Rating: 4 stars
Date begun: October 1st, 2012
Date finished: October 3rd, 2012
The god Corruption is trying to gain control in the world, and has chosen the outcast sorcerer Silhara of Neith, known as the Master of Crows as his avatar. He tries to seduce Silhara to his cause with promises of property, riches and limitless power, but the sorcerer is not about to submit to anyone, and fully aware that the dark god is not to be trusted. Silhara seeks a way to destroy the god, who torments him every night, knowing that it's only a matter of time before he breaks down and acquiesces to Corruption's wishes.
Martise of Asher is a young woman raised by the mage-priests of the Conclave. One of the powerful bishops holds a sliver of her soul, and she can never be free without it. Trained in every form of theoretical magic (although her latent magical powers have yet to manifest) and extremely skilled translator, Martise strikes a deal with the Conclave. She will apprentice with the Master of Crows and spy on him for the Conclave, in return for the soul-shard and her freedom.
Silhara is fully aware that the plain, subservient mouse of a woman that the Conclave bishop arrives with is a spy (although she is presented as a poor, yet talented relation). He also knows that the Conclave would love nothing better than to see him brought down. He tries his very best to scare Martise away, but while she's quiet and unassuming, she also hides a will of iron, and with her freedom on the line, nothing is going to frighten Martise away from her mission.
Once it becomes clear that none of his scare tactics can make Martise leave, nor wake her hidden magical powers, he instead decides to utilise her scholarly abilities and sets to work in his vast library, helping him find a way to defeat Corruption. During their search for a way to kill a god, Martise's powers are finally awakened, and Silhara and Martise grow ever closer, until their antagonism turns to friendship and later affection. Silhara wants to defeat Corruption with any means available to him, but can he do it if it means possibly sacrificing Martise to do so?
I bought this as an e-book back in May, after a recommendation on Dear Author, but there are always so many shiny new books out there for me to read, distracting me, and it ended up forgotten, until it became one of the October picks on Vaginal Fantasy Hangout. So I stuck it on my trusty Reader, and mostly liked it.
What I really liked: Martise wasn't some sort of super gorgeous ingenue, whose feminine wiles won Silhara over. She's plain, and has no illusions about her attractiveness to the opposite sex. Nor is she a blushing virgin (as a matter of fact she learned the hard way that men can be untrustworthy douches), which is less unusual in fantasy romance, but in the minority nonetheless. She's pretty much been a slave her entire life, and clearly had a hard time as a bond servant to the Conclave, but has worked hard and is proud of her skills. She wants her freedom and is determined to work hard for it.
Silhara and Martise's romance builds very slowly, and for two characters who start out in an antagonistic relationship, it doesn't suddenly switch so that one day they wake up and can't be without the other. Silhara knows that Martise is a Conclave spy, and that anything unorthodox he does can be reported back to her superiors. He doesn't realise how much is at stake for her, though, and why she agreed to the assignment in the first place. While he starts out wanting to scare her, her bravery and refusal to break down or even complain wins his respect, and her scholarly abilities further wins his approval. Martise acknowledges early on that Silhara's physically attractive, but as she's terrified of him to begin with, and knows that if she fails the mission, she will never be free, she's not going to let herself be distracted by trivial things like physical beauty.
What I wished there was more of: The book is not a very long one, and the situation is explained fairly quickly at the beginning of the book, without resorting to clunky exposition scenes. However, because what we do see of the world building is so intriguing, I wish there'd been a bit more time spent on just establishing the world, and the beliefs of the people in it. The characters constantly use swearing relating to "Bursin" and his various body parts, such as "Bursin's wings" and so forth, yet we never learn anything more about him or his importance in the religious systems of this world. It's established that the Conclave are mages and priests, and that some of them may be cruel, corrupt and in general, not very nice (after all, they are the adversaries of Silhara, who's the hero), but not enough was really revealed about their role in the larger society.
What I was annoyed by: Silhara has a dog, some sort of large, ferocious beast who can sniff out magical ability in people, and which was apparently, in the past, used to hunt down those suspected to be witches or sorcerers. The dog's not really described too clearly, so in my head, it looked a lot like a wolfhound. The dog is described as being very smelly. Now, I see how this adds verisimilitude if mentioned once or twice. But throughout the book, this dog's intense malodorousness is commented upon by several of the characters (at one point, it's said that it smells worse than the rotting carcass zombie-dog that tries to attack Silhara in one scene). If your dog is that stinky, it needs to be cleaned. If no one does so, it does not deserve mention that many times in the story!
I get that this is a minor niggle, but it really stood out to me. This book is currently not available in print, but you can buy an e-copy fairly reasonably in a bunch of places online. It's a fun little fantasy story with a romantic subplot, and all the more enjoyable for being a standalone, a rare and happy occurrence in the life of a fantasy reader.