by Marie Lipscomb
Series: Hearts of Blackmere #1
Publisher: Violet Gaze Press
Publication Date: November 18, 2020
I received an advance review copy of this book from BookSprout. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
"I'm not gentle with you because I doubt your strength, my lady, but because I know the full extent of mine."
Lady Natalie Blackmere has always dreamed of meeting the renowned champions of Aldland, especially the legendary Brandon the Bear. When at last the Grand Tourney comes to Blackmere, Natalie swaps places with a barmaid and sneaks out to follow her dreams. But when bandits besiege her town, Natalie barely escapes with the surviving champions. Alone in the woods with the man she has always admired, Natalie must keep her identity a secret and step up to become the leader she was born to be, if she is to save her people.
Brandon the Bear is a champion that ballads are sung about. Or, he was. Past his prime and struggling with each new tourney, Brandon fears his time as a champion has come to an end. When the fight becomes real, he is determined to save the townspeople of Blackmere and rescue the lady who ruled over it. Though there is no love lost for Lady Blackmere, the noblewoman who allowed her town to be vulnerable to attack, and his fellow champions slain, Brandon is resolved to do the right thing. And when a beautiful barmaid looks at him with stars in her eyes, he feels like maybe he can be the hero she thinks he is.
Note from the author: Content warning: This story is about two people falling in love and neither of them are skinny. On a couple of occasions, a big jerk picks on the hero for his weight. He is a jerk, and no one likes him. He'll get what's coming to him in future books. We love the hero and his magnificent bod. Also a few people get murdered. Enjoy!
Natalie, Lady of Blackmere, has written every year to beg the champions of Aldland to hold one of their famous Tourneys in her town. She grew up listening to ballads about them, especially Brandon the Bear, but when they finally agree, she finds herself stymied by protocol. So, naturally, Natalie trades places with her friend Jenny, the tavern landlady, in order to spend time up close and personal with the champions. When bandits attack, however, she’s suddenly on the run with the remaining champions, afraid to tell them who she really is. With the help of Brandon, can she rescue her friend and save her home?
“Sadly, my reputation has far outgrown me.” He shifted in his seat as he took a drink, and his knee brushed against hers. He patted his stomach and smiled. “And I have far outgrown my legend.”
The book is told solely from Natalie’s point of view, which I thought was an interesting choice. Natalie’s shy and not particularly well-suited as a noble, as she’s not into the usual hobnobbing required to maintain ties with the other local nobility. She’s got a serious case of hero worship for Brandon based on his ballads, and luckily he lives up to his reputation. Brandon’s older, and, to be quite frank, he’s not in the prime of his life or the best fighting shape. His glory days are past him, and he’s used to being shown up the younger champions, even if he’s not quite resigned to it. Despite that, he’s still kind and brave. Brandon’s a real teddy bear, solicitous of how Natalie is doing, even when he thinks she’s nothing more than a barmaid. I’m not a fan of big secrets in romances, usually, and I didn’t like how long Natalie hid that she was Lady Blackmere from Brandon, though she did confess before they became romantically involved.
“She adored how small she felt beside him, and yet how significant he made her feel. It was not the grandiose, forced importance of a high-born lady. Rather, the importance of a person whose time was utterly worthwhile and whose company was craved beyond any other pleasures. It was a feeling entirely reciprocated.”
The romance itself is very slow-burn. For plot reasons, they end up hiding out together in an abandoned cabin, with a just one bed situation. It gives Natalie a chance to see the real Brandon, and while he’s not exactly what she expected, she much prefers the reality of him to the fantasy. There’s definite chemistry between them, but I did feel like took a little too long for them to get to a more physical sort of relationship. There’s plenty of barriers for them to overcome, besides Natalie’s secret, as the champions aren’t supposed to form relationships as it’d distract them.
The world building was a bit weak, but it worked well enough for the story. It’s a sort of alternate medieval world, with swords and castles and all that. There’s some things that didn’t quite work for me, like that all champions are required to be medically sterilized so they can’t have children. The medical expertise that would take didn’t seem to jive with the rest of the world, so that was a head-scratcher for me. Other than that, I liked that female champions were perfectly acceptable, and in fact there seemed to be a blossoming side relationship between one of them, Viv, and Jenny. I’m interested to see if further books in the series feature them as a couple.
Overall, I’d give this 3.5 stars. From the sample at the end, it looks like the next book will pick up where this leaves off, still following Natalie and Brandon, and I’ll definitely be picking it up to see how things turn out.