Being a Melford in Ryson’s hometown is never easy. It’s even harder when the town is gearing up for the bicentenary of their founding family and the tragic disappearance of founder Raymond Melford’s mother, Sara, an event rumored to have spurred Raymond into growing the family’s wealth in order to discover what happened to her. None of the five Melford brothers enjoy the eyes and weight their family’s legacy places on them, but Ryson tries to live as anonymously and independently as he can in order to have a semblance of a normal life. He’s usually so careful and reclusive that his brothers tease him for only caring about his coffee shop and his chonky cat, so when Ryson rescues a barely clothed stranger he finds by the dumpster behind his coffee shop and brings him home, it comes as a bit of surprise; even more surprising is Ryson’s fierce protectiveness towards the man. Ryson can’t explain it to himself or his brothers, but he feels an immediate connection to and need to protect the mysterious man called Jack and he will take care of him no matter the cost.
Winter’s creation was a mistake—his very existence seen as a disappointment, a waste of magic, and an affront to Mother Nature’s power and will. As such, he’s treated as a toy and slave to be brutalized and demeaned when not performing his duties as a Season. Trained to obey and follow Mother Nature’s rules without question, Winter creates the worst blizzard of the century when told to do so. As conditioned, Winter is unmindful of the humans freezing to death in his wake until someone catches his eye and he not only saves her, but falls in love with her, breaking the cardinal rule of not interacting with humans. For the first time in his existence, Winter has love, happiness, even a name, but disobedience has its price. Being stripped of his magic, tortured, and locked in a dungeon for two centuries is nothing compared to his guilt for the consequences his actions caused. Waking up one day in the human world gives Winter hope that Mother Nature has finally forgiven him, even if he can never forgive himself.
Meeting Ryson is both agony and ecstasy for Jack, knowing that his love for Sara cost her family so much, yet inexorably drawn to Ryson and ensnared by his kindness and warmth. Ryson makes him want to live, something Jack’s never felt before, but as someone who does not control his own destiny, wanting Ryson is almost as dangerous as hoping, especially as his feelings for Ryson could incite Mother Nature’s ire just like before. However, Ryson refuses to let history repeat itself; Mother Nature isn’t all powerful and her actions two hundred years ago irrevocably altered the Melford family line in unforeseen ways. With the help of some unexpected allies, Ryson and his family must learn about themselves and their history and Jack must learn to believe in himself if any of them hope to have a future.
Black Ice Heart, the first book in Abrianna Denae’s Unveiled Magic series, is an enjoyable slow burn PNR that centers around journeys of self-discovery. For the last of the Melfords, this takes the shape of finally delving into the truth of their family’s painful legacy and embracing hidden parts of themselves; for Jack, it involves his evolution from a pet with no autonomy or belief in his value to a being with a sense of self-worth and hope of having a real family. Told in present tense in alternating first-person POVs and flashbacks, the story focuses mostly on the series’ set up and establishing Jack as a truly sympathetic character and his seemingly predestined role in the Melford brothers’ lives. Generally, I have mixed feeling about stories told in present tense, but I think Denae uses it very effectively. Writing in present tense usually restricts the narrative to the current place in time, but Denae also writes the flashbacks in present tense and conveys them in such a way that they help create the sense of inevitability and repetition at the heart of Jack’s story and help solidify Jack’s connection and importance to Melfords other than Ryson.
For the most part, the incorporation of magic/world building is fine. The majority of people don’t know magic/magical beings exist and, for those who do, it’s not that important because there aren’t many humans that still have magic or can use it if they do. Most of the magic is expressed by Mother Nature and her Seasons and, as deities, not much has to be explained. However, this means the narrative exists in that weird in-between where magic isn’t important…except for how it is. But some rules are established as needed and it works well enough that a ‘maybe that’ll get explained more in the next book’ suffices as there are several narrative set-ups for future exploration seeded throughout.
While Jack and Ryson’s connection is the catalyst for almost every characters’ actions and the plot, the Melford family unit is very important too; Denae does a good job showing the bond and dynamics between the brothers through their interactions with Ryson and, to a lesser extent, Jack. Although the story is told in alternating POVs, none of the brothers besides Ryson get a POV scene, but each brother has a distinct enough personality that they don’t blend into one another during dialogue and aren’t easily mixed up when mentioned. Honestly, the POV switches to secondary characters function almost entirely as exposition delivery (except in one infuriating instance). There is a discernible shift in tone at around the halfway point of the story that necessitates this, but for the most part it works for me as these quick POVs allowed me to get a better sense of who the non-Melford characters are and to learn/discover along with the Melford brothers.
The blurb is somewhat misleading and plays up the intrigue and Ryson versus his family vibe as more important than it is, as the energy between the brothers is almost the exact opposite. One of the elements I loved most about this story is that they actually talk to one another. Their love, concern, and frustration isn’t overbearing and acknowledges boundaries. They make allowances for the less than healthy family dynamics found between relatives without making excuses for problematic behavior or getting dragged into pointless fights. They call each other out without being assholes (mostly), and try to support each other’s feelings even when they disagree (mostly). So there isn’t the amount of family discord or angst the blurb implies. However, as good a job as Denae does with the brothers as a whole, Ryson is a little less developed than I expected. Despite getting his POV, his personality is defined almost entirely by his relationship to Jack; his bond with Jack kind of subsumes other traits he may have into the all-consuming mandate of ‘protect Jack’. There’s enough given that Ryson doesn’t feel flat and I like the character; I just wish I knew a bit more about him.
I’m also not of fan of that thing in romance where a MC’s dead romantic partner gets described as the love of their life so now the narrative has to keep telling the reader how different and special and just more the love they have for their “meant to be” is (especially in MM romance if a character has loved a lady). It’s a bit off-putting and icky and doesn’t make me buy into the love of the HEA relationship more. It’s understandable in stories where the new partner is struggling with insecurity and needs reassurance, but that’s not the case here. Spoiler from the prologue, but it’s bad enough Sarajust to motivate two men’s narrative journeys. Is it really necessary to keep harping on about how much more Jack loves her many great-greats grandson? This is also probably why I was SO upset by how Denae uses another character. MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD: It just feels lazy and a bit gross, and, as the story had shown up to that point, Denae could do better.
Overall though, I found Black Ice Heart to be a dark and heart wrenching, yet hopeful story. Ryson and Jack’s care and connection are intense, but so reverent. Ryson and his brothers are an interesting mix that work well together (even with the requisite asshole in the bunch), and frankly, it’s just nice to read about a family who isn’t high-handed in their care and concern. They show how much they love Ryson, but also respect boundaries and will back him up even if they disagree. This is a love story about Jack and Ryson, but family—what it means, how is shapes us, and how it grows to encompass others—is at the heart of Black Ice Heart, and I think Jack’s journey from an abusive toxic family to one built on love and protection is worth the read.