Rating: 3 stars
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Theodore Burnett is a gentle, fastidious (some might say fussy) librarian at the Royal College of Wizardry. He likes his job. He likes his books and the peace and quiet, and hates when students keep their books beyond the return date or return them in less than perfect condition. Really, there are spells to remove mud or stains or damp, so use them! Another thing Theo isn’t fond of is unkempt men with muddy boots sleeping in his reading rooms past library hours.
Theo’s first instinct is to shoo the man away. On closer look, though, the beautiful man with long legs, elegant fingers, and hair Theo wants to run his own fingers through looks exhausted. He is, most likely, a soldier returned from the war with Napoleon. So Theo goes for a gentle approach. Rather than chastising the man, Henry, he offers him something to eat and a bed to sleep in. Henry doesn’t want to accept, but Theo’s forceful near-command, for all that it’s politely phrased, wasn’t a question.
Over a late supper, Henry reveals to Theo something he’s hidden from everyone: Henry is losing his magic. A battle mage with a near inexhaustible supply of magic, he can now barely light a candle. The doctors can find nothing wrong with him, but Henry feels himself dying by inches. Fortunately for Henry, Theo has read of a similar spell in an old warlock’s book, and is pretty certain that, with a little hard work, they can figure this out.
Theo grew up in a chaotic house, the second son of parents who wanted nothing more than to party until the cows came home (and maybe until they left again) and ended up all but parenting himself. By the age of twelve, he was responsible for paying many of his father’s debts, hiring and paying for his own tutors, and keeping the house going. When his parents died, as tragic as it was, it actually made life easier. While his older brother still lives a life of fun and frivolity, at least there’s only one of him.
Perhaps because of his childhood, Theo finds himself needing things to be clean and organized. The books just so, the napkins just so, the blankets and the pictures on the wall just so. His brother mocks him for it — not meaning to be cruel, but not aware that his sense of humor causes his younger brother pain — and Theo has grown self-conscious. He is prone to self-deprecation and insecurity, retreating to the world where he knows his worth … his library.
Henry grew up in a large, loud, loving family. As a powerful mage, it was his duty to enlist for the war. With his earth sense, he always knew where he was. Able to use powerful spells, he was a valued asset, and being willing to work as a spy, he hopped into and out of beds with ruthless abandon in order to get vital information for Wellington. With the war ended, Henry has to return to a normal life … and he doesn’t quite know how. With all the blood on his hands — the enemies and those of his friends — how does he just go home and … live? And without his magic, can he live, anyway? Broken, despairing, and unsure of his place in the world, he endures debilitating nightmares and his self castigation.
I felt every page of this book. At over 350 pages, there is a lot of padding as scenes and conversations take place again and again — seen first through Theo’s eyes and then, a second time, through Henry’s. A lot of world building takes place in introspective inner monologues with everything spoon fed in a “tell, don’t show” buffet that left me full and unsatisfied at the same time. The relationship between Theo and Henry is much the same. Rather than having the relationship build over the three hundred odd pages, it happens so fast that I wondered if this was a world of fated mates with the two of them falling in love with one another almost in the first chapter. By the time he’s falling asleep in Theo’s borrowed bed, Henry is already dreaming of being his house husband. Henry knows, somehow, this librarian with little magic but a good, honest, and loyal heart will be the one to save him. And Theo knows, deep in his heart, that Henry (the spy fresh from the war) would never lie to him, wouldn’t bully him or judge him, and despite all that he’s been through is still a generous, loving, kind, and compassionate man.
Rather than allowing the characters to get to know one another, to see trust be earned or the growth of love and respect, it’s all laid out plainly in the first few chapters. It’s all but a given truth that Theo will save the day and Henry will love him for it forever. And their near constant thoughts of one another, over and over, about how wonderful the other is … I got tired of it. With the plot hinted at and drawn out for three hundred pages, it was nice to see it finally make an appearance towards the last fifth of the book, but then it was over and the characters return to their loving devotion to one another.
The uneven pacing, the rushed characterization, and the manner in which the world building was presented just didn’t work for me. There is nothing inherently bad with this book. The writing is solid, the characters are sweet, but it’s the same flavor from the first page to the last with no real growth or conflict and I ended being, well, bored. Personally, this is a pass from me.
The premise of this sounds quite appealing, Elizabeth. I appreciated hearing what did and didn’t work for you.