Venya is the ugly sister, without grace or beauty, according to her culture. She is a virtual outcast to her parents, who favor her talented and beautiful younger sister, Alaiya. Venya had been jealous in her youth, hating Alaiya for all the praise and favors showered upon her, but later learned that Alaiya’s charms only made her a commodity her parents planned to sell. Venya and Alaiya now recognize their value to each other as sisters and have become the dearest of allies.
The cruel and greedy lord who has purchased Alaiya for his harem sets what he believes to be an impossible task: if Venya can steal from a legendary hoard and return with the loot before sunset, he will release Alaiya. Many have attempted to loot this castle and none have returned. However, no one knows that Venya has been training with a thieve’s guild for years to give her an income, as her parents neglected to provide for her. She’s become quite good–good enough to attempt this task to save her dear Alaiya. In the process of finding a relic, Venya inadvertently awakens the two dragons who remain with the hoard in the abandoned castle. She’s astounded that an Onyx and Gold dragon still exist in their realm, and fights hard to escape their blood thirst and save Alaiya. In the process, Venya reveals a secret power that helps her evade their chase–for a short while.
Ray and Abyss are mated dragons who have slumbered for a long time in the castle of a queen they admired greatly. Centuries ago, they had protected her lands for many years, but raiders came when they were away and the battle was lost. The castle remains a shrine to their dear lost friend and they kill any invaders. Abyss wants to make the wily thief who stole the sacred goblet pay with her life, though Ray thinks she’s something rather special to have fought and evaded their wrath. He’s also a little smitten that the thief had the kindness not to harm them while she rendered them incapable. Ray, as a Gold, knows he’s a bad omen among his kind and likely to end up dead so humans can strip his golden scales. Abyss loves him harder for that knowledge, and always wants to protect and appease his mate. Still, he wants vengeance, and they agree to hunt the thief down in her own land. When they confront Venya, they see her valor and know she is a good human–maybe even possessing a dragon spirit. Instead of incineration, the dragons may instead consider wooing her as a partner.
This is a wild and sweet fantasy, with a well-written and interesting world. I loved the idea of these dragons and their subculture, where they revere Abyss, whose onyx scales are extremely durable, and Onyxes are brutal hunters, while Gold dragons are pariahs because they are relatively weak and they always attract the human scourge. The relationship between Ray and Abyss is so tender, and yet they have a strong attraction to Venya, who is, like Ray, an outcast in her society. Ray and Venya both must overcome the prejudice of their peers, and find themselves worthy of love. Thankfully, Abyss is matter-of-factly supportive of both.
As a fantasy, the shifter angle was well considered. I liked how they maintain characteristics of their dragon selves, even when they assume human forms, and how there are limitations to their magic. Venya brings some interesting magic of her own, which only made her character stronger and more admirable. I also liked that Venya and Alaiya are dark-skinned, which is a contrast to the usual fantasy protagonist. I honestly found myself racing through the story, and not even minding flashback scenes, which usually annoy me because they tend to slow pacing. I just kept finding myself wanting to know more about this richly textured world and anticipating how Ray and Abyss would convince Venya that not only was she desirable, but that they both wanted her very much.
The greedy humans continue to encroach, however, and once Venya and her dragons mate, she’s willing to sacrifice anything to protect them, as well as Alaiya. The association with other shifter creatures only increased the intrigue, for me, and I loved the alliances they made to ensure a sanctuary for all in need.
For readers who love fantasy and MMF stories, this one has as much heart as heat, and plenty of both. It’s a happy ending, with the door open for a sequel where Alaiya will find her mate.