Friday, 16 September 2016

#CBR8 Book 99: "A Promise of Fire" by Amanda Bouchet

Page count: 448 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Catalia "Cat" lives with a travelling circus, disguising herself as a soothsayer. She's been on the run for years, hiding for a number of reasons, primarily that she can tell instantly when someone is lying (she gets a shot of visceral pain throughout her body) and she can frequently divulge the truth an individual is hiding when they lie, as well. Additionally, she has the ability to siphon magic from someone else, and in turn, use that magic against the individual or others. Thirdly, she's immune to harm by any magical means. Cat is what is known as a "Kingmaker", an individual who comes along rarely. There is also a prophecy involving her, and this is the reason that Andromeda, Queen or Alpha, of Fisa, will turn heaven and earth on its head to find Cat again.

Griffin, Beta of Sinta, a Southern kingdom, a powerful warlord whose rebellion removed the magical ruling elite in the country, only to place his sister Egeria on the throne as Alpha, has been following the circus, and watching Cat closely. He suspects she is the Kingmaker, an invaluable weapon to help his non-magical family keep the power they seized, and after testing her powers, confirms his theories. Cat isn't interested in going to Sinta, and so Griffin emotionally blackmails her by threatening her friends at the circus and abducts her instead. Literally bound to Griffin by a magical, unbreakable rope, Cat has no choice but to go along with the warlord and his little band of loyal men, but she's certainly not going to submit graciously.

Cat's childhood and adolescence was characterised by both mental and physical torture, numerous near-death experiences and psychological mind-games that could crack anyone. She has learned the hard and bloody way to never let anyone get to close and to not form lasting attachments. Even so, she cares for the members of the circus (leading to Griffin being able to emotionally blackmail her), and as she spends more time with Griffin and his men, she starts liking them too, despite herself. Normally plagued by horrific nightmares every night (with good reason), she sleeps peacefully and soundly when next to Griffin. She knows chances are that now that she's no longer safely hidden with the circus, Alpha Fisa is going to track her down eventually, and so she offers to train Carver, Kato and Flynn in knife-throwing and other combat skills to increase the chances that they will survive whatever ruthless fighting force Andromeda sends after her.

Just as Cat fears, while the group journey towards Sinta, Cat's blood is spilled during a careless moment. This allows Andromeda to start tracking her again, and she sends increasingly more powerful threats to reclaim what she considers her property. Cat has grown substantially more powerful since she escaped the Fisan court, however, and with some aid from her divine godparents (more on that later), she and the little warrior band are able to defeat the various forces sent to find her.

Once they arrive, and Cat sees how completely unlike any of the neighbouring royalty Griffin's family are, she despairs at their chances of ever surviving very long to defend their claim to the throne. Having made Griffin swear that he'll tell no one of her Kingmaker powers, she's basically presented as a member of the powerful Fisan magical elite, who is there to advise them all. It's quite obvious to all of Griffin's family (and his men) that Cat is also someone Griffin is absolutely gaga for.

Cat, while she can't deny being attracted to Griffin in return, is deeply uncomfortable with any thoughts of intimacy and human closeness, mainly because she knows that anyone that she is close to, will be used against her or just plain murdered by Andromeda to punish her for escaping. Initially, she is constantly furious with Griffin for abducting her, but he keeps treating her with courtesy and kindness. He just also makes it perfectly clear that he can't let her go, because his sister's claim to the Sintan throne needs all the magical help it can get. As they travel together, fight hostile forces and later some fairly gnarly monsters, he falls more and more deeply for her, and wants to make her his wife. But Cat is keeping secrets about her past and her origins and she's not sure that Griffin's love will survive after he discovers the truth.

At the start of August, all the romance review blogs I read were raving about two books. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, which I already know is going to be on my top 10 favourites list of the year, and this, which is also a strong contender. Really good fantasy romance is rare and difficult to come by, and therefore it is such a delight to find a book that really works. The world-building in Bouchet's book is excellent, even though I cringed at both her name for magic users, magoi, but especially the non-magical, the hoi polloi. 

This is a medieval style world, where the main three kingdoms in question are Tarva, Fisa and Sinta. In all three countries, they worship different Greek gods. Cat is literally a goddaughter of Poseidon, and receives magical assistance from both Hades and Zeus over the course of her journey. While she is spitting mad at Griffin for kidnapping her away from her safe haven in the circus, she becomes a less reluctant prisoner once he reveals that he was told to search for her in a prophetic dream, sent by Poseidon himself.

