The lake is on fire. Ren knows what that means; when autumn comes the lake burns, opening up a portal to a world of magic and mystery. For those brave enough to fight their way through the flames, to set themselves alight with the last storm of summer and the first storm of autumn, there’s a carnival waiting for them on the other side with food, drink, and fun. For Ren, it’s an escape from a boring a life, a chance to feel the lick of magic against his skin, and maybe to find a new life for himself.
Nico is a magician who dances on air, who can turn himself into water, who can kill with a word, and whose smile promises a man a night of pleasure like nothing he’s ever known. For Ren, that smile and that promise are all he’s ever wanted, and he’ll do anything he can to keep Nico at his side, even if that means facing monsters, dark magic, and the end of the world.
Ren is a charmer. He makes friends easily and can tempt almost anyone in to his bed; by his own admission, he’s worked his way through half his village. Never once (save his father) has his charm ever failed to win him a conquest or a friend … until Nico. Failure isn’t something he’s used to, and when it comes from such a beautiful and powerful magician as Nico, Ren is dumbfounded. More than that, he’s interested. It’s more than just a challenge; rather than getting to tumble Nico in their first meeting, he has to get to know the man, woo him, and it’s almost refreshing.
For Nico, life in the carnival has been a living hell. Sensitive to touch — he can feel the thoughts and emotions of another person when they’re skin to skin — he has been subjected to the appetites and terrors of the wolk who rule the carnival. He’s seen them kill people, because they can’t kill him; his magic is too powerful, too addictive, and they have no intention of letting him go. Nico has watched them rape, torture, and drain the life from people, all because of him. And every time they come to him, to strip the magic from his skin and whisper foul words in his ears, it breaks him a little more.
Nico uses Ren to escape the carnival, thinking nothing more of him than that he’s useful. When Ren turns out to be stubborn and interested — no matter how many times Nico tells him no, tells him that he’s not interested in him, that he doesn’t want to sleep with him — Nico decides to take him along. After all, he’ll be useful as a distraction if the wolk catch up to him. Ren, though, doesn’t want to be just a companion on the road or a fellow fighter against the depredations of the monsters. He wants Nico. It’s really all he wants. True, he has no home to go back to, but even if he did, he wants to sleep with Nico. To touch him. To own him. And he never once hides that.
There are numerous consent issues and red flags throughout this book and some people may be sensitive to the tensions and emotional manipulation that Ren uses against Nico. It’s not rape, but it’s very much a matter of Ren being told no, again and again (and again and again and again), and ignoring Nico’s boundaries, bodily autonomy, and clearly spoken wishes not to be touched in favor of his own desires. Ren wants a sexual relationship with Nico and pushes and pushes until Nico gives in. I lost count of how many times Nico told him — in plain words, in sharp “nos,” in moving away from him, pushing him away, or yelling at him — that he didn’t want to be touched. I also lost count of the times Ren touched him anyway. Ren knew Nico didn’t want to be touched, but his desire to touch trumped Nico’s desire and right not to be touched. The thoughts in his head were rarely for Nico’s comfort or happiness, but there were always thoughts of how much Ren wanted him. Several times he thought of him as his magician, this man who made it clear he wanted nothing to do with him.
Ren manipulates Nico again and again, and I’m not certain how much of it is deliberate on Ren’s part, or if he’s just so used to charming everyone around him that it’s second nature. Early on in the book, Nico uses his magic to protect himself, leaving devastation and death behind him. Ren thinks of Nico’s magic as ugly, as horrible and unclean. And yet, when he invites Nico to touch him, he thinks only happy thoughts, about how beautiful the magic is, how amazing Nico is and, of course, how badly he wants to sleep with Nico.
So much of this story left me with a foul taste in my mouth; the author did such a good job of showing how much Nico did not like Ren, did not want to be touched by Ren, had no interest in Ren, that I believed it. Nico asks Ren, tells Ren, all but begs Ren to stop flirting, stop staring, stop hinting, stop putting all this pressure on him, wanting him to just … stop. Needless to say, Ren never stops. I didn’t find it romantic. I found it creepy and unsettling. Even in the end when Nico and Ren come together, it doesn’t feel sweet and like a happily ever after. It feels like Nico once again trapped with a monster, only this one’s human.
Nico was sold to the wolk as a child by his father, and even though he suffered in the carnival, he clung to the hope that he could find his way back home for help in defeating the monsters. While he knew there wouldn’t be a warm welcome, he still had that dream — like so many children do — of home, of family. So when, at the end of the book, he’s lost even that, the fact that Nico settles for someone who is at least human, someone sincerely invested in owning him not for his magic, but just his body, makes a sad sort of sense that Nico will at last let Ren have him.
The writing in this book had some truly beautiful and evocative moments where poetry and personality come through in equal measure. Descriptions of grass, or the subtle character of the night or the wind that were honestly amazingly written. However, a sentence that had me going back to read it a second time was often followed with another sentence that just didn’t work. Reading the book was like blindly eating jelly beans; you never knew which flavor you’d get. However, I like jelly beans. I’ll happily take a few moments of overwrought and flowery descriptions for those moments when the author wrote something truly wonderful. I just couldn’t make myself enjoy the relationship between the two characters or see it as anything healthy, happy, or romantic.