Oh my, this was one of those NetGalleys that I saw and leaped at based on the author alone. I only recently, perhaps in the last few years, started to read Grace Draven’s work, and I admittedly haven’t read all of it that I’d like to, but 2 of my top 3 favorite romance novels ever are hers, so, I mean… yeah. 😀
So, thanks to the author, as well as Ace via NetGalley for the review copy.
Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital–her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion–and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire–and burn once more.
“I will haunt you until you die should you be the cause of my death. You’ll know no peace.”
He didn’t mock her threat as she half expected. Instead he offered her a brief bow and a solemn expression. “I haven’t known peace in a long time.”
Every year the Krael Empire performs the Rites of Spring, and in doing they sacrifice one woman from each village. The village of Beroe is a little different, in that they secretly have a woman who not only can wield fire, but who is immune to it, and whose task it is to go every year and pretend to be burned so that everyone else in the village is safe. That woman is Gilene. We start this story with Gilene being picked up by the slavers and brought to the city to be sacrificed the next day. But, just to add to the Empire’s cruelty to these women, before they are sacrificed, the local gladiators have their choice of the women, and this particular year, the Gladius Prime, Azarion, gets first choice.
Though she disguises herself with illusion magic year by year, Azarion chooses Gilene, because he can see through her illusion, and he knows her. He’s seen her come to this and get burned for the last three years. Back to his cell they go, but not for the reason she thinks.
Azarion is a slave of the Empire, and is used not only to fight but for any other pleasure the Empress can think of, and the Empress is usually a very cruel woman. Azarion was once the son of a chieftain of one of the Savatar clans of the steppes known as the Sky Below, until his treacherous cousin tricked him and sold him into slavery to take his place as heir just as the chieftain fell sick. Now it’s ten years later and Azarion wants nothing more to escape and return to the Sky Below to regain his birthright. Gilene, with her illusion magic, is the perfect person to help him escape, and she agrees as long as he keeps her secret.
But on his way out of the city, he takes Gilene captive, as his people are known to worship a fire goddess named Agna, and those who are her chosen handmaidens, the agacin, are revered in his country. So, if he has an agacin with him, even one that isn’t Savatar, his claim on the title of chieftain is more assured than ever.
And so off they go to the Sky Below, through cursed cities, and barrows, and walls of fire, and all kinds of adventures are had.
This was a very hard book to put down, first of all! Very well written and with lovely prose. I really ended up liking Gilene and Azarion and I cared what happened to them, even when they were heartily opposed to each other.
That, and while it was obviously going to resolve itself into a relationship between the main characters, the way it got there was up in the air, and I enjoyed the mystery of it. Azarion is largely indifferent to Gilene for a good chunk of the story. She is a means to an end to him, though he does feel bad for what he feels he has to do. Gilene doesn’t necessarily want to go back to her village, because she is more or less a scapegoat to them and not much more, but she feels it is her duty to be sacrificed every year, and so fights her captor the whole way, until he promises her that he will return her before the next year’s rites.
The plot twisted and turned and, as I said, it was really difficult to put down because I just needed to know what happened next. There’s nothing quite like rooting for antagonists you don’t like to get their comeuppance, and this one has a couple of antagonists that I really wanted to see get theirs.
All told, this was another great story from Grace Draven, and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes a good fantasy romance novel, or enjoys a romance where the pair start off as more enemies than not and grow into something. I didn’t end up loving this one as much as I loved Radiance… but only because Ildiko and Brishen’s relationship is going to be really difficult to top for me. 😀
All the same, this one gets 5/5 stars for sure! ^_^
Thanks again to Ace via NetGalley for the review copy! 🙂