Once every great while, Orsie assumes a human form and leaves his icy castle to visit lands where humans dwell. He shops for apples, something different from his typical diet of gemstones, and gifts a few unsuspecting humans with amethysts or other stones. This time is no different, but upon returning to his magic castle—the literal and figurative home of his dragonsoul—things are different. A terrible red dragon famed for hoarding the souls of her fellow dragons appears. Even in his dragon form, Orsie is no match for her. The battle ends with Orsie bereft of home and soul, stuck in human form. If he cannot reclaim his dragonsoul within a certain time, he will become fully mortal. Thus, Orsie embarks on a journey to recover his soul, one painful step at a time.
Arkeva “Ark” Flitz is an archer in Crinidava, but with his mothers long since passed, he has virtually no close affinity to the garrison in which he works. On a free day, he ventures out and sees a dragon fly overhead. Surprised, he lets loose an arrow that strikes the beast. Ark doesn’t know much about dragons other than that they are fickle and demand respect, so he gives chase with intent to apologize. But instead of a dragon, he finds an enchanted castle—one that, once he’s entered, refuses to let him leave. Except for short trips to his old village, he is all but trapped and alone. When Ark starts talking to the castle, he is stunned to find it seems to answer back in the form of a whisperer. Ark finds great solace in this connection—especially as he eventually learns that part of the castle is malicious, encouraging him to kill those who visit the castle looking for riches.
When a desperate traveler named Orsie is captured and presented to Ark by a group of wealthy merchants hoping to secure Ark’s favor, he takes pity on the wretched man. He is sickly and desperately searching for someone dear to him. Ark understands the feeling and despite his growing affection for the young man, is determined to see him healed and reunited with his lover. But time is running out for Orsie to find his castle and the human sickness that ravages him may put even that mortal coil in jeopardy.
I fell in love with this story, the setting, and characters. I am so happy it has been relaunched on NineStar Press (it was first published in 2018 by Less Than Three), otherwise I may never have come across it. Kelly builds an immersive fantasy world well-steeped in its own dragon lore and spun out through the characters’ stories and actions. This allowed me to avoid feeling like there were any huge info dumps about the lands out characters travel to. The descriptions of dragons, their magic, and how it works was also pitched well. Never did I feel like things happened purely for the convenience of the plot, but that the rules of dragon magic meshed into the world.
This is a love story, but it is an incredible slow burn. At first, Orsie and Ark are the subjects of two seemingly parallel arcs: Orsie’s story about his struggle to get his dragonsoul back and Ark’s story about his meagre life as an unappreciated archer who becomes more or less imprisoned in a magical castle. Despite the seeming distance between our two MCs, Kelly builds in intimacy when these two discover they can “whisper” to each other. This is a sort of mind link that allows the two to build a connection, a bond, and to fall in love—but that connection can only activate in certain parts of the castle and only when both Orsie and Ark seek it out. Kelly really starts fanning the fire when their two paths finally converge, but they don’t realize they’ve finally found their lover because the whisper link disallows any sort of identifying information (such as voice, appearance, even physical location) from being shared. For me, I was rooting for them to fall for each other anyway, but also appreciated that Ark and Orsie developing feelings for one another makes them feel like they are betraying their “whisperer” love.
I think it is worth noting that Kelly, on their author website, mentions this is an asexual story. While there are no wild scenes of these two between the sheets, I thought the way Orsie teaches Ark how dragons are intimate was very sweet. My only confusion was the “soul touch” that apparently officially binds two dragons together as a bonded pair. I thought this happened in the course of Ark preparing to truly become Orsie’s love, but the last scene had me reevaluating it…and hoping for a sequel.
Overall, if you are interested in fantasy stories; dragon shifter type characters; and two strong, independent leads whose on-page stories are full of emotion (and not a little bit of melancholy), I think you’ll enjoy this book. The plot is driven by Orsie’s quest to find where Ark is locked away, and the events on page all work towards building that narrative. Kelly’s variation on hiding in plain sight was a fun bit of hurt and comfort reading for me and I think fans of that kind of trope will enjoy that element as well. Overall, this is a great way to spend an afternoon.