Rating: 3.5 stars
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After the death of his father and a break up with his boyfriend, Toby is at a transition point. So when his estranged grandfather dies and leaves him a crumbling mansion in a remote Tasmania, Toby seizes the chance to take a bit of a break from his everyday life. It turns out the home is mostly falling apart and the finances are a mess, but it is in a charming town, has lovely grounds, and brings back memories from childhood visits. Toby hadn’t originally planned to stay in town beyond getting the house ready to sell, but now he is finding himself enjoying his visit enough to consider maybe this is where he is meant to be.
Part of what is drawing Toby to stick around is Amaethon (Thon), a thousands-year-old fae who lives on the property and takes care of the grounds. Thon has a deep connection to the earth that makes him the perfect caretaker for the property. He and Toby find a quick connection of both friendship and a romantic interest. However, Toby has no idea that the supernatural world exists until troubling things begin happening in town, and it becomes clear that there is something dangerous going on. Then he is shocked to learn that not only is Thon fae, but so are many people in this small town. And even more unbelievable — Toby himself is fae, his family had been keeping it a secret, and he is one of the four Songbird Princes.
Toby has an easier time believe fae exist than accepting that he is part of that world. He can’t help but be angry that his heritage has been kept a secret from him for so many years for his safety. But it quickly becomes clear that now that Toby’s lineage is revealed, he and the others are in danger. Hunters have come into town and fae lives are on the line. Now that Toby knows the truth about who he really is, he is ready to step up and fight with the others to stop those who seek to do them harm before it is too late.
The Nightingale Prince is the first story in Zack Bel’s new Songbird Princes series. Bel does a really nice job here with the story set up, giving us an engaging setting and some interesting world building. The sense of place is really well developed, enough that I could really picture this remote Tasmanian town and crumbling mansion. The early parts of the story have a nice small town vibe as Toby comes into town, reconnects with the home and people he knew from childhood visits, and gets a sense of the community. Then we discover, along with Toby, that there is more to this town than meets the eye. The town has many fae living there, as well as other supernatural beings. There is a whole world that Toby never knew existed, and even more, he is a part of it. We learn early on that Toby’s mother and grandfather had been hiding his heritage from him and so he is suddenly discovering this whole new world. And not only that, but discovering that he plays a prominent role in the fae world. There are some interesting world building elements here and I think Bel really gives the story a nice foundation.
Where I struggled here is that the story doesn’t seem to ever really come together after this initial set up. Part of it is that information is parsed out really slowly to Toby (and, in turn, to us as readers) and nothing feels fully explained. People keep giving him tiny bits of information, or telling him they will explain more later, but so much is left undeveloped. I still am not clear who the hunters actually are or why they want to kill Toby or the other fae in the village. The blurb says, “…they’ll destroy this quiet town to stop the Nightingale Prince from rising. Amaethon and Toby will have to fight together to survive, and failure means the end of all Fae kind.” But when actually reading, I had no sense what the fight was actually about, nor did I feel anything close those kind of serious stakes. Most of the story seems to be a lot of talking about things, researching, etc, but not much in the way of action. There is a moment when Toby calls everyone together, and it seems like things are going to take off with real plans, and then nothing really happens. Whatever research is going on is just recounted to us or happens off page. That is mostly the same for Toby learning to use his magic. We barely see it, we are just mostly told about it. So the story felt sort of meandering, without a lot of clear direction as to the conflict or any sense of urgency to resolve it until the end.
I think part of the problem is that Toby takes everything with so little reaction. His father dies, his boyfriend cheats on him, he inherits this house, he finds out magic is real, he learns he is a fae prince…, etc. Toby takes this whole thing with a shocking degree of calmness, and it just feels like he is sort of floating along, barely reacting to these major events. So it was hard to feel the intensity of the situation, because Toby doesn’t seem to feel it. Also, the story sort of fluctuates between Toby being a total novice to this world, with no idea how to use his magic, no familiarity with fae or the various players in this fight, etc, and then Toby being this prince who is supposed to lead everyone. He has no idea what he is doing at all (and no one is really telling him), yet he is calling meetings of the team, negotiating with dangerous fae, and taking point on battles. If Toby was going to be this leader that galvanizes the troops, directs the action, etc, I needed to see him as knowledgable and capable of actually doing that.
The story has a large cast of side characters, led by Thon and Melissa, the cook/housekeeper. Thon is the love interest, but in many ways he feels like a supporting character, as the story feels like mostly Toby’s journey and the various folks around him are mostly there to support and help him. Thon is an appealing character and I liked him, though the relationship seems to jump forward fairly fast compared to what we are shown between them. I also really liked Melissa, though again, her role feels very much a support player who basically spends all day cooking, so there is new food being presented non-stop throughout the day. But I did like meeting these supporting characters and they nicely round out the larger world building. We also meet another of the princes in this story, so I assume some of the answers to my open questions will get clarified in future books. He seems to be more knowledgeable about this world, so I think that will make a nice contrast to Toby.
Overall, I think this book has an interesting set up and nice world building, and there is a lot of potential here. But I think the story and the conflict are not developed enough beyond that to really carry the book. Hopefully, as the series continues, things will be developed further. If you enjoy contemporary fantasy, particularly fae, or like a small-town vibe with a large side cast, this story could be a good fit.