That’s a delightfully gothic cover, huh? I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this book, but I love books that star healers, especially ones that have to make hard decisions, and this book definitely lived up to that (and the creepy cover).
The fragile peace between the kingdoms of Danu and Vesria looks ready to break, and Wren, the illegitimate niece of the Danubian queen, is the only person who’s able to stop it. After being thrown out of the guard for healing (and then losing) a prisoner, she receives a mysterious letter from a noble in Cernos, a neutral neighboring country that’s more technologically advanced than Danu and Vesria but lacking their magic. If Wren will go attempt to heal a sickness that’s infected his household, Lord Lowry will convince the Cernosian nobility to side with Danu. It sounds too good to be true, but with no other good options, she accepts. Wren can’t help healing someone in pain, even if they’re her enemy, which is how she got herself in hot water in the first place. But it’s even worse when she discovers that almost everyone else in the house is dead, except the mystery patient, who turns out to be Hal, the Reaper of Vesria, a monster who’s killed many Danubians with his magic. Healing him would be treason, but letting him die is unthinkable. Her compromise? Healing him enough to be able to kidnap him back to Danu to stand trial. But there’s more going on than just a sick patient, and soon Wren’s life – and the war between the two countries – is hanging on her skill and bravery.
“Everyone is afraid of me. But not you.”
There was a strange brew of hope and frustration in his voice.
“Do you want me to be?”
“No.” He removed his hand from hers. He spoke softly, almost achingly. “I don’t.”
Wren starts the book in love with Una, her guard commander and friend. While it seems like at least some of those feelings are returned, Una’s committed to her job and a relationship would be both a distraction and, even worse, illegal due to the chain of command. Her relationship with Hal builds slowly – after all, it’s both enemies-to-lovers and he’s near death when she first meets him, and forgiveness is the last thing on her mind. Danu has a history of retribution. One of the favorite sayings of their Goddess is “whatever is done unto you let it be repaid thrice over” and the Vesrians have similar warlike tendencies. Wren, on the other hand, is compassionate and kind, traits she’s been told make her too soft and unsuited for the Guard. While she’s tried to push them down to be useful, to not feel anything, it feels almost impossible to her. Wren’s desperate for love, and between her upbringing and training in the Abbey and the Queen’s cold reaction to her, she’s convinced the only way she’ll win any approval is to be the best healer in the Guard. She’s also willing to settle for whatever scraps of affection Una’s capable of giving her. But during her time healing Hal, she slowly realizes that maybe her emotions aren’t the handicap she thought, and that maybe all her worth doesn’t lie in how well she can heal someone.
“It gets to be quite claustrophobic. The shortening days. The wind and snow and the insufferable creak of the old foundation. It’s enough to drive anyone mad.”
Wren’s a healer first and foremost, so there’s a lot of medical terminology and some particularly squicky surgeries (the words “eyeballs” and “speculum” do not belong in the same sentence, please) which gave it a bit of a Frankenstein feel. The book did have some of that delightfully gothic feel as well. I mean, there’s even a scene with the heroine wandering around in a nightgown with a candelabra. The villain is creepily sinister, and Wren spends a chunk of time wondering, with all the weird things going around in the manor, if she’s going mad or just plain paranoid.
“What was Hal Cavendish against everything she held dear? What was guilt against the certainty of survival, of redemption? She liked him, yes. Far, far more than she should. But she could not trust her own heart; she had wrecked herself in the storms of its desires time and time again.”
As for cons, it does get a bit heavy-handed with the moralizing, and while I liked the complicated relationships between Wren and Una and Isabel, I found their actions at the end of the book a little too pat. I also had a hard time buying how quickly Wren forgave Hal for basically being a mass murderer. Yes, he was brainwashed into it, and yes, he’s changed, but I didn’t feel like he earned his redemption.
Overall, I’d give this 3.5 stars. I was captivated by the emotion and ambiance, and if this turns out to be the start of a series, I definitely want to know what happens next.
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.