I wasn’t a big fan of Gal in the last book, so when I heard this one would be from his POV? Well, I had my reservations. Luckily, while I spent most of the book wanting to smack Gal upside the head, I also very much enjoyed it. This book contains definite spoilers for Bonds of Brass, so be warned!
“It never would have worked,” I tell him. “It took me a while to understand it, but . . . I got there.”
I got there the moment he claimed his bloodright. There are no soft wars to be waged here. This ends in blood—his, mine, or maybe both of ours—and no other way will suffice.
“I turned you into this,” Ettian says, staring into his cup. “And now you’re trying to turn me into you.”
After Ettian’s ascension as emperor of the Archon empire (such as it is), Gal, heir to the Umber empire, became his prisoner. But aside from a few chances to show him off, Gal’s captivity has been relatively luxurious. That all changes when, after an assassination attempt, Ettian assigns Wen to be his guard. There’s no love lost between the two: Gal resents Wen for her near-immediate connection to Ettian, and Wen thinks Gal is a stuck-up example of the worst of Umber (she’s not entirely wrong). With the war heating up, Gal must decide once and for all where his loyalty lies: with his empire, or with Ettian.
Gal is a highly conflicted character, and it’s certainly interesting being inside his head and seeing his rationalizations for his actions. Gal spent his years at the academy finding every way to rebel against his mother’s violent rule, but now that Ettian’s in power, he believes he needs to become that monster in order to protect the remaining Umber planets. Gal still loves his mother, and still believes that blood right is the only thing that matters, that those under him should be honored to serve his slightest whim without question. Watching how those assumptions hold up when faced with the completely different operating style of the Archon empire is both bittersweet and, well, pettily joyful.
“I can’t look at him. I have to look at him. He’s a black hole and a burning sun all at once, the gravitational center of everyone in the room. All I want is to escape him, but everything about him makes that impossible.”
Gal wants to hate Ettian, but even with everything that’s happened, he’s still in love with him, no matter how he tries to fool himself otherwise. Even when given every opportunity, Gal can’t quite make himself hurt Ettian – at least not physically. To be frank, Gal’s motivations are a bit of a mess throughout the book, making plans and then discarding them in favor of ones completely the opposite. It’s no surprise, honestly, as he’s frightened, betrayed and desperately trying to be what he thinks the ideal Umber heir is. He rationalizes his attempts to befriend people as efforts to sway them to his side. If he wants to escape, he needs Wen on his side, and the only way to get it is to help her – and by extension, the rebellion. He can only push down his feelings for Ettian for so long, though, and it’s his slow and unsettling realizations about those feelings that provide most of the angst in the book.
Ettian is less successful at hiding his feelings for Gal, which leads to questions about his commitment, ones that can be used to sway power back towards General Maxo Iral. But it’s Ettian who’s keeping Gal alive, and if Iral (or any of the many other Archon commanders) becomes the true power, that also means it’s more likely that Gal will be executed in a particularly gruesome manner. Gal is faced with competing goals: undermine the Archon empire by any means possible, or in more subtle ways that keep Ettian (and by extension Gal) alive.
“There’s no line, is there? Between you looking out for me and you manipulating me?”
“That’s ruttin’ rich, coming from the guy who literally took me prisoner to save my life.”
Gal and Ettian spend less time together in this book which means there’s a lot less romance. In some ways, this is a good thing. Gal needs the space and time to work on himself (or maybe he just needs Wen to smack him into next Sunday, I’m still unclear on which I want). But one of the things that really delighted me about the first book was the romantic tension between the two of them. When it’s in this book, it’s absolutely sizzling, but there’s just not enough of it for me.
And then there’s Wen. It’s clear the author she’s a favorite of the author as well. She gets some of the best lines in the book and by virtue of the bodyguard plot, Gal spends a lot of time with her. It’s Wen’s rising star that makes Gal question himself – how does the daughter of a small-time crime boss rise so high, over Gal whose bloodright was born to rule an empire? Wen’s busy trying to figure that out herself, trying to find her place in a war between two empires she doesn’t belong to, and torn between friendships with two people on opposing sides of that war. There’s also more Esperza, who’s one of my favorite minor side characters.
“Ah, Gal. You’ll figure it out eventually.”
As for cons, this book definitely has middle book syndrome. There’s a feeling of pieces being maneuvered in to place for the final book in the trilogy, which means there’s several plot points that take up a lot of pages but don’t quite go anywhere in this book. The same can be said of much of the plot, as there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait sort of plotting, but that at least culminates in a pretty epic space battle. Overall, though, it’s the sort of book that’s easy to pick up and hard to put down, one that sucks you in so that you lose complete track of time.
Overall, a good second book, and given the cliffhanger, I can’t wait to see 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.