After Kadou, the shy, anxious prince of Arasht, makes a misstep that puts him at odds with a powerful ambassador at court (the body-father of the queen’s - his sister - new child), he decides to take responsibility for investigating a break-in at one of their guilds to prove his loyalty to her. The mystery leads to the uncovering of a currency counterfeiting plot that has the power to threaten Arasht’s legitimacy and place in the world economic order. The queen assigns Evemer, taciturn and dutiful, as his bodyguard (called a kahya in this Ottomon-inspired word), though he barely seems to tolerate Kadou. As they continue their investigation, the two unravel their assumptions about each other and grow ever closer.
I’ve read few romance-forward fantasy books that are more satisfying than this one. For someone who said at a panel session that they don’t consider themself a romance writer, Author Rowland sure delivers on an intimate, mature love story between the softest of hearts. The interpersonal relationships, including but not limited to the central romance, are undoubtedly the focus and most intriguing aspect of this book. The unfolding of Kadou and Evemer’s relationship is the slowest of burns, allowing for real character development, both individually and together. It was lovely and emotional and so very intimate. Rowland successfully plays with familiar romance tropes (e..g, royal/bodyguard, marriage of convenience) in a new way that will still resonate with tried-and-true romance lovers, while also contrasting them with such beautiful intimacy (without steam!) and devotion.
Underlying these relationships are the core themes of fealty and power. Rowland explores the question of what people owe to each other, especially in relationships with power differentials, such as those between the queen/her subjects and Kadou/Evemer. What does it mean to pledge fealty to someone? To have someone pledge fealty to you? How do you fulfill your responsibility to the one to whom you pledged? The book explores these themes organically through the characters’ dynamics, and it was absolutely one of my favorite things about the book.
Rowland did a nice job of making the world feel real and grounded without bogging us down in world-building minutiae, but the fantasy elements and political intrigue plot rest firmly in the background of the central romance. But that’s not a bad thing if you’re here for the romance to begin with.
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If you liked this book, you should also check out Foz Meadows’ A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, featuring a central MM romance set in a Byzantine-inspired world.