This is book that I finished off during the 24 hour readathon. It first came to my attention through moirarogersbree on twitter who said she was excited about it’s release because of the cover, the premise and the excerpt. I read the excerpt and really liked it, and I got even more excited because the author is Sri Lankan (I’m biased, I grew up there).
The Premise: Alexis Kayne (Alex) is a courtesan in the coronet city of Radiath, in the country called Dagre. She is known as the Black Mare and owned by a powerful man named Stephan Garnath. She hates Stephen and his treatment of her and waits for the day that she can escape, but before she does, Stephen suddenly gifts her to one of his enemies, Lord Robert Demeresna, baron of Dawnever. Neither Alex or Robert know why, but they both know that Stephen never does anything without a reason. Robert thinks that Alex could be a killer sent to his home, but he’d rather she travel with him than behind him. Alex believes that Robert is a despot because of his reputation as the Bloody Baron (a reputation Robert cultivated to dissuade attacks), but she can’t escape.
My Thoughts: The first thing I have to say is that I wish this cover was a little bit different. It does a very good job in that it conveys the small steampunk aspects, the romance, and the war. Even the lightening behind the couple is significant to the story. I just wish that the couple was wearing clothes. My first impression was this story was erotic or had high heat content because of the topless people. Steaminess that isn’t what I tend to gravitate towards (and reading that the main character was a “whore” being given away doesn’t help the impression). What this book really is, is a fantasy with romantic aspects which I do read, so that’s my one nitpick about the cover perhaps not being ideal for it’s audience.
So upfront: this is not erotica/erotic romance. This is a fantasy with a bit of romance. There’s one sex scene in the whole book and it isn’t something that happens early on. It also has some steampunk elements in the form of machines of war. They do have a significant part in the story, but the are not the focus so I’d call this steampunk influenced but not really steampunk.
In this world, there are two main groups that have the power. First there is Stephen Garnath. He rules everything but in name (the Governing Hand is supposed to have control but Stephen controls it). Stephen rules through force and fear. To me, he represented one extreme – that of depravity. He’s extremely cunning but takes pleasure in making people he has power over suffer. The second group in power is the Quorum. They are a religious group who serve The Benevolent Ones, and who have their own agenda. I felt like they represented the other extreme. They preach piousness and virtue but don’t take practical considerations or grey areas into account. And they were often hypocritical in their views compared to their actions.
Robert Demeresna is part of a small group who sits somewhere in the middle of these two opposing powers. His land is far from the main city and not that influenced by the Quorum. Robert just wants what’s best for his people, and his rule is has neither the extremes of the other two. Unfortunately for him, neither Stephen Garnath or the Quorumlords allow him to be a neutral party in the struggle for the country.
Alex and Robert are well suited for each other. Alex may be beautiful, but she’s also got a quick mind and she’s had an insider’s view of how Stephen thinks, so she becomes a very important asset (I really enjoyed her strong character). Robert is someone who can see the gray in the world so he’s more open minded than others in the story are. He was a leader but he was neither an alpha or beta male. I enjoyed the way their relationship progressed. It happens slowly so you see the beginnings of respect and attraction that turn into more. It was refreshing that Alex doesn’t find Robert attractive until she gets to know him. That’s not to say that this relationship didn’t have it’s missteps for me. Robert says some idiotic things when arguing with Alex that I never felt he really apologized fully for, and his realization of his feelings needed a kick-in-the-pants moment to happen rather than figuring it out himself.
I also liked the secondary characters in this story. There’s Robert’s right hand man, Mayerd, who was exiled from his own land, and his backstory was an interesting one. Then there’s Robert’s allies. Perera writes strong female characters, so there’s Robert’s cousin Susanna who has a pet maddog (two headed dog!), and Quorumlord Victoria who annoyed many but had depth. And there was the Word who was an ally in the Quorum who I despised even more than Stephen Garnath. I thought he was interesting in the way he highlighted the hypocrisy of the Quorum, but the author doesn’t really preach against religion, so much as it being misused by certain people I think.
Most of the story deals with the war that Stephen brings to Robert’s home. There are alliances and maneuvering, secret (steam!) weapons, betrayals, ambushes, and many weary days on the road. The battles are a large part of the book, and at times the details of the skirmishes dragged for me, but there were some interesting tricks that Robert’s smaller army used to even the odds, and interesting side battles fought in magic between Stephen’s pet sorcerer and Robert’s right hand man. The best part was the exciting culmination of the whole thing. I loved that Alex was an integral part of it all and didn’t just sit pretty while the fighting was happening.
This is the first in a planned trilogy.
Overall: I feel like I discovered a hidden gem in this new author. This was a lovely fantasy story with a slow moving romance amid battles and steam machines. The characters are strong minded and interesting, and it left me with things to ponder. My only reservation may be pacing because there are a lot of battle scenes, but your mileage may vary on that count.
WIN IT!! – Interview and contest with Marian Perera @ Moira Rogers’ blog (enter soon because I am not sure when the deadline is!)