It isn’t often Harry has a beautiful man in his bed. Asleep, upstairs, while Henry keeps watch by the fire. The young man had staggered in from the woods, begging and desperate for help, and Harry couldn’t bring himself to turn him away. Even if he is a witch.
It’s been years since the war ended, but the Blue Crows still fly. Witch hunters track down anyone with magical ability and give them two choices: serve the empire or die. Most choose to serve. They’re branded, clothed, fed, and taught to use their magic in defense of the country at Emperor Aralias’ command. But with the war over and won, the Blue Crows have become more of a mercenary gang, using the witches they command to threaten, harass, or bully people into whatever whim Tariq, their leader, has that day.
Witches don’t escape the Blue Crows. Witches don’t escape Tariq.
But somehow, this young man, with the golden hair and blue eyes, did. And Tariq wants him back. Harry knows he should let Kit go before the young witch brings the wrath of the Crows down on both of their heads, before people get hurt. He knows he should be rid of him as soon as he can. But loneliness, compassion, and the chance of friendship are hard to resist. Almost as hard as Kit, himself. They are both drowning in darkness, they are both looking for some hope of shore in an endless night. And maybe, between the two of them, they stand a chance of finding it.
Kit is lovely, clever, and cruel. He knows how to use words to hurt, and knows how to use his smile to seduce. But he’s hurt and hurting. He’s lonely and scared, and Harry, a woodcutter and healer who lives deep in the woods, offers Kit something he hasn’t had in forever. He offers healing, and food, and a bed all for nothing. He makes no coarse demands, doesn’t threaten or bluster, doesn’t even seem to care about who Kit is or where he’s been or what he’s done. Instead, Harry offers Kit medicinal salves when his brand becomes infected. He offers a shoulder to lean on when Kit can’t walk and calm, quiet silences that leave Kit feeling something almost like contentment
Harry was a medic in the war. He’s seen first hand the damage one man can do to another with a sword or a knife or a gun, and he knows — bone deep — the guilt of a man who survives where others don’t. The guilt of a man who has done things, terrible things, things there are no words for. While Kit is moderately curious, he’s mostly interested in the here-and-now, in the Harry who stands before him, not the man Harry used to be. He makes Harry smile and laugh. Yes, Kit reminds Harry of the dark parts of his past, but he also reminds him that there is joy to be had in life. The joy of a hand in yours, of a kiss, of a lover’s touch. Kit sees him at his darkest and isn’t afraid.
The men see each other for the monsters and the broken men they are. Neither of them are good men, but where Harry thinks his actions are unforgivable, Kit believes that, while they can neither of them undo the past, they still have tomorrow.
“Surely you have done enough to earn absolution?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then you have to keep going, you have to live on and continue your work, keep saving lives until you’ve done enough. I’ll help you.”
I really enjoyed this book. The characters are heavily shaded in swaths of gray (especially Kit) who accept themselves fully. There’s no dithering or whining — though there is a fair bit of wallowing. When push comes to shove, both Harry and Kit do what they have to, accepting who and what they are. I love the “retired killer comes out of retirement” trope, and this book does it well. There’s nuance to Kit and Harry and depth to their story. The world building is never explained; instead, there are hints of complex politics and a horrible and exploitative system of magic.
As much as I liked this book, it will not be for everyone. There are violent and graphic depictions of violence and gore. The villain of this book is a pedophile who bought Kit while he was a child, groomed him, and sexually assaulted him, as well as allowed other adults to do the same. These are mostly brief mentions and never shown, but some readers may be made uncomfortable reading about such situations. However, at the time of the book, Kit has escaped Tariq and been free of him for ten years, and this book does have a happy ending.
A handful of copy errors were present in the version I was given, such as syphon instead of siphon. Small things, but noticeable. Other than that, the writing is strong, the pacing is fast, and the plot is focused and grounded. My only regret is that there’s not a sequel on the way.