Rating: 5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

The world has been invaded by tentacle-faced monsters with the ability to read minds and enslave people, and who feed on brains. No human, orc, or elf is immune and towns and villages have fallen to the Gyle. Desperate for help, the King has sent for a promising, young, elf mage to accompany a fearsome orc on a suicide mission. However, there’s a catch. There’s a third party on this mission, Grist, a Gyle who is willing to betray his people in exchange for safety.

The fate of the world rests now on the shoulders of Ambrose, a self-loathing, self-doubting, half-elven mage who has pined after his dream lover, the heroic orc Kilgore the Conqueror, since puberty. Kilgore the Conqueror has lost his faith in the world, his hope, and his love. All he wants now is to die, while taking down as many enemies as he can. Grist is a cruel, bitter, sour creature capable of reading minds, who knows every thought, every memory, every childhood lie and foolish hope and twists them into knives.

There is no trust between them, no fondness, no friendship. But they’re all the world has.

I went into this book with … expectations. A twink elf, a muscular orc, and a sidekick squid monster on a road trip adventure. Instead, I ended up reading a book about how preconceptions and bias can cause someone to overlook the person beneath the masks. This is a lovely story, well written, with well thought out world building and multi-layered characters.

Ambrose is the only elf (half elf, really) in his mage school. Isolated, ostracized, and desperate to prove himself worthy of his mother’s love, he was easy prey for the attentions of his teacher who found a 15-year-old Ambrose’s tears of pain and humiliation as attractive as the boy himself. The other students kept him at arm’s length, so when a popular student showed him the faintest attention, Ambrose let himself be taken advantage of for those brief seconds of belonging. He doesn’t see himself as worthy of love or respect, and when Grist reaches into his mind to take these thoughts and emotions and rub them in his face, Ambrose is upset at yet another violation, feeling as much shame at the things he allowed to happen as he does anger at Grist’s cruelty. Especially when Grist uses his thoughts and feelings about Kilgore to mock him. Kilgore, who saved a human princess, even though he is an orc, and has been a champion of Ambrose’s fantasies. And now he’s here, riding a horse next to him, on a journey with him, talking to him!

Kilgore was betrayed by his clan and so turned his back on all orcs. Saving the princess was an accident, but it allowed him a place to live — the castle barracks — food to eat, a weapon to use, and battles to fling himself into in the hopes that he would one day find an honorable death. This suicide mission he’s on, it’s close enough. After all, if the Gyle is right, his sacrifice could save the world. Kilgore isn’t easily flustered, at least not by Grist and his mind games, but the way Ambrose stares at him, cuddles up to him, talks to him is a bit … flattering. And off-putting. Elves are known for being sensual creatures, but Kilgore’s an orc, not a human. Still, Ambrose keeps trying, keeps smiling at him, and Kilgore can’t help but respond. It’s been so long since someone wanted to be with him, talk to him, touch him that he’d almost forgotten what it was like.

Grist is my favorite character in this book. Able to hear every thought everyone has — to know their memories from birth until that moment within seconds of meeting them — he has no privacy. He can never escape from their opinions of him, made before they even know him. They know what he is and judge him for that, much as they judge Kilgore for being an orc or Ambrose for being an elf, but where Kilgore and Ambrose might be given another chance … no one gives Grist that luxury. Even if they did, a polite white lie, an uncomfortable smile, he can’t help but know that they’re lying and uncomfortable. Grist believes that the ends outweigh the means. Killing someone to prove a point, lying to people to make them do what he wants, it’s all justifiable when his goal and theirs — saving the world — are the same. Grist will never tell the truth; why should he? How many people tell him the truth, how many people care about his feelings, care about his opinion? But if they can be used, Grist will tolerate them … but he tolerates no one as much as he tolerates Ambrose.

The growing friendship between Grist and Ambrose is given almost as much time as the growing romance between Ambrose and Kilgore, and both feel natural and well developed. They come to understandings without changing who they are, and — thinking back on the early chapters — every action, opinion, and conversation feels genuine and in character. Grist never stops being an asshole, it’s just that Ambrose learns the motives behind his actions. Kilgore’s stoicism is the cold distance of someone who is hurting, not someone who doesn’t care, and Ambrose’s need to be useful and wanted, his constant attentions are both hero worship, but also a fear of being left behind and cast aside as unworthy.

There are two scenes at the end, one a climactic final battle and the other a bit of revenge, which both took me by surprise. Not that they were done, but how, and how the characters reacted to them. There are still some dangling story threads that I would have liked to see tied up, but there’s always a hope the author will be inspired to write more books set in this world. The world itself has a somewhat bland feel of “generic fantasy” with little done to flesh out cultures or races, but the world building of the Gyle is so well done and is more the focus of the book than how elves and humans get along.

If you like fantasy, complex characters, snarky assholes, and adventure novels, then I strongly recommend this book. For all that the Gyle are alien to the planet, there’s not so much of a focus on the science fiction angle, but there’s enough there to add some flavor. If you give this book a try, I hope you enjoy it (and Grist) as much as I do!