There are varying levels of magic users in the different countries, the further south they are, the more removed they are from the ice plains, where apparently magic is the most concentrated. Until Griffin and his brothers staged a rebellion in Sinta, all three countries had magic-wielding royalty. It turns out that the reason Griffin was able to succeed in his coup (apart from the fact that he's a hugely skilled warrior) is that he is impervious to magical attacks. He doesn't have a trace of magic himself, none in his family do, but he can't be harmed by magic either.

What has been common in these countries for as long as anyone can remember is that the magical ruling elite have tons of children, and then pit them against each other in ruthless power games until only the strong survive. Rulers are normally replaced when they are killed by the strongest and cruellest of their children. The ruler of a country is the Alpha, the second in line for the throne is the Beta, then the Gamma, Delta etc. Cat is amazed and incredulous that despite the fact that Griffin won the throne, he has placed Egeria on it as Alpha, taking the Beta position for himself. This goes against centuries of tradition and the new ruling family will clearly need to drum up some supporting magical family if they hope to stay in power.

As mentioned earlier in the review, Cat (not her real name) grew up in the Fisan court, used as a valuable tool by the absolutely merciless Alpha, Andromeda. Tortured in every way possible, despite her useful truth-telling abilities, she was at death's door more than once. Andromeda once gave her a puppy, then murdered it after about six months, when the young Cat had grown truly attached to it. She isolated Cat from anyone in court who could possibly be expected to help her, and while it's not clear exactly how Cat managed to actually escape her clutches, it's very obvious why she would rather die than go back to Fisa. She doesn't really want anyone else to be tortured or killed for her sake along the way, though.

Good world-building can only do so much, unless the cast of characters is also a good one. No worries on that score here. Cat is fascinating. She's abrasive, fierce and independent and tries so desperately not to form any human attachments because of her horrible upbringing. I found many parallels between her and Laurent in the Captive Prince trilogy, although Laurent's adolescence was all rainbows, puppies and kittens compared to Cat's. She is nonetheless capable of great affection and inspires both loyalty, friendship and protectiveness in others.

Carver, Griffin's younger brother and right-hand man, Kato and Flynn, the members of Beta team, Griffin's crew, grow to adore her platonically as much as Griffin does romantically. They are all cool, fun guys, although it took me a while to discern the differences between them. Griffin's mother and sisters are all great too, and while Cat clearly has not had many female friends in her life, they do their best to include her and make her feel welcome, not just because Griffin clearly loves her, but because they come to care for Cat for herself.

Then there's our hero, Griffin. There are some that may take offense at him abducting Cat at the beginning and keeping her captive, but he really is doing it for the best of intentions. It's not like they plan to throw Cat in a dungeon and force her to divine the lies that people at court tell. They want to give her a trusted and honoured position as one of the chief advisors at court, but the new Sintan ruling family really desperately need her help. He always treats her courteously and as they travel together, he begins to see that she isn't just a valuable tool for his sister, but that he loves who she is and wants to spend his life with her. She is deeply skittish to his advances, so he takes it ever so slowly, but makes it perfectly clear what his intentions are. He is a man used to working hard for what he wants, and he will lay siege to Cat for as long as it takes to win her over. He's a highly skilled warrior, and wise enough to know that the country of Sinta will thrive better if his sister is the ruler, with him as the head of the army. He doesn't in any way feel threatened by Cat's fighting prowess or obvious magical strength. He just finds it another attractive and impressive side of her.

I really really liked this book. I would have liked there to have been the hints of some sort of softer side to Andromeda, who seems like pretty much the epitome of evil, but perhaps a more complex characterisation will be revealed in the second or third book of the trilogy. Here she is mainly the chief horror of Cat's past and an off-screen threat. Cat is also terrified of how Griffin will react once he finds out the full truth about her, and I kept waiting for her to finally tell him, but nope, that scene never came. I suspect her secrets, while they are never spelled out on the page, will by the end of the book be fairly obvious to most readers, but that doesn't mean that Bouchet should have kept teasing a scene that never came. It felt anti-climactic to me, and is the main reason that I'm withholding half a star from the rating. The second book in this trilogy is out in early January, and I'm super excited to see what happens next. Any fan of fantasy and/or good romance should try this book, it's well worth a read. 

Judging a book by its cover: I really like this cover, in various shades of red, with Cat centre-stage, wielding both a sword and fire (both things she's highly skilled at). While her hair appears to have some assist from a wind machine, I'm going to assume that using powerful magic makes your hair flow impressively at the same time. The title, A Promise of Fire is most certainly delivered upon over the course of the book. I also like that only our heroine is on the cover and that Griffin isn't portrayed and taking attention away from the most important protagonist. Good job, Sourcebooks Casablanca.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read. 

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