Sometimes, when I feel as if I’m drowning in a sea of haven’t-I-read-this-before fantasy, the only antidote is some Andrea K Höst. Her work is original, intelligent and quirky, and reassures me that there are some authors out there who aren’t simply recycling the tired old tropes.
The premise here is that the country of Darest, ruled by the Rathen family, has been without a monarch for two hundred years. Being hedged about by unbreakable magic, however, which manifests as a rose bush, it continues to rumble along as if one will turn up any day, creating champions (guardians of the monarch) and protecting the royal palace. Until one day the rose bush produces a flower - an heir has appeared once more. The plot is largely about how the champion finds the heir and the ramifications of that, together with an intriguing mystery - why did all the heirs disappear anyway, and why has Darest been in decline for the past two hundred years?
The magic of the rose is one of the most intriguing aspects of the story. There isn’t anything terribly outlandish about the type of magic the author’s world can produce - there are spells created through spoken words or casting with the hands or carved runes, basically - but the way it is bound up through the rose, the champion, the Rathen heirs and the royal palace is fascinating. It’s also very creepy in the way it is actually a more-or-less physical part of the champion, giving her powers while also controlling her mind and body in very scary ways.
Soren, the champion, is an all-too-rare type of heroine - neither a warrior babe nor a princess nor a mage, just an ordinary woman chosen for no obvious reason for a job she feels spectacularly unsuited for, but which she nevertheless does to the very best of her ability. She doesn’t make stupid mistakes, she doesn’t turn into Wonder Woman, she doesn’t turn to jelly at the thought of a man, she’s just a normal woman using her common sense and intelligence. The romantic relationship resolves itself rather fast for my taste - I would have thought it would have taken longer to get over the traumatic early events - but it wasn’t a huge problem.
The two male main characters, Strake and Aristide, are much less ordinary, but then both have been part of the royal court from birth. They are both complicated and charismatic characters, and both have to suffer emotional shocks which they cope with in very different ways, but the way they inch towards a pragmatic working arrangement is very believable. The minor characters are well sketched out and perfectly believable, although I sometimes got confused about who was who. The Fae were particularly convincing, and the author beautifully captures the ‘other’-ness of them.
The created world is not especially unique, but that’s not a problem as most of the action takes place in and around the royal palace. Superfically the social structure is conventional: a ruling family, several other noble families, the usual array of soldiers, farmers, millers, innkeepers and so on. It’s nice to see that women are just as likely to be guards or monarchs or champions as men. The unique feature here is the prevalence of same sex marriage and also tribond marriages, which is thrown in as part of the background without much discussion or explanation. Much as I applaud this approach, I would have liked to know more about how it works.
The early part of the book feels both rushed and rather slow, if that isn’t too contradictory a description. It seems rushed because there is no background at all to Soren herself and not much about her role as champion before she’s tearing off to find the heir. And then the actual search for the heir feels a bit slow. But from then onwards, the pace picks up and becomes breathlessly fast, in that wonderful page-turningly riveting way. A lot of chores were neglected so that I could finish this as-fast-as-possible. The external threats - a magical killer on the loose and a possible assassin in the palace - plus the internal threat of the enchanted rose itself, which seems to have its own agenda, together with the political machinations of neighbouring countries and the tricky relationships between the champion and the monarch she has to protect, all of these combine to make a compelling story.
My only criticisms are the slightly bumpy start and a few confusing moments where it wasn’t quite clear to me what was happening. And I would have liked a map, too, but it wasn’t a big deal. Overall, a refreshingly different story about believable, complicated people who behave in realistic ways, and revolving around a cleverly-devised enchantment which is almost a character in its own right. A good four stars.