an ex-lover tries to blackmail him because Jasen is far from the virtuous virgin he’s supposed to be, Jasen is shocked and hurt, but never angry or hateful.
Rilvor, the king, is an older man whose wife has recently passed. As such, he doesn’t need to marry a woman, again — something urged on him by his councilors as the kingdom requires heirs — and is free to take a male consort. On seeing Jasen, whose youth, beauty, and sincerity call to him, Rilvor is quick to make his interest known, and pleased when it’s returned. It also helps that his children adore Jasen, and the dragons are pleased with his choice, as well.
It’s completely understandable what the two men see in one another. Their relationship is as simple and clear as a fresh stream whose course is made more interesting by a few small dramas, such as blackmail, more blackmail, and a bit of doubt on Jasen’s part that he’s the right spouse for Rilvor. Never do the two men doubt their love for one another, and Rilvor never stops to think if his kingdom, court, or people will be happy with or supportive of the match. He just wants what he wants. It’s up to Jasen to to the thinking for them.
And that’s one of the problems with this story: the characters. Jasen is innocent when he has to play the ingenue, but politically savy when it’s needed. He comes across as young and needy until it’s time for him to remind other characters — who have lived in this court for years, and who know all the players — of problems or solutions to a variety of situations. Rilvor has very little personality and I didn’t care for the childish tantrums he threw when someone reminded him of duties, politics, or common sense.
Another problem is that this world wasn’t built; it felt to me like it was thrown together in a hodgepodge of ideas, some of which worked, some of which didn’t, and very few of which fit together enough to make sense. I was left confused, irritated, and with no desire at all to finish reading this book, let alone ever recommend it. The court system of consorts made zero sense. It could have worked if there had been a reason for any of it. A political reason, or even a cultural reason. Instead, nobles send their children to the capitol city for finishing school (some of them were as young as 8 when they first came) and then they’re married off to noble husbands and wives, but why? To indoctrinate every allied kingdom with capitol politics? I was left with other questions, too. Are the dragons angels and guardians, or tyrants and monsters? They destroy entire families because they don’t feel like those particular humans have good hearts anymore, but because they only go after nobles that the common people don’t like, it’s okay? The drae are priests of the dragons, so are dragons religious figures, then? What part, exactly, do they play in the world? It’s said they are part of what makes magic work in this world, blessing people and giving them magical abilities, but lately the magic has been getting weak — in part because Rilvor’s queen died, taking with it his power? Or the strength of his power? So much about the magic isn’t explained, and other times the explanations only make things more confusing.
But the biggest of all my issues with the story was the relation between Rilvor, his dead wife, his ex-lover, and his magic. [spoiler]
Rilvor and his queen had an open relationship because he was attracted to men, not her. They were friends, and his love for her allowed him to … something-something the magic balance between human and dragon. Control it? Guide it? I was never sure. However, when Rilvor fell in love with a male lover, his wife began to die as the magic ate at her. Enraged and filled with guilt, Rilvor sent the man he loved as far away from him as he could, and ever since then, magic has been fading. So, Rilvor’s councilors want him to remarry, but if it’s that important that the king love his queen for the sake of magic, why do they try to get him into another loveless marriage? Did Rilvor never explain to them why the magic was failing, why his wife died? Has there never been, in the history of their rule, a married pair who didn’t love one another in the right way? Knowing Rilvor loves Jasen, why do his councilors urge him to marry someone else and take Jasen as a consort — the very same situation which gave them one dead queen, orphaned children, and dying magic? [/spoiler]
Jasen and Rilvor’s meeting, romance, and struggles could have made for a pleasant enough light read. But the rest of the book left me feeling like I was being asked to ignore anything like common sense and just let it go for the sake of the story. Unfortunately, that’s not how I read books and it ruined the story for me.
The only saving grace was Philip Alces, who narrated the audio version I listened to. I don’t know what accent he was using here, but it lent a very fairy tale feel to the story. He manages to add a humanity to the main characters, a sense of presence and depth that always increases my enjoyment of the stories he narrates. Alces’ pacing is always spot on — neither too languid, nor too rushed — and while some of the many side characters (particularly the young female characters) may have lacked a bit of definition, Jasen and Rilvor were always consistent in their voices. If you are going to pick up this book, I highly recommend the audio version as Alces takes what is an unworkable muddle and makes it bearable.