Balen has only ever wanted two things: To be a paladin, a powerful warrior for his kingdom, someone who can’t be pushed around and bullied, someone who can and will stand beside princes and kings, wear magical armor, wield magical weapons, and to be someone. Not just the leftover and unwanted son of a tailor, but someone special. And he had that. The armor, the sword, the respect; he had a lover, the young prince Zavrius; he had friends, a position, everything he’d ever wanted. But there was one more thing that Balen wanted with all his heart. More than anything, more than Zavrius, he wanted to be Paladin Prime. The paladin who stood beside the king — beside the Prince Theo, heir to the throne, destined to lead their kingdom to glory.
Zavrius watched as Balen put aside extraneous things and focused on getting better. Faster, stronger, tougher. Balen put aside Zavrius for Theo and, really, it wasn’t the first time someone chose Theo. Theo was his father’s son, tall and powerful, commanding and glorious in the way a sharp sword or a raging fire is glorious. All of Zavrius’ siblings were like that, weapons forged by their father to rule a kingdom, while Zavrius was a flower grown in his mother’s garden. Softer, quieter, and overlooked.
Two weeks ago, the world changed forever as Theo, princes Gideonus and Lysio, and princess Avidia were assassinated, leaving Zavrius to be king — and Balen to be his Prime. Balen turned away from Zavrius once before, choosing to follow his own path, but fate has led them back together. Balen will do whatever it takes to protect Zavrius, but the king doesn’t trust him, doesn’t have faith in him. And Balen thinks he might be right to doubt.
This is a story about second chances, as Zavrius struggles to be the king he wants to be while, all around him, his kingdom yearns for the king they might have had. Zavrius hid himself away, chose to make a mockery of himself rather than contend with the poisons of the court … and now he needs to drink from that cup, to make friends and allies and prove that he’s not just the last choice. He’s the right one. King Sirellius was a war monger, desperate to win victory against the Rezwyn Empire. And it killed him. His sons, especially Theo, were raised to be warrior kings like their father, and the kingdom was destined for a time of constant violence. Armies were trained, nobles were taxed, the people were whipped up into nationalism and patriotic furors … and it all ended when the princes died and Zavrius was made king. The populace is unsettled and edgy, the nobles are conspiring — because it’s easy to make money during times of war, harder in peace. For the merchant class and the common folk, peace sounds wonderful. Time to trade, to rest and recover, grow crops, and have children … and it’s a divide growing even deeper as noble children go missing and the king (who has been king all of two weeks) doesn’t seem to care.
The paladins, too, are uncertain at the change. War meant glory, be it a glorious death or a heroic charge, a chance to be noticed, a chance to use their magic — the magic that burns in their veins — and a chance to make their names known. Now they’re nothing more than guards with expensive armor, pulled back into the palace to babysit a king who’d rather play an instrument and flirt with a merchant than rule the kingdom and take vengeance for his family’s assassinations.
Balen knows Zavrius doesn’t trust him, and he knows he doesn’t deserve that trust. Being Paladin Prime meant more to him than being with Zavrius, and he doesn’t regret it. It doesn’t mean he stopped loving Zavrius, or wanting him, but Zavrius was never going to come first. Now that Balen has the position he wants, Zavrius still won’t come first. The king will, not the man. Balen will lay down his life for Zavrius, but the time of being his lover is gone. And Balen is okay with that.
Reforged is a very, very good book. It’s got creative and lovely world building, complex characters, political intrigue, and strong writing. There are a few small things I noted. The writing at times pushes the style hard, lessening the emotion of some scenes. Quiet moments can be quiet, they don’t need to always be filled with poetic descriptions. The ending felt rushed. The final confrontation takes place in the last 10% of the book and I feel like it could have been and should have been longer to let those moments really sink their claws in.
I also think the romance feels a little one sided. Balen’s character and motivations are well drawn; he’s ambitious, young, and making the mistakes young men make. (Both he and Zavrius are in their early 20s, which makes some of their more … interesting decisions feel very real.) And while I can see that he’s horny, I never get the feeling that it’s Zavrius he’s horny for. He has moments of jealousy at the thought of Zavrius with someone else, but he feels more paranoid about someone touching his armor than someone touching Zavrius. Balen as a character works for me, Balen and Zavrius as a couple make sense, but the romance feels one-sided, with Zavrius obviously still wounded by the abandonment, still pining after the man he loved. Not every couple has to fit perfectly together, because life isn’t easy or simple, but I wanted more from Balen because Zavrius deserves more. (Yes, I am biased.)
Either way, this book was good. The world building and politics and magic system are standouts, and if this author ever writes anything else, especially in this world, I will be right there to snag the next book. Oh, and the plot. The pacing was so tight, the focus was crystal clear, and everything made sense in the context of the world. All the twists and turns worked because the author let the characters — both the good ones and the bad — be intelligent and clever. And all the foreshadowing was just so well done. This book is one of my favorites this year, and expect to see it on my Year’s Best list.