Sunday 25 June 2017

#CBR9 Book 59: "The Pages of the Mind" by Jeffe Kennedy

Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

From Goodreads: Magic has broken free all over the Twelve Kingdoms. The population is beset by shapeshifters and portents, landscapes that migrate, uncanny allies who are not quite human...and enemies eager to take advantage of the chaos. 

Dafne Maillouix is no adventurer - she's a librarian. But the High Queen trusts Dafne's ability with languages, her way of winnowing useful facts from a dusty scroll, and even more important, the subtlety and guile that three decades under the thumb of a tyrant taught her.

Dafne never thought to need those skills again. But she accepts her duty. Until her journey drops her into the arms of a barbarian king. He speaks no language that she knows but that of power, yet he recognizes his captive as a valuable pawn. Dafne must submit to a wedding of alliance, becoming a prisoner - a queen in a court she does not understand. If she is to save herself and her county, she will have to learn to read the heart of a wild stranger. And there are more secrets there than even Dafne could suspect...

This year, when selecting my choices to review for the RITA Reader Challenge, I made sure to choose books I actually own. I got this in one of many e-book sales, intrigued by the notion of a fantasy romance with a librarian heroine, not exactly something you see that often. It turns out that Dafne as well as being a devoted librarian and archivist is a scholar and a linguist, who delights in learning new languages. Her actual age is never mentioned, but it's clear that she's probably in her late thirties, possibly even early forties and has kept herself under the radar and voluntarily lived a sheltered life. She lost her entire family during the rule of the previous High King, a brutal and ruthless ruler, and feels the loss of siblings greatly. Now more or less acknowledged as an adopted sister to his daughter, the new High Queen (it's clear that she usurped her father in previous books), she is unaccustomed to with any kind of affection.

While this book is the first in a series called Uncharted Realms, it's part of a world already established by Jeffe Kennedy, referencing events and characters from The Twelve Kingdoms, so this book is both a stand-alone and part of a bigger whole. The beginning of the the book felt a bit like I was missing out on something and made me wish I'd read at least the book about High Queen Ursula of the now Thirteen Kingdoms, but once Dafne leaves the court and goes off on her journey, the book was a lot more engaging.

Again due to events that took place before this book started, the realm that these characters live in is now full of unexpected magic, which has affected not only the Thirteen Kingdoms ruled over by warrior Queen Ursula, but also the neighbouring Dasnaria, where her lover is from and a small island nation who are petitioning the crown for reparation from damages. Being the only one from her close circle that the High Queen can spare, she sends Dafne to be her ambassador. She's intelligent, speaks more languages than anyone in the palace and thanks to her extensive reading, knows a great deal about a lot of the strange things happening around the kingdoms. Ursula also sends one of her elite guards, a woman named Jepp, tasked with training Dafne in self defense and a shapeshifter from one of her sisters' courts who can be useful in information gathering. The three women, while very different, bond during their journey.

When they get to the island kingdom of Nahanua, things get complicated, however. The barbarian king mentioned in the blurb (think Pacific Islander warrior, I pictured Jason Momoa in my head the whole time), King Nakoa KauPo seems very taken with her from the first, and straight after their arrival on the islands makes her take off her shoes and stockings to walk barefoot on the volcanic rock the ground seems mostly made up from, then when her feet get to sore to walk, carries her up to the mouth of an active volcano, where there is some sort of mysterious ritual that brings a dragon out of the mountain, culminating in the burly native kissing our inexperienced virgin heroine. She's previously admitted to her female companions that while she's been kissed before, she's never really felt anything out of the ordinary and she's never felt anything close to desire enough to want to have sex. The island king, on the other hand, clearly affects her very differently and it's clear that the two are linked in some way after the kiss by the volcano.

Her feet are badly wounded by walking on the volcanic rock and she's tended lovingly by the women of the court, her chief attendant clearly the King's own sister. As the Nahanuans speak a language completely unfamiliar to her, so communication is extremely difficult, Dafne begins to realise that the ritual (which she was not in any way given a choice to take part in) led to her at least being the King's fiancee, or possibly even his wife. While he sleeps elsewhere while she recovers, she's quite clearly in King Nakoa's private rooms, and he keeps showering her with kindness and affection. As the stop at the Nahanuan islands was only supposed to be a brief one to try to negotiate an understanding between the High Queen and the islanders, before Dafne continued her diplomatic journey to Dasnaria, her bodyguards try to extract her, but find that the King has no intention of letting her go.

