A Heart of Blood and Ashes (A Gathering of Dragons Book 1) by Milla Vane
Dark adult high fantasy romance released by Berkley on February 4, 2020
A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsathe and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil—until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.
Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.
Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surprising is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own…
I am extremely all over the place about this review. First of all, let me say that I enjoyed reading A Heart of Blood and Ashes very much. I could not put the book down. I read until 5 AM and was like “ok I need to get some sleep…” And anyway I finished reading it in less than a day. Upon finishing it I immediately went to check when the next book was out – and was like “!!!” If you like high fantasy romances, I think you’ll very much enjoy this book. I do want to say though – I think people have labeled it “dark” and … it definitely fits that, for the heroine. It is a cruel harsh world, and the “civilized” societies don’t mean people act better. At all. (Although for this book the setting is mostly traveling across plains – there’s a lot of action.) I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, and I think a good starting place would be the content warnings on Milla Vane’s page.
As stated, this is a dark adult high fantasy romance which means there are situations and circumstances that will disturb some readers. The world itself, the mythology contains violence – it isn’t described but it’s matter of fact there. The hero and most of the other main characters are barbarians. Here it just means their social [niceties] differ from ours. The heroine has suffered deeply as well. It’s a very harsh, matter of fact world that is trying to recover being decimated by “the destroyer” – with the threat of his return. I think part of it was separating my social expectations and adjusting to how that world operates. There are still universal things that are not okay, of course – but what Maddek and Yvenne find acceptable and normal differ from what we generally would.
Ok. So I am an extremely heroine centric reader. Like – bitch don’t you come for her. So … this was a … not difficult read for me, but man do you have to be ready to deal with a heroine who is pretty much treated very badly by the hero, and in parts … everyone. Everyone. When I told her Maddek didn’t deserve Yvenne, Milla said “nobody deserves Yvenne, but Maddek will have to do” and … I kinda think that sums it up perfectly. It’s hard to describe Yvenne succinctly or parse her simply because I think the gut reaction is to judge her. She continually tries to make the best of a situation. She realizes she isn’t the most important person in her role in life – as a (future) queen, and one tasked by a goddess to unite the continent. She’s rather realistic, and she does want to protect herself. Her mental and emotional “building of walls” … but she doesn’t stick to it. Then again clinging to those walls would fall into “cutting off your nose to spite you face.” So I’m torn. (A tiny part of me kinda wishes she did stab Maddek (I’m pretty sure at one point he offers) … I mean overall, he woulda deserved a slight stabbing in a non fatal place IMO …) Reading this book made me think “I’m too spiteful to be a romance heroine.” Or at least the heroine in this book.
So to sum it up, Yvenne has a strength of character I do not. She is extremely selfless with a servant’s heart, by which I mean someone whose focus is on the well being and betterment of others, specifically not only her people but of the entire continent and realm. At times she’s fatalistic – she keeps silent because her words wouldn’t change the past, but I wish she’d speak up not to be defensive but to foster understanding. She’s extremely proud, and has been brought up to be a queen. Yvenne is naive because she’s spent her entire life literally imprisoned – but she still has such hope and brightness of character. Her soul is pure.
Now Maddek. It’s said he’s a soldier – a leader, a commander, but not yet a king. And not just “he hasn’t been elevated to that status” but that he doesn’t have the heart of an excellent ruler. Yet. He’s also a rage-grief-bear from pretty much the start of the book to nearly the end. I started re-reading the book to write my review and tried to look at everything under that lens. He’d only learned his parents had died a month ago. He’d only learned they died due to perfidious circumstances six days ago – and not only does he think Yvenne was a major cause of their deaths, she herself admits she had a hand in it. (It’s complicated.) Maddek truly is a good man. He’s making choices and acting in potentially a way he wouldn’t normally because he isn’t entirely in his right mind. I think it’s important to remember that.
That being said … (and this was my initial reaction) I’m a level over low key mad that the heroine continually has to be damaged in order for the hero to learn a lesson. Like, my dude. Get your fucking shit together. I absolutely understand why he was so angry – in the beginning, in general. I also understand the mistrust he has for the heroine. First, her family is utter trash. Beyond evil. Secondly … I mean, I wouldn’t really say this is a spoiler but … it low key is – when he meets her, she kills her (seriously evil) brother by knifing him through the heart from the back. And you know what? It was a fucking boss ass bitch move. This poor girl has been imprisoned and tortured by her family her whole life. They literally crippled her. They starved her, and beat her, leaving her with lifelong scars. They were using her as chattel. She did the world a favor by killing him.
As I said, I could not put this book down. I read the book in less than a day, and only put it down for a bit because I was like “ok I need to get some sleep…” Anyway. Whew. The way things tie together. The details and yet the so obvious things that are overlooked (the stairs! T_T) – but then who would ever think of that?! I liked that dark moments were often quickly followed by spots of humor. When Maddek and Yvenne deal with his horse, you have the soldiers in the city gawking at one of Maddek and Yvenne’s companions. The “big reveal” of the bedroom balcony. It’s humorous and jaw dropping. There are a lot of aspects I think readers will discover upon re-reading the book, and that’s always a delight.
I loved that in this role gender roles aren’t as stringent and delineated as they are in our world. Men and women can be and are warriors and rulers equally. For Yvenne’s kingdom, it’s the women who rule – who the goddess might bless. The book really takes you on a journey both literally through travel and through the character growth. You see the immediate rage and frustration you experience with Maddek has layers – that he himself was too narrow minded. There’s so much going on.
I think everyone expects excellent world building from Milla Vane, and they won’t be disappointed here. The fantastical creatures, the different places. I’d love to see a map and renditions of the creatures they encounter. I’m also eager to revisit the world with other characters. (And to see Yvenne and Maddek again.) Like I said – if you enjoy adult high fantasy romance, if you enjoy excellent world building, and kickass heroines (even if not necessarily physically at first) – this is the book for you. I do want to be conscious of the content warnings – the violence didn’t bother me that much overall. It was the misunderstandings that got my blood up. And what’s interesting is for all how “dark” this is labeled – there isn’t that much death. Of course it does happen and violently, what the book doesn’t have is the wholesale slaughter of people like so many other (even YA!) books do. I definitely see myself re-reading this book, and am looking forward to more books in this world, and more books by Milla Vane in general. In fact I like it more upon the re-read because I know what to expect, and see the characters and circumstances with more understanding.