This gothic fantasy romance started off pretty interestingly, and is not your usual fantasy romance. The main character, Wren, is not a grrl powa warrior (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but not everyone’s a badass warrior, obviously), but is, of all things, a combat medic. She is a magic surgeon of sorts, able to heal people with her magic and perform surgeries with her magic. Her country, Danu, has an uneasy cease-fire with neighboring country Vesria, and this is threatened by the fact that some Danuvian soldiers, one of whom is Wren’s friend, have gone missing.
Wren is in love with her superior, Una, who, at age eighteen, is already a war hero and very much respected by the Queen, Isabel, who also happens to be Wren’s aunt. Being related to the queen doesn’t help Wren much, as her mother, the queen’s sister, passed away and her father was a commoner and isn’t in the picture. All Wren wants is for her aunt to love her, but the Queen just, sadly, isn’t interested.
Wren has spent most of her life in an abbey, where the Queen banished her once her mother died, and it was there that she learned to perform healing magic for the benefit of their triune Goddess. This is interesting, as the religion, on its surface, looks a lot like Catholicism, with nuns and abbeys and such, but also pagan elements, like the description of the goddess, who has three heads – maiden, mother and crone. This goddess, like the God I worship, is also pretty vengeful, and demands you pay people threefold.
Wren and Una are on an assignment and, due to Wren’s emotions, it goes awry, and Wren is dismissed from service and sent back to the abbey. There she gets a letter from a noble, one that lives in the neutral country of Cernos, the only country whose inhabitants have no magic.
In the meantime, one of Danu’s most feared enemies, Hal Cavendish, the Reaper of Vesria (due to his magic, of which amounts to a magical death stare that basically kills people instantly – think of like, a male Medusa or something) has gone missing. Wren discovers that Vesrian soldiers have gone missing too.
In the interest of using Cernos as a mediator between the two nations, Wren decides to respond to the letter, of which was written by Lord Alistair Lowry, and travels to his estate, Colwick Hall, despite getting a new assignment from her aunt. It is here that most of the action takes place, because Lord Lowry has asked Wren to heal one of his servants, given that his servants have been dying of a mysterious disease.
This is a bit of a spoiler, but the servant Lowry has her heal happens to be Hal Cavendish, who has arrived at Colwick Hall to investigate the disappearance of the Vesrian soldiers. Wren, naturally, is horrified because of course, this is the guy that killed her fellow Danuvian soldiers, and who has a fearsome reputation. But he’s obviously very, very ill, and Wren has already signed a contract with Lowry to cure this “servant” of the illness.
Anyway, we see Wren get down to the business of diagnosing Hal and treating his illness (which turns out to be poisoning), and they slowly fall in love. She’s attracted to him right from the get go, but spends a good chunk of the story trying to convince herself that he’s a monster. Well, he did kill a lot of people, but the treatment gives them the opportunity to talk to one another, and they get to know each other, and slowly come to realize that a lot of what their respective countries’ governments and media is total bullcrap.
I love Hal. He’s a very interesting character who has a devastating magic ability, one that reminds me of Rogue from the X-Men. He’s clearly not the monster Wren or anyone else thinks he is, although he’s a good soldier, obviously. But he’s also intelligent and is deeply scarred by the war and the things he’s done. By the time Wren arrives at Colwick Hall to treat him, he’s basically used up his magic.
Which brings me to the magic system – I love it. Everyone has a system in their bodies called the fola. The fola is like a separate nervous system where their magic energy is stored. It glows or otherwise colors a person whenever it is used, and one can exhaust this magical energy. Rest usually brings it back, but it is possible to permanently lose one’s magic, and it can also be permanently removed from a person by surgically severing the fola. If a person uses their magic illegally, their magic can be severed from their use, and this is something Wren is afraid of.
Another thing I really liked is how both Hal and Wren essentially have PTSD due to their service in the war. This is realistic, and a lot of YA novels featuring warriors or whatever don’t really have characters that have PTSD or are affected by the things they’ve done. Wren gets flashbacks and so does Hal. Both have nightmares. It’s all very realistic.
Meanwhile, at first it seems that Colwick Hall is haunted, but that turns out to not be the case. In fact, what’s going on at Colwick Hall, and with Lord Lowry, is kind of predictable. Obviously, when Wren arrives, Lord Lowry is very strange and is clearly hiding something. He also tells Wren that his father was obsessed with figuring out why the people of Cernos don’t have magic. Here’s another spoiler, and it’s a big one – Lowry is clearly continuing his father’s work, as he thinks that if he and his fellow Cernosians can have magic in addition to their superior technology (they’ve harnessed electricity, unlike Danu and Vesria), they can be a world superpower.
At some point, Wren realizes that she could bring Hal to her aunt, and have her place in the military restored, and wrestles with this because she does fall deeply in love with him. She was also in love with Una, but eventually sees her as a best friend rather than a girlfriend. Relationships between soldiers was forbidden anyway, so their romantic relationship always came across as one-sided.
Hal helps Wren to see that her emotions and her compassion for others, including those that are technically her enemy, is a good thing. Previously, she felt that her emotions always got her into trouble. And it still does, even to the very end, but that’s still one of her best qualities.
Hal no longer believes in the military’s cause, because too many Vesrians hid their true intentions behind the banner of patriotism, as he says. This kind of reminds me of lefty criticism of the Iraq War, and of course, Hal being essentially a veteran with PTSD and guilt.
Both Hal and Wren wanted to feel useful, and their magic was the key to being seen as useful to those around them. But both were used by their respective governments. Both also want an end to the war, and that was partly her original intent – to bring Hal back as prisoner, who would then find the missing soldiers, and she’d be reinstated to her original position and the Queen would finally accept her. Still had ulterior motives, but she did want to end the war. Hal wants to become grand magistrate, and to do that, he has to solve the case of the missing soldiers. He wants Vesria to be a place where kids grow up happy, not as soldiers.
Excellent quote: “Both Danu and Vesria created monsters the moment they stooped to recruiting children.” I agree with this wholeheartedly, even though, of course, in our military, you have to be eighteen to serve. But I get the point – to recruit twelve year olds, for example, and teach them to kill…that is seriously messed up. Both Hal and Wren joined their militaries at very young ages (Hal when he was eight, and Wren when she was twelve).
I hope the teenagers that read this book remember that quote. If your society teaches children to kill…that’s about as low as it can get.
The author really knows human anatomy, because the narration and Wren’s dialogue is peppered with anatomical terms. I liked that, as it made Wren feel realistic as a combat medic and surgeon. I also liked the magic system – there’s a source for the magic, it isn’t the cure-all, it has its limits and it can be permanently lost through overuse, or deliberately by the surgical severing of the fola.
I thought the mystery at Colwick Hall and the mystery of the missing soldiers was a little too predictable and convenient – of course the missing soldiers would end up at Colwick Hall, the very place Wren travels to. The story is pretty much a gothic romance set in a fantasy realm that is inspired by Victorian-era Europe, as far as I can tell. It is primarily a love story, documenting the romantic relationship between Wren, a Danubian, and Hal, the feared Reaper of Vesria. They should be enemies, yet eventually fall deeply in love and are prepared to sacrifice what’s important to them to prevent another war breaking out between their respective countries, as both are deeply scarred by the war (and both suffer from PTSD).
The story is neatly wrapped up and does not end on a cliffhanger, but there’s also a possibility of a sequel if it does well. I wouldn’t mind a sequel, but this one is kind of rare in that it’s not set up to be a series or trilogy or whatever – the story stands on its own.
A copy of this book was provided by Wednesday Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.