To avoid outright conflict between her companions and the King's forces, Dafne is forced to stay behind, sending her friends back to notify the High Queen of the new developments. She discovers that she was indeed married to the King in that strange ceremony and once she learns more of the language, that he believes them to be fated mates, having felt a link to her throughout her life. It's also clear that while Dafne initially tries her very best to fight her attraction to the imposing, yet seemingly very kind man who married her against her will, dissenting forces on the islands will challenge Nakoa's claim to the throne if the marriage is not consummated and the link to the dragon (which it seems their relationship can strengthen) further improved.

If you overlook the part where he pretty much abducts her from her people and marries her without her consent, Nakoa seems to be a pretty great guy. He's clearly a mostly popular ruler, even though he has one rival determined to steal his throne. He's deeply possessive and spends a lot of time carrying Dafne around (since her feet take quite some time to heal), but is always gentle and affectionate towards her. He tries to seduce her, but every time she needs him to step back and take things more slowly, he respects her boundaries. It's also clear that the marriage ritual to link him and Dafne was necessary to free the ancient dragon from it's volcanic mountain and secure the future prosperity of his nation, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. Dafne also seems to accept that she's been forced into a marriage a bit too easily, probably because despite being described as intelligent and capable in the first half of the book, she becomes almost addled with lust for her new husband, and once they finally consummate the marriage, she certainly makes up for lost time with all the love making they engage in.

Even if she's very much in lust with Nakoa, Dafne is very reluctant to be referred to as his queen, and she feels torn in her loyalties to her High Queen. Even though it's quite clear that they share some sort of mystical bond, not just to one another, but to the dragon as well, Dafne is sure she will have to leave and return to her old home eventually. She therefore hesitates to commit fully to the relationship and this causes further tensions.

I liked the world-building of the book and will probably go back and read about Ursula and her two sisters in the previous three books by Kennedy. The next book in the series is about Jepp and the leader of the Dasnarian warriors that take Dafne to the islands, and that also seems intriguing to me. I really wish the central romance wasn't based on a forced marriage - while Nakoa is always very respectful and doesn't force Dafne into anything she's not ready sexually, he didn't give any indication of his intentions before carrying her up to the volcano, and it's revealed that he clearly conspired with the Dasnarians to get her to the islands in the first place. We are never really given an entirely satisfactory reason why an orphaned librarian and a warrior island king from quite a distance away from one another would be fated mates, either, but then I find the trope of the fated mate incredibly exasperating.

I loved that Dafne was a middle-aged virgin, a librarian and a scholar and that she uses her skills throughout the book to try to understand her new position and then to try to solve the riddle of the dragon and its supposed treasure. I liked that the hero, for all his heavy-handed, withholding information ways, was from a culture clearly based on those of the Pacific islands. I think we could have found out more about him, there is a lot more character development given to Jepp and the exotic shapeshifter Zynda, both supporting characters in the book, than to Nakoa (he's big, strong, handsome, possessive, has a lot of tattoos and is extremely good in bed, despite being a virgin like Dafne - having saved himself for her).

I didn't like that Dafne seemed to lose all her critical faculties because she was so overcome with lust. I didn't think the subplot with the challenger to the throne was dealt with all that satisfactorily. I think a bit too much of the start of the book should have been easier to get into for someone who had not read the previous books by this author. I'm still going to check out more of her work, though, and hope there's less of the fated mate and forced marriage stuff.

Judging a book a book by its cover: Dafne is described as quite plain and nearing middle age, so I think the cover model is both prettier and younger than she's supposed to be, but perhaps this scholar beauty with her hair flowing about her head as if by magic, with her billowing gown and the pages of the tome she carries fluttering in the wind, is supposed to be King Nakoa's image of her? While it doesn't entirely fit with the contents of the story, it's a striking enough cover that it made me take a closer look at the description when the book was on sale, and I ended up buying it, so I suppose the marketing department did a good job.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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