I should start this review by saying I might change it based on how reading the second book goes, and that Vane created a really interesting and cool world to play in, but in my opinion, the romance, which is prominently featured in the story, is a dumpster fire.
Plot: The leader of a small nation of warriors that live in the wilderness, resentful of their more “cultured” allies to the south and are totally not Scots, learns of the murder of his parents. Being fond of them, he’s understandably upset, even more so when he learns that for political reasons, he can’t really do anything about it, and the people responsible are running around living life and having fun. Then he hears that a Secret Daughter of the man responsible is en-route to get married off to some gross old dude and he decides that this is an excellent opportunity for revenge. Because there’s nothing like showing someone you’re better than them by deliberately hurting innocent people. The Secret Daughter has very obviously been basically tortured for her entire life for existing, to a point where she’s little more than a shadow of a human being, but that doesn’t stop our hero from manhandling her and choosing to believe that she was part of the plot (with her captors??) to kill some random people she didn’t know. She convinces him not to kill her and shenanigans ensue.
The world Vane creates is really full and vibrant. It doesn’t suffer from the problem you often see in fantasy and science fiction where if you ask a single basic question about the functioning of the world it just fully disintegrates. I particularly found the political intrigue really interesting, in that I rarely see novels capture the intricacies and extremely difficult decisions that happen at that level. The people in charge know things are wrong, but there are very compelling reasons tying their hands, and one major thing our heroes need to do is to create a path for them to act that wouldn’t cause the disintegration of an essential alliance at a key time.
To that end, Yvonne, our heroine, is the absolute best. She’s a goddess. She’s brilliant and kind and intensely curious. Even though she’s been literally trapped in a tower from the day of her birth and abused by literally every person she’s ever met except her mom and one brother, and she has what would be in that world a pretty crippling disability that forces her to be highly dependent on others, she has a strong sense of self and confidence you just don’t see enough in heroines.
She’s a natural political operative and while everyone side eye’s her because being clever is apparently proof she’s untrustworthy, she knows exactly what she wants and exactly what she needs to do to get it. There were so many bits in the book where I literally yelled out “get it, girl!” Even though she’s forced by circumstances to be constantly reliant on others, she manages to evade most of the irritating tropes of the passive rescued princess.
Her disability, too, is treated as a part of her and something she needs to consider when she does stuff, but not something that defines her or makes her less than (even though she feared it might). She gets to become a formidable warrior without having her disability magically disappear but because there is more than one way to be capable, it just takes imagination.
Unfortunately, that’s also the problem. Maddock has no imagination. He absolutely doesn’t deserve her. This is another example of a story where a character’s actions fundamentally do not align with what the book is telling you this character is. We’re told he’s intensely honourable and would never force a woman, but literally the first thing he does after deciding that he won’t murder this innocent woman in cold blood (only after she convinces him she’d be more useful alive), he forces her to touch him. Literally. By the side of the road with all his soldiers watching. It is intensely gross and for many readers likely very triggering.
And that’s not the only scene where consent is coerced, even as the book continues to tell us that Maddock is just the Best Dude. And between coercing his malnourished captive with intense PTSD to satisfy his urges, he would have these explosive bursts of anger at her supposed involvement with his parents’ death. These are what we in the biz call red flags for an abusive partner.
I really liked Yvonne, so I tolerated Maddock the way you tolerate that really bad boyfriend of a friend of yours, knowing that if you say anything she’ll just stop talking to you and wanting to at least be an option for her if she makes a run for it, but I’d have liked this book a lot more if they cut out the romance angle entirely. I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series, but if the hero is cut from the same cloth, I likely won’t finish it.