It was supposed to be her night. Her feast, her recognition, her promotion, her dream. Instead, Sergeant Major Scratch Keyes is in the castle dungeon with her dearest friend, Jamie, accused of killing the the king’s only daughter. Now, true, the circumstantial evidence does strongly point to the two of them having something to do with Princess Francis’ disappearance, but Scratch knows damn well she had nothing to do with it. Instead of being named Knight Commander, she’s now the condemned, and it seems like she’s taking Jamie down with her.
The more she turns the situation over in her mind, the less it adds up, so when a mysterious woman demands the two of them follow her if they want to escape, Scratch is torn. On the one hand, escape. Which is good. On the other, what if it’s a trap? But really, how dead can any person be at the end of the day? So, in pants that are too tight and a mood darker than the sewer’s own shadows, Scratch follows.
Now, along with Jamie and the Shae siblings, Brella and Vin, Scratch is off to find the missing princess and prove that this has all been a mistake. Between bandits, fae, and falling in love, it looks to be a long journey. Wait, falling in love? Surely not! Brella is strong and snappish, and yes, beautiful and clever, but Scratch needs to focus on the important things. Like the princess. Not the shape of Brella’s smile or the way her hands move when she’s angry …
This story is kind of adorable. No, scratch that. It is adorable. Scratch grew up poor and hungry, and when the army came calling, she answered. Finally able to take out all of her anger and rage on a target, finally able to fight back against the unfairness of life in a way she hadn’t been able to before, she blossomed. Even so, Scratch was always aware of her appearance. Too small, with her Lakeland’s pale hair and blue eyes; too obviously a woman, compared to the men around her, she had to be twice as fast, twice as mean, and absolutely beyond reproach, giving no one any reason to think her weak or undeserving of her rank and position.
Scratch does her best to be a good soldier. To do what she’s told. To be good at what she does. But it’s when she’s talking to Brella by the campfire, discussing the people she’s killed — often people who would have killed her, or her friends, her fellow guards or even the king — that she shows just how fragile she is. She doesn’t feel ashamed of the killing, but she does regret that it had to be done. The guard, to Scratch, is the home her mother never gave her. It’s order and logic and reason that fights against the chaos of hunger and confusion and the suffering of a child who didn’t always understand the world. The guard gives her a reason to live, a reason to get up, a reason to keep going even when it hurts. and now it’s gone. Taken from her, and she doesn’t know why.
The more she talks to Brella, the more she bears the small, fragile parts of herself, the more she learns of the other woman. Brella’s affection is easily given, but rarely sincere. She can smile and nod and keep up a conversation, but there’s always a part of her held back and watching. Brella has a sharp mind and a sharp wit, but she pre-judges others. Bit by bit, Scratch, who finds herself wanting to prove to Brella that she’s not just some random guard, some generic soldier, that she’s flesh and blood and a person, begins to see glimpses of the Brella behind the smiles. The devotion she has to her ideals, her strong sense of justice and fairness, the way she will put herself between danger and those she cares about … sometimes without thought, but always with a good heart.
And her growing realization of her own feelings for Brella are charmingly romantic. It’s not Brella’s curves or smile or clean skin and teeth. It’s … Brella.
This was what Brella really looked like, without fear, without anger. Even in the deep blue shade of night, she radiated the warmth of sunrise, her hair as brown and warm as a loaf of fresh bread. The woman was all breakfast — bright, welcome breakfast, like the yolk of an egg or the underside of a griddled cake. She was an apparition of morning time, and Scratch had always liked morning best.
When the fae helping them through the mystical woods tell them that Brella and Scratch will have to form a blood bond — something binding and life-changing — Scratch tries to deny it. She knows it’s special, and wants it to be Brella’s choice, something done for someone she loves, not done out of convenience or necessity. And that’s when Brella seems to finally see Scratch for who she is, because she agrees to the bond with a lighter heart than she had, before.
The world building in this book slips up on you. Small touches, like the way names are given — such as Scratch, Brella, Bowstring, or any of the others. The fae folk feel alien and other, and in the meeting between Scratch and the princess, where both women are watching, judging, and listening to one another, laying out their cards slowly, it’s a powerful and well-written moment as two people — one who has the weapons to destroy the other, and one who wants to live — face each other down in a slow, graceful dance of politics and bridge building. Neither side is perfect, neither side is the cleverest or omniscient. Both are flawed, both are clumsy, and both come across as what they are: two young women with the fate of an empire on their shoulders.
This book was just so much fun to read with a sincere and wonderful romance between two characters who felt like they were made for each other. They compliment each other, they support each other, and they respect each other. I don’t know if this book is meant to be a standalone or the first in a series, as it ends on what could be a cliffhanger or just an open ending, but if there is a sequel out there, I will be grabbing for it with both hands.