There is nothing Sreka, crown prince of Zveka, would not do for his little brother, Dobrina. For now, that means Sreka needs to find someone to marry because Dobrina is madly in love and the laws of Zveka dictate that Sreka must marry before any younger siblings. Sreka’s plan? To seek out Košmar, the son of a local legendary figure and a man of some note as an adventurer himself…and to propose a marriage of convenience. Košmar accepts; it sounds like fun and, if nothing else, pretending to be the one true love of a prince promises far better sleeping arrangements than Košmar currently enjoys.
Of course, it doesn’t take long before they both privately realize they are developing feelings far deeper than mere convenience or even friendship. Yet it is difficult for each man to gauge the other when it was so clear that Sreka and Košmar agreed they would only pretend to love each other. It also doesn’t help that Sreka’s protective friends are immediately suspicious of Košmar because, although his father was a famed Zvekan hero, his mother is a magical creature of literal nightmares. But while Sreka’s friends think they are forcing Košmar to vow to protect Sreka at any cost, Košmar freely swears many oaths to protect his husband, the man with whom he is falling in love.
When the evil sorcerer, Koschei, appears to wreak havoc on the kingdom of Zveka and especially the royal family, Sreka and Košmar must embark on a dangerous journey to vanquish Koschei. Bolstered by their ever deepening love for each other, the journey is not insurmountable…but the closer they get to Koschei, the more worried they are that the magic in Košmar blood will turn him against his one true love.
For fans of the “fake boyfriend” or “marriage of convenience” tropes, this story opens with the scene where Sreka propositions Košmar. Personally, I enjoyed immediately starting with the conceit that brings the two romantic leads together. This also helped speed the emotional plot along, letting me savor the way both MCs are so wary of revealing their deepening feelings because each fears his growing love will be unrequited.Therein lies the elements of slow burn, the frequent reminders that Sreka and Košmar are both afraid they are the only ones falling in love until they eventually get married and realize they actually do love each other.
As far as the dynamic between Sreka and Košmar goes, I felt this was sort of pigeon holed into two general themes. First, there was a pretense of the fake relationship with the strong undercurrents of developing true feelings. During this part of the book, the pair seemed to share a lot of light banter out loud while privately pining. Second, once they realize they are actually in love, the dynamic felt very focused on their physical relationship. Personally, I thought it was almost comic how often they are jumping into bed together.
Overall, it was still clear that these two are very into each other, but given this backdrop, I was rather taken aback by a line Sreka tells Košmar. In the scene, the two are just starting their epic quest to vanquish the evil sorcerer, who has kidnapped Sreka’s brother, Dobrina. Sreka says, “It doesn’t matter how strong Koschei is, or what magic he commands—nothing he can do to me now would hurt as much as losing Dobrina.” This is such a small line, and yet it build in a(n ultimately impotent) sense of foreboding for Košmar. While it is very clear that Sreka values his family very much and he also loves Košmar very much, this line seemed to rank blood over found family…and that was a topic I wasn’t really prepared for, nor one that really gets explored despite this (what I thought of as a) bombshell of a line. There was also one other place where I thought Sreka demonstrated rather poor judgement. In one scene, he is ready to raze a village to the ground because the residents attacked Košmar (who reminds them of the other nightmare/magic creatures who have been attacking the village and they thought Košmar was going to attack them as well). At the next village they come to, however, Sreka throws caution to the wind to investigate the smoldering wreckage of the village because “they’re my people” and he feels obligated to help. Again, this is a small thing, but it stuck out in my mind.
Most of the action in the story comes via magical beasts and other underlings out doing the bidding of the evil sorcerer Koschei. Once the two leads embark on their rescue mission, the story resolves into a fantasy-esque quest to Koschei and his followers. It was pretty easy for me to take these various different magical monsters at face value and I appreciated Bethel recycling some of the earlier monsters to make for a bit more consistency. What I was less clear on was just how magical Sreka was supposed to be. It seemed pretty clear that his hair is magical, but beyond that bald statement and Koschei’s attempt to use Dobrina’s magical hair for, well, magic, Sreka never does anything with magic. It just seemed like a loose end and even with Košmar being half magical being himself, the ramifications thereof are not really explored on-page.
On the surface, this is a pretty simple fake-romance story that features a big quest to save someone. Fans of these tropes and fantasy/action type stories or slow-burns that develop big blazes will surely enjoy this title. I really enjoyed the world Bethel created and the representation of magic through Košmar. A little deeper into the text, I think readers can enjoy contemplating Sreka and his filial versus his romantic commitments (I know I did).