Lady Seliah Phel can’t escape feeling like she’s one of those fairytale princesses awakened from a long slumber—except that her life is no romantic story and there’s no happy ending in sight. Though she has her magic and she’s been rescued from the depths of madness that consumed her since adolescence, Selly finds that the years she lost aren’t so easily recovered. Everyone treats her like the child they remember. To prove something—perhaps only to herself—she’s recklessly volunteered to stave off a host of monsters with only the enigmatically alluring, cuttingly sarcastic, and probably deceitful wizard Jadren El-Adrel for company.
Jadren isn’t the heroic type. In fact, he’s not much of anything. Relentlessly groomed into a shadow of a man by his sadistic mother, he’s the perfect spy and tool, with no real will of his own. When he’s stranded in the wilderness with Seliah Phel, he figures the outcome is immaterial. Live or die, it’s all the same to him. But Seliah is a different story and she isn’t like anyone else. Though he reminds himself she’s basically a child in a woman’s body, he finds it increasingly difficult to resist her artless charms and relentless curiosity.
As their predicament goes from dire to disastrous, Jadren realizes his many failures have jeopardized Selly’s future, perhaps her very life. Far from home and trapped without resources, Selly has only Jadren to rely upon—the one person she can’t possibly trust. There seems no possibility of rescue from their friends and family back home at House Phel, so Jadren and Selly must work together to survive… if they can.
I was very excited about this book when I saw the cover copy. I had hoped that there would be more books in this Kennedy world, and while I would not have put Seliah and Jadren together, they do make a compelling couple. Following along as their relationship went from, “I hate you, but can’t stop thinking about your hair” as Sarah Wendell would put it, to love—if not a happily ever after, was engrossing. We met Seliah in the two previous books, but she has changed over time. We also met Jadren in the two previous books, but he has hidden depths. It helps that he isn’t a villain—he is an anti-hero. As a warning, this book does include descriptions of abuse and talks about PTSD, although not using that terminology. Also, this book does end on a cliffhanger and I feel like it would be generous to say that Seliah and Jadren have a HFN ending, but no one is in active danger, which worked for me in this case but, of course, your mileage may vary. And last but not least, this book picks up right where Grey Magic left Seliah, so while doable, I wouldn’t recommend jumping in to this world with this book; you might be confused and not as emotionally invested in the characters and their relationships.
Now that I’ve made all the caveat statements, I want to talk about Seliah. In this world, familiars are born with magic but cannot wield it in spells on their own. However, their magic needs to be used or else they will become ill—physically and mentally. Wizards can wield magic, and can form a link with a familiar that allows them to siphon off their magic and use it. This link is separate from the emotional bond that ties a familiar to a wizard. Seliah is Gabriel’s younger sister—Gabriel was one of the main characters in the previous three books and an unusually powerful wizard. Seliah is also very powerful, but she’s a familiar, and because magic hadn’t been active in their family for several generations, no one remembered to look for its negative symptoms. So, Seliah has been ill for years, ever since she was a young teenager. This means she has had little interaction with people outside of where she grew up, and certainly not as an adult who is understood to have the cognition to make her own decisions. Kennedy was able to change how we perceive a character we already knew before the book began; she did this for Jadren and Seliah, but Seliah’s character is more interesting to me. I’ve seen villains and anti-heroes be redeemed—see Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews for a truly excellent example of this. I think it is much harder to show that someone has more emotional intellectual depth than the reader presupposed from encountering the character in other books. It’s a little easier because Kennedy used Seliah’s POV, though not in first-person. Seliah explains, both in thought and in her conversations with Jadren, how she understood her world and herself while she was ill, and while she wasn’t reading complicated magical treatises, she survived on her own for months at a time, which requires ingenuity and knowledge of the natural world. Seliah is not accustomed to needing to face down her problems, because when she was on her own and encountered a dangerous situation, she didn’t fight it, she often just ran away from it. That strategy doesn’t work as well with powerful wizards. But slowly, Seliah learns how to endure and survive truly scary wizard encounters. She also learns to peel back Jadren’s layers and discovers there is more to him than elegant sarcasm. Seliah’s encounters with wizards and their houses serve as a good illustration of why Gabriel really wants to destroy the rules that govern this society/realm; the wizards do not treat her as a person. They are interested in accessing her power or in using her as leverage to get Gabriel to do what they wanted. Seliah not only has to remain firm in the face of these beliefs and actions and maintain her belief that she is an individual with free will, but she also has to push back against her family’s well-meaning but overbearing way of treating her. They still treat her like a child, incapable of fully understanding the impact of her decisions. This is true until nearly the very end of the book.
Jadren, on the other hand, is your typical anti-hero. He is with Gabriel’s House as a spy, although he was coerced into it, just as much as Gabriel was coerced into letting Jadren stay. Jadren has unusual magic, which made him the target of abuse from his mother since he was a child. This has made him, naturally, into a distrustful person who keeps his real feelings and thoughts hidden behind a persona of elegant sarcasm and insousience. This does not do him any favors once it’s only him and Seliah against the world and it causes some problems as he attempts to get Seliah back to her family as unscathed as possible. But in the end, it isn’t his difficulty in opening up that makes it so that the story ends on a cliffhanger, but rather a combination of that difficulty plus his overwhelming belief that Seliah is not safe with him. The reason it is easier than it might be otherwise to empathize with Jadren is because we learn about him from his point of view, as well as from Seliah’s. It was easy to understand Jadren’s choices, given his past experiences.
Nic and Gabriel do show up from time to time in the book, since they’re trying to find Seliah and Jadren. They’re not the focus of the book, or even a very big subplot. Most of the book is focused on Seliah and Jadren’s attempts to get back to House Fell territory, the only place where they have a hope of safety.
I’m curious to see how Kennedy ties up this relationship in the next book. I really dislike cliffhangers and am not 100% happy with how the book ended, because it isn’t even a happy for now ending, but I’m okay with it because this is a fantasy romance and (hopefully) the next book will be coming out sooner rather than later. However, if you’re really concerned about how this book ends and what will happen next, I’d wait till the next book is released.