A Heart of Blood and Ashes, by Milla Vane

>> Sunday, February 16, 2020

TITLE: A Heart of Blood and Ashes
AUTHOR: Milla Vane

PAGES: 560

SETTING: Futuristic 'barbarian'-type world
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #1 in A Gathering of Dragons

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...
What better to end my long break from blogging than with Meljean Brook's new book after several years? A Heart of Blood and Ashes is the first in a new series called A Gathering of Dragons, and set in the same world as the author's short story in the Night Shift anthology, The Beast of Blackmoor. It's written under another name, Milla Vane, and Meljean warns that this is because these books are a lot darker than her other ones. I wasn't super excited about that particular aspect, but this is one of my favourite authors, so it wasn't going to keep away!

This is set in a world recovering from huge trauma. A few decades earlier, a being called the Destroyer  rampaged through the world. After a while he left, leaving destruction behind. In the years since, several of the realms in the area entered into an alliance, hoping it would make them stronger to resist an eventual return.

The hero, Maddek, is the son of the king and queen of the Parsatheans, a nation of nomadic barbarians from the North. He's Commander of the armies of the Alliance, and has been spending his time defending the southernmost realms from the incursions of savage humanoid beings. And then he receives news of the death of his parents.

Initial reports are vague, but after weeks of riding back to the seat of the Alliance Council, Maddek arrives to the news that his parents were executed while visiting another realm. In the weeks since, the Council has investigated the matter, and determined that the execution was a justified response by the king of that realm to crimes on his parents' part, an accusation Maddek knows is untrue. Maddek is expected to respect the Council's decision, and any direct revenge on his part risks destroying the alliance his parents so valued.

But even if direct revenge is forbidden, Maddek intends to have revenge all the same, and the perfect opportunity appears when he finds out the enemy king's daughter will be secretly travelling to marry the king of a neighbouring realm. Kidnapping her on the way is child's play. But the king's daughter, Yvenne, turns out to hate her father just as much, and co-operating with her, in spite of his mistrust for her, offers Maddek an even better potential revenge.

Let's talk about the dark tone thing first, shall we? Honestly, to me it was not anywhere near as bad as I feared. Yes, there is violence in this world and a fair bit of gore, but I found all that really easy to take. I think that was because of two key reasons. First, what was distinctly missing here was the constant threat of sexual violence that is so prominent in so many 'dark' fantasy books. I hate that. It stresses me out, and I often find it exploitative and titillating. It's just not part of this book. Yes, there is sexual violence in this world (off the page, in the book), but for reasons that are very well-justified by the culture of this world, it's not normalised and expected. That made a lot of difference for me. Second, there is an element of idealism and respect for personal autonomy in the (good) leaders of this world. In so many dark fantasies there is a sense that power is the only ideal anyone sensible would strive for, and caring about justice and goodness is the mark of idiocy. Cynicism is the only sensible response. Not here. In this world, being a good ruler means caring about the ruled. Naive of me to prefer this? Maybe. But I do.

So yeah, that out of the way, onto the what I thought about the other aspects. Well, I loved basically everything.

First, I loved the world. In addition to being dark in a way that worked for me, the world this is set in is exceptionally well-developed. You get the very real sense that the author knows so, so much more about this world than is on the page, that it is fully-formed in her mind. I can't wait to know more.

But most of all, I loved the characters. They feel as well-developed as the world. Maddek at first comes across as a stereotypical angry barbarian, but in his interactions with Yvenne and with his 'dragon' (the sort of retinue that accompanies and protects the rulers of his people), his depths do emerge. And I loved that he grows during the book. The character development here is explicit, but nuanced. He starts out as a warrior, and Yvenne warns him that a warrior is not a king, and that if he wants to become one, he needs to learn to think as one. And we see as he does. It's very satisfying.

It's even more satisfying to see Yvenne come into her own. All her life his father's fear about her power has led him to brutally try to keep her weak. He's succeeded with her body (in certain ways), but she and her mother managed to keep her spirit strong. Her journey is about fully realising this, and about using her strengths to become a true warrior queen.

These two characters are wonderful on their own, and I also loved them together. For all that there is plenty of plot and action, this is actually a character-driven romance, in that the internal conflict was, to me, just as important as the stuff going on around them. Maddek starts out angry at Yvenne and convinced that she played a part in his parents' deaths. He starts realising the truth earlier, but full trust takes much, much longer. I guess it could be argued that after a while, the main conflict between them is just based on miscommunication, and why won't they actually talk about this certain key fact to each other???. That was a bit frustrating, but then when I thought about it properly, it was clear that the reasons for Yvenne not to tell Maddek that certain key thing were well-justified. What she feared his reaction would be was something she was probably correct about, at least at first. And she was lacking a certain key bit of information about the meaning of this fact. So while not loving it, and screaming in my mind to them not to be idiots, I was able to understand them.

I also loved that we have an overarching storyline here that will be developed throughout the series. In a way, it's a bit like Meljean's Guardians series, in that it's a battle between good an evil. This first book sets up the fact that this battle is coming, while still providing very satisfying closure for the romance. I expect the upcoming books will show the preparations for the battle (and maybe tell us a bit more about what happened during the years the Destroyer was ascendant in this area?), leading up to a final confrontation that I'm hoping will be as amazing as that in the Guardians series.


NOTE: To understand the characters' movements, it was useful to have a map, and I was glad to have seen it posted in the author's facebook feed. If you're going to read the book (and you should!), you may want to keep this on your phone to refer to!


Fernande,  17 February 2020 at 17:34  

I'm about half way through this one and really liking it as well. Very thoughtful review, thanks.

Darlynne 20 February 2020 at 20:08  

I'm hearing all kinds of buzz about this book. Thanks for the review.

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