I'm sort of hesitant to give a mostly negative review to a book that hasn't properly come out yet, but I was really, really disappointed by this book. I borrowed it from my dad, who got an early copy from helping to crowdfund it, so I didn't really know what it was going to be about, but I liked the premise of historical fiction set in 1300s England featuring a romance between two men. Unfortunately, the book executes this premise poorly, and ends up being a mediocre-to-bad romance novel with a slightly unusual setting.
Ostensibly, this is an enemies-to-lovers story about Harry, an English knight, who falls in love with Iain, a Scottish boy whose family is murdered by English knights. You might think, then, that the conflict between Scotland and England would be a major part of this book. Perhaps there would be tense confrontations between Iain and Harry over the losses of their respective families in the war. Perhaps Harry would be forced to confront his perception of the Scottish people as "fierce savages" and reckon with the immense harm done by the English conquest. You would be wrong, because this book is allergic to meaningful conflict or doing anything interesting with its premise.
The first sign that this book has no interest in dealing with substantial conflict is how quickly Iain and Harry get together. They're friends by the end of the first part (of four), and they have sex for the first time a little past the quarter mark in the book. After that point, they certainly have conflict, but it's so petty and meaningless that it seems to exist mainly to pad out the book. They'll be together for a while, then Iain will get mad at Harry because Harry doesn't love him enough or because there was a miscommunication or any other stupid reason that doesn't actually challenge Harry as a character, and then they'll break up. Harry will moan about how lost he is without Iain for a chapter or two until they meet back up, have reunion sex, and everything goes back to normal. Harry continues to describe all the Scottish people as fierce savages, but it's okay now because he sort of respects them a little while he's murdering them.
Speaking of which, Harry is the most boring, one-note protagonist I've read in a while. Harry is a Good Guy. He's honest, brave, noble; he cares about his vassals and wants the best for everyone around him. He doesn't mean to hurt anyone, and no matter how much harm he actually does, every good character in this book will eventually respect him and want to be his friend. He can make mistakes, but only if they're well-intentioned mistakes that he deeply regrets and is easily forgiven for. God forbid anybody actually dislike him or hold him responsible for his flaws, because then we might lose valuable time that could be used for describing how madly in love he is with Iain for the millionth time.
Iain is marginally more interesting than Harry, but he too suffers from having maybe one and a half character traits. Iain, you see, is angry. He's also fierce, savage, primal, animalistic, dangerous, predator-like, and anything else the author thinks is hot. But, you see, he's not fierce and savage and dangerous around Harry, because he's madly in love with him for no discernible reason. In fact, once he and Harry have started boning every other page, any motivations besides "protect Harry" and "have sex with Harry" take a backseat for the rest of the book. The few scant moments when he does pursue his own goals and leaves Harry behind are some of the most interesting parts of the book, but never fear, he soon returns to Harry and confesses that he hates being away from him and was never really mad at him in the first place. By the second or third time this happens, you may begin to suspect that the plot of this book is mostly a pretext for Iain and Harry having sex. You wouldn't be entirely wrong.
Also, the sex scenes. They're bad. And there's so, so many of them. Your mileage may vary, but I was mainly just bored and waiting for the scene to be over about 90% of the time. There's also some truly cringeworthy writing in some of them, like the constant use of sentence fragment paragraphs, e.g.:
Harry nearly blows his load right there and then.
Iain's right. It's like.
Nothing. It's never.
Been. Like this.
Almost every sex scene has a section like this, by the way. It's physically painful to read.
The best of the sex scenes in this book is probably the scene near the beginning where they don't actually have sex. Iain taking advantage of Harry's vulnerability to attempt an escape was genuinely interesting! It built conflict! If more of their relationship had conflict like this, I would have enjoyed reading about it a lot more.
Honestly, though, I am being a little harsh on this book. I think I could have enjoyed it more if it was shorter and/or if I knew better what to expect going in. The writing itself is competent if not particularly good; if you've read "Witchmark" or "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue", it's at about the same level. I enjoyed both of those books more than this one, though, at least in part because 500 pages is a long time to put up with mediocre writing.
Some additional miscellaneous complaints:
- the use of the phrase "his slanted, Asiatic eyes." Unclear whether its describing a person or the dragon he has tattooed on his chest, but either way, not sure how that one made it past editors.
- the presence of not one, but two evil priests who are specifically noted to have large, hooked noses. I assume this is a case of not thinking too carefully about the implications of a hooked nose being associated with evil, but it's pretty gross, especially when one of the priests is specifically doing evil things because of his greed.
- Alys, like Iain, suffers from "no motivations that don't center around Harry" disease. She's also the only major female character, so it grates a bit more with her.
- lack of moral complexity. Every character in this book is Good or Bad, and you will absolutely know which they are almost instantly. Harry comes the closest out of anyone to gray morality, but his mistakes are so quickly forgiven it's hard to take them seriously as flaws.
- repetitiveness. A lot of the book blurs together because the same events and descriptions are repeated with slight changes over and over again.
- pervasive sense that this book really isn't meant to be read by gay/bisexual men. This is difficult to quantify or prove, but it just feels voyeuristic, like we're not meant to be trying to relate to these characters, we're meant to be ogling them. It's frustrating as a gay reader, but it's kind of to be expected when reading romances between two men at this point.
EDIT: raised it from one star to two after thinking about it a bit more