Friday 25 September 2020

#CBR12 Book 61: "A Heart of Blood and Ashes" by Milla Vane

Page count: 555 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Official book description: 
A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsathe and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil - until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.

Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.

Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surpri sing is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own…

This book is pretty much your ultimate enemies to lovers story. There isn't just the flirty banter of rivalling colleagues in an office or dislike growing into attraction and affection, Maddek, our grouchy and grieving hero really is initially prepared to kill Yvenne, our clever and vengeful heroine, when they first meet. He hates her father and brothers and believes she is the reason his wise and brave parents were tricked away from the safety of their own lands and into enemy territory, where they were betrayed and killed.

Yvenne may be the daughter of a king and a legendary warrior queen, but she has not been raised in pomp and privilege, rather kept captive in a tower and forced to watch her father's abuse of her mother for years. Both her father and most of her brothers have abused her horribly, both physically and emotionally and desperate for a marriage alliance with a powerful and honourable tribe, Yvenne begged for Maddek's parents' help to get her away from her family. Her plan backfired spectacularly, and she feels terrible guilt about her role in their deaths, and the suffering they went through at the hands of her father, brothers and the men loyal to them. While she is physically weak and crippled, she nevertheless has her mother's blood in her veins, and the gifts of the goddess that bless the women of her line, and she's determined to be a worthy queen to her people. She just needs a man strong enough to defeat her father to marry her, so she can claim her birthright and inheritance.

Maddek's tribe values truthfulness above all, and before she died, Maddek's mother made Yvenne swear never to lie to him. Unfortunately, Maddek's grief and anger make it impossible for him to trust or believe anything Yvenne says, and he makes her swear never to even utter his mother's name (or he'll cut out her tongue). The massive distrust between the two doesn't exactly create a fertile ground for a good and strong relationship. Nor does it help that thanks to her father's mistreatment of her mother, Yvenne was born too early and barely survived her childhood. She's also been additionally crippled by her family after trying to help Maddek's mother escape. She's a far cry from the legendary warrior queens that make up her ancestors, nor is she anything like the independent, strong and capable warrior women of Maddek's nomadic tribe. When they meet, she's never even ridden a horse. 

What Yvenne does have is a fierce intelligence, a burning ambition, and the years spent being trained by her mother in the statecraft, manipulation and intrigue that a good queen will need to excel at. Her mother possessed psychic abilities and was able to see far and wide outside the tower she and Yvenne were captives in, and she told Yvenne everything and taught her as well as she could, to prepare her for her future. Yvenne loves her people and works very hard to get to know Maddek's loyal companions as well, knowing that she needs to learn as much about her new tribe as possible to be a worthy queen to them, even if she's nothing like what they value in a woman. 

This is not exactly a light-hearted or carefree book. In this barbarian world, an alternate reality where humans live side by side with pre-historic lizards and other dangerous beasts, physical strength and prowess in battle is valued. The gods that the various people believe in are very real and occasionally interfere directly in the lives of their followers. Some characters are blessed by the gods, others make horrible sacrifices to gain unholy magical powers for their own gain. 

There has been a lot of war, and death and all manner of atrocities and war crimes. Unscrupulous and evil men use rape as a weapon to demean and torture women (not directly described in the story, but there have clearly been loved one's raped in both the protagonists' pasts). A generation ago, the near-unstoppable and ruthless warlord known as the Destroyer was vanquished, but he didn't die, and there are rumours that he is on the move, coming back for another invasion. The various tribes of this world need a strong alliance to stand against him, and as prophecy would have it, Yvenne and Maddok are central to mounting a defense against him. 

I haven't really said much about the excellent world-building or the cast of interesting (and diverse) supporting characters, because this review is already getting long and if I'm ever to get through my backlog, I need to get better at being brief in my write-ups. Suffice it to say, two thumbs up for this too.

Milla Vane also wrote paranormal romances as Meljean Brook, whose Iron Seas novels, set in a Steampunk alt-Victorian world, are among my all-time favourites of the paranormal genre. As far as I can tell, she (like so many others) have had a difficult few years since she last published a novel back in 2014. I know she's been working on this new, pre-historic barbarian world for a long time, and thankfully for the reader, there are already two full novels and a novella to enjoy. My friend and fellow reviewer Emmalita absolutely raves about the books (and was lucky enough have her review quoted in Ms. Vane's social media promos). I have enough trust in the author after four novels and a few novellas set in the Iron Seas that I've already purchased everything Ms. Vane has published so far, but due to the darker subject matter and slightly grimmer feel to these books, I also don't feel in the mood to binge all three available stories in one go. I'm going to need a month or two to recover between books. 

Judging a book by its cover: Anyone seeing this cover, has to have at least a vague inkling that it's not your run of the mill Regency romance novel. There's the title, which suggests some dark subject matters. Then there's the cover model, who is wearing very little, except for some scraps of leather, scraps, and a whole lot of dirt and grime. The author describes this as "barbarian romance" and I think the cover sells that aesthetic very well indeed. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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