by Milla Vane
Series: A Gathering of Dragons #2
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication Date: July 21, 2020
Genres: Romance, Fantasy
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Milla Vane returns to her exhilarating A Gathering of Dragons series, into a world of fire, demons, and passion in the midst of a great evil that will bring only death and destruction.
Danger lurks in the western realms. Though an evil king has been defeated, a sorcerer warlord has risen and nobody is safe. This demon-possessed warlord creates magical terrors, attacking nations with the ultimate goal to weaken and demolish them before the Destroyer's imminent return.
When Lizzan leads the Kothan army against these terrors, only to see her soldiers massacred and to emerge as the only survivor, she is called a coward. A disgrace. A failure. Shunned from her home, Lizzan now wanders in solitude through the lands as a mercenary for hire, until she encounters a group of warriors seeking new alliances with the northern kingdoms--a group that includes Aerax, the bastard prince of Koth, and the man who sent her into exile. Though they were former childhood friends, Aerax cannot trust the woman whose failure led to the fall of a kingdom. But when a goddess's demand binds them together, Lizzan and Aerax must find a way to overcome their painful pasts. Or there will be no future for the western realms...
Content warnings: View Spoiler »extreme fantasy violence, alcoholism, physical effects of going sober cold turkey (magically induced), sexual assault and rape (including that of a child, off-page) « Hide Spoiler
I was absolutely blown away by the first book in the series and its angry, hurting characters, and expected more of the same from this book. Instead, I got an achingly sweet second-chance romance with kindhearted characters surrounded by a whole lot of awfulness, and it’s certainly one of the best books I’ll read this year. It takes a talented author to take what on its surface is a content-warning-filled barbarian fantasy romance – something inherently depressive and gory – and turn it into a hopeful, uplifting story.
“For that was who Lizzan was. Who she would always be. The brightest, most beautiful jewel that Koth had ever produced, with the softest heart and the bravest soul. Aerax had not deserved the happiness of a single moment she’d spent with him, let alone the years she’d given, along with the joy of every kiss and every touch. And he did not deserve to see her again.
Yet as a prince, even a feral one, he often got what he didn’t deserve.”
Lizzan is just everything. Soft-hearted and caring as they come, her parents tried to push her to become a healer, but she always knew she wanted to be a soldier to have the ability to protect the ones she loves. Exiled from Koth after a disastrous attack, Lizzan’s become a mercenary whose only concern is earning enough to drink herself back into a stupor. Running from her problems turns even more literal when she finds out that her childhood friend and love, Aerax, is looking for her. Aerax is the bastard son of the king of Koth, despised and shunned until an illness killed the king’s legitimate offspring. Aerax knows – and accepts – that Lizzan hates him for letting her be exiled without saying a word, but he still wants her to be safe and happy, and the best way to accomplish that is forming a strong alliance and surrounding her with competent warriors that she can befriend. Years ago, the Destroyer ravaged the world before departing across the ocean as mysteriously as he came. Now, warned that he’s returning, the broken kingdoms must try to come together to mount a defense. Painfully aware of her family’s fate since she was banished, Lizzan’s only thought is to die gloriously in battle and redeem her name for them, so she asks the goddess Vela for a quest – which turns out to be protecting Aerax. Aerax, of course, is not on board with the plan, especially the dying part. If Lizzan has a soft heart for everyone, Aerax is a compete softy for her. The way they negotiate their past and present relationship is heart-wrenching and ultimately empowering, and I’m not sure I’ve ever rooted more for a couple than I did for them.
“But . . . for a little while, can we be as we were before? Before my exile, before you went to the palace, before the red fever—when we were the finest of friends.”
“I would always be that for you,” he told her. “Not only for a little while.”
“But a little while is all we have.”
There’s so much more going on than the achingly sweet love story. Intricately plotted, with seemingly minor details holding the keys to major plot points, the pacing is excellent. It’s a story of redemption – for Lizzan and Aerax, and also . The world is richly imagined, a continent full of disparate cultures and ideologies coexisting and clashing, with a cast of wonderful characters. Caeb, Aerax’s saber tooth tiger-like companion, steals the show in practically every scene he’s in. There’s some crossover from the previous book in terms of side characters, as well, and it was lovely to see how those characters have grown in the two years since the last book.
“To all of Koth, I am a villain. And no villain was ever redeemed, except in death.”
“I know of many villains who were redeemed and lived.”
Returning to the island of Koth, Lizzan and Aerax’s homeland, is the focus of most of the plot. Koth is founded on the promise that anyone can, through hard work and talent, better themselves, like their founder who wrapped the island in protections so strong that it even protected the kingdom from the Destroyer. But that promise only holds true for its citizens, not illegitimate children like Aerax, and the cost of that protection is higher than any except the king and his heir know. I was not expecting to find a brutally honest takedown of the puritanical American Dream in a barbarian romance, but it was amazing, and the way it tied into Lizzan’s “villains can only be redeemed by their deaths” mentality was pure perfection.
Overall, I was absolutely blown away by this book and the way it sets up the next book and its couple. This will definitely be on my top-10 list of books for this year, and I cannot wait to see what happens next!