Once Upon a Time there was a man who stood alone on a muddy ridge in the middle of the night and stared down the fiery throat of a creature the love of his life had left him to save.
Dragons (like cats) are beasts of magic, mischief, and moods, as Milo well knows. He’s loved them since he was a child and, as dragonkin, can communicate with them, can sometimes convince them to let him help them when they’re injured or sick. They are the heraldic beast of Wales and are loved, revered, and feared. Never before have they been chained, caged, and turned into weapons of war. Milo, already heart deep in his courtship with Ellis, his childhood friend and dearest love, finds himself with no choice but to leave everything behind to save the dragons who can’t save themselves. He understands if Ellis moves on and can’t forgive.
Ellis has worked his way into the position of First Warden, constantly having to deal with his father’s snide, petty jabs about magic users, about the refugees flooding Wellech as they flee the war, his father’s sneering hate for his mother, and every nasty comment, look, and bigoted posturing. His father is the Penneath of Wellech, and there’s no way for Ellis to take it from him, so he has to sit across from his father on the city council and try to work with him, to temper the small evils his father extols in public and the darker ones in private. But the war won’t stay outside the city walls forever, and Ellis — like Milo — has to make a choice.
As much as he wants to follow Milo, to defend his country, to help the man he loves, Ellis is needed where he is. The city of Wellech may be all that stands between the dragons of Wales and the evils of war.
Sonata Form features an alternate Wales where magic (and dragons) exist side by side with trains, cars, rifles, and motion pictures. It’s also a story that deals with war not from the front lines, but the hard fought slug fests of coastal cities fighting off invasions. It also takes a look at the suspicion, hatred, and violence that can be and has been turned on people who are from a different place, speak a different language, or look different than how they’re ‘supposed’ to look. This may not be subject matter everyone finds comfortable, but there is a clear line drawn between good and evil, and in this world, treating people as less-than simply because they’re not like you is an evil that needs to be faced and vanquished.
Milo’s mother is a powerful Dewin, a bloodline of magic users who draw magic from within themselves rather than reaching for elements, like sorcerers, or nature, like witches. She is also a veteran of the last war, a war in which the things she did, the horrors she saw, the lives she took, and the people she lost are things she’s unwilling to speak of. And she has done her best, all her life, to keep her son from having to make that choice. But when she is called, Ceri vanishes into the night, leaving little more behind than her love for her son. All Milo knows is that the Black Dogs are out there, fighting for their country, and each tale of horror and violence means his mother is still out there.
Milo is introspective and gentle, always willing to see the best in people. When he returns from school to find his mother has a new man in her life, who comes with a young daughter, Milo opens his heart to them as easily as he does to the dragons. When Ellis — whom he loves, has always loved, whom he knows is better than him, deserves more than him — asks to court Milo, the answer is an unequivocal yes. The time they have together is the happiest Milo has ever been, and leaving Ellis is the hardest thing he’s ever done. He’ll love Ellis forever, even if Ellis moves on to someone else. But Milo has to do his duty, and knows that if he didn’t tell Ellis goodbye, Ellis would follow him. Because Ellis goes where he’s needed and Milo needs him. Has always needed him. But the people of Wellech need him more.
Ellis has always known Milo was his and he was Milo’s. He just had to wait for them both to be old enough for the courting contract, because he knows Milo would never make the first move. Milo who is open and honest, Milo who never thinks to use his love as a tool or a weapon, Milo who brings out Ellis’ magic — what little magic he has — and even when he can’t be with Milo, he can still Dream about him. And Ellis knows, like Milo knows, that he would follow Milo if only Milo would let him.
Ellis has always known his duty as First Warden of Wellech. He fights his father’s bigotry and prejudice at every council meeting, encouraging his wardens to look past the growing stigma of magic, country, and culture to see the person in front of them, next to them, as a person. Slowly, bit by bit, Ellis begins to build a group of men and women for whom compassion is greater than hatred, but it might be too little, too late. Ellis knows he’s not a hero, but neither are the men and women of Wellech who are going to die when war comes to their city, when the invading soldiers land on their shores. Ellis knows he’s fighting losing battles, but he has no choice. If he doesn’t fight them, no one will.
The writing in this book is prose heavy, but well-written, florid prose, walking a perfect line between evocative and lyrical without ever feeling forced or overwrought. Milo’s sections (the first half of the book) are more purple as Milo, himself, is more emotional and thoughtful. Ellis’ sections still have a great deal of feeling, but there is a starkness, especially as the realities of a war on the home front are brought into focus. While this book does take a look at the war, it’s from the perspective of the home guard. These aren’t giant battles, these are tighter and more focused because every inch of land is an inch Ellis has played on, or ridden past. Every death is someone he knows. Every victory means that he and his can breathe for just a little longer.
While this book does deal with some heavy themes, it does so through the eyes of very human characters. It’s not some random town being hostile, it’s Ellis’ town. It’s not just neighbor against neighbor, it’s Milo having to duck his head and accept that the people he’s known all his life think he’s one of the ‘good ones’ or one of the ‘safe ones’ … while still being ‘one of those.’
There are a lot of Welsh names, places, titles, and phrases, and some people may have difficulty with them, but I found that I was given enough context with the supporting text to figure out what was being said without any problems. I very much enjoyed this book, and appreciated that the author didn’t pull any punches about how violent and painful war is. With all of the politics made so personal, it made it easier to care, and even some of the villains — like Ellis’ father — are given depth and reasons, even if those reasons are wrong. I would have wished for more dragons. And a sequel. Or three. This was an absorbing read with a great deal of action, a sweet romance, and not enough dragons. I highly recommend it.