Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy Link:
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Length: Novel

 

Ness lives a delicate balance between pariah and courtier, serving on the Small Council of the Queen Regent as court sage and expert on all things magical. Ness is a lethfae, an inhuman creature, the resulting offspring of a sidhe and human. His magic relies heavily on empathy and he has the dubious gift of knowing exactly how much people don’t like him, how afraid of him they are, how much they hate him. While Ness has the Queen Regent’s favor and protection, she will soon be stepping down as her son, Prince Cathair of Leithbrochen, will be coming of age.

Prince Cathair’s focused attention gives Ness the creeps. Where other people are a mix of emotions, Cathair is a void of …. nothing. No joy, no anger, no hate, no warmth. He simply exists, like a beautiful statue brought to life. His dark eyes are always on Ness, and when it’s just the two of them passing in a hall, caught in a room, private for just a moment, there are offers. Invitations to his rooms, again and again, no matter how many times Ness says no. While it’s hard enough to say no to a prince, how much harder will it be to refuse his king?

Gruesome deaths in the small town of Lockery-on-Ryme are brought to Ness’ attention, and hint at something magical in their nature. Whatever it is first melts the eyes, and then devours the hearts of its victims, and Ness volunteers to deal with it, in part to get rid of Cathair. Much to his irritation, however, Prince Cathair is sent as his guard.

What begins as a monster hunt becomes something so much more complicated as the being in the woods is none other than Ness’ childhood imaginary friend. But how did Spiney go from a shadow to a monster? How can he suddenly have form, feel hunger, and be seen and heard by other people? Ness will have to work fast to find answers before Prince Cathair gets his wish to kill the beast … and have his way with Ness.

This is a book that involves victim blaming, rape apologia, stalking, harassment, threats of rape and torture, as well as on page violence towards and death of an animal and a six-year-old girl. While these matters are handled realistically — with counselors debating whether the threat of rape by a prince is something they can or wish to make a fuss about, and implying that they would allow rape to happen because A) Cathair will be king soon, and B) there are worse things he can do, such as lead the kingdom into a civil war — there is no resolution to them.

Cathair is a sociopath. He doesn’t feel empathy for other people; he is cold, indifferent, and distant. When he was a child, he and his mother’s retinue were passing through a small village (Lockery-on-Ryme) and something in the orphan boy lurking in an alley caught Cathair’s attention. He called him beautiful, and so his mother — delighted that, for once, her son had a positive reaction to another person — brought the child from the streets to her court. But it’s not so much emotion as it is obsession and entitlement.

Ness has always lived on the fringes as something inhuman. Abandoned by the fae and left to live with humans, he was the victim of bullying and cruelty at the orphanage until he was thrown out at the age of eight for fighting back. He spent the next handful of years living on the streets until he was rescued by the queen with only his imaginary friend, Spiney, for company. Ness is afraid of reaching for comfort, knowing he will be rejected for not being human enough; always working to do more — more good, more work, more skill, gain more knowledge in the hopes that he will be found worthy … but is also unwilling to put himself forward to have his efforts recognized. He’s clever, resourceful, and kind, as well as unable to stand up for himself until and unless his back is to the wall, or people he cares about are in danger.

Spiney, the monster in the woods, is a curious mixture of innocent and wise. Silent and unseen, he spent years watching people live while being unable to interact, learning kindness and compassion from the only person who was ever able to see or hear him. When Ness left, Spiney felt abandoned, but he never held that against Ness … because he loves Ness, wants to be with him, to protect him from all cruelty. In its own way, it’s as single-minded and obsessive as Cathair.

The book focuses more on Ness than it does Cathair or Spiney, and while Ness spends time running from one and running to the other, Spiney is never in a position to help beyond being thoughtlessly supportive and unquestioningly loving. He’s creepily perfect, and while Ness is trying to solve a murder or three, fight off attacks in council, and keep a civil war from happening, himself from being raped, and a wedding from happening … Spiney sits on a shelf, ready to be a shoulder to lean on and Cathair stalks around, ready to be a villain when needed. Personally, the romance really really work for me.

For me, there is one intrinsic piece of the story that was never addressed, and that’s the lack of a redemption on the side of the love interest(s). Prince Cathair, we’re told, did horrible things during his life, as well as the events we were shown, such as the deliberate and calculated execution of one of the Crown guard and the stalking, harassment, and threats of rape towards Ness. The book states that this isn’t his fault because he doesn’t have a soul, but that doesn’t remove the fact that he did these things. He is forgiven without any sign of work or growth on his part. Then there’s Spiney, the Terrible, the monster who ate the hearts of seven villagers — while they were alive, an action that caused their deaths, along with the melting of their eyes — which is forgiven because Ness likes him. Spiney never takes any effort to redeem these actions. Ness simply forgives him, and that’s that.

And it doesn’t work. We are shown in brutal, deliberately gory scenes of the death of two beings, how Spiney began to eat them while they were still alive. We saw a six-year-old girl scream as her eyes melted, and there is no resolution to this. Spiney is not innocent, and he does not redeem himself. He simply becomes the love interest and the story protects him from consequences and rewards him with true love.

The writing is so good, the world building is strong, and the author has a gift at showing just enough of the world to enhance a scene, building the world around the character bit by bit and it’s lovely. Ness and his background are interesting, his delicate position at court is interesting, and the feywilds tantalize with just enough to keep me wondering, while not allowing them to overwhelm the story that’s being told. But one reason I love a good “falling in love with a monster/villain” story is to see the growth of the monster, the redemption of the villain. To forgo those and leave the murders not only unanswered, but in the end unimportant, didn’t work for me.

Other readers may feel differently, but for me, it’s a sticking point. However, there were so many parts of the book and so much of the author’s craft that I did enjoy that I’ll be looking into more of their work.