The first book in the Darest sequence, ‘The Champion of the Rose’, is one of my favourite fantasies of all time. Who, after all, could fail to love a book which stars a malign rose bush at its heart? With an intriguing setting, some great characters and a difficult but brilliantly realised romance, it ticked all the boxes for me. This one – not so much.
On the positive side, we have another array of awesome characters, albeit with a couple of disappointments. Aristide, a stunningly ambiguous fellow in book 1, is here a little more ordinary. No matter how many times we’re told about his glittering coldness and incisive intellect, he’s too straightforward a character here to raise the goosebumps. Gentian is too much a plot device to shine properly. The real star of the show this time is Aspen, a wonderfully over-the-top character, always focused on the next bed-partner. Since this world is one where both genders can (and do) take partners of either gender, this is vastly entertaining, as he trails round after one or other potential lover. Beyond these is an array of royal and/or magically talented individuals, each more gloriously larger than life than the next, with centuries of tension between their various countries.
The world-building is another plus. I absolutely adore a story which tosses aside conventional gender roles and substitutes something very different. Here we not only have any-gender coupling, but also any-gender marriages, so that a marriage might comprise two men and one woman or (as here) two women, whose children call them ‘blood-mother’ and ‘heart-mother’; isn’t that lovely? Combine this with an uneasy accord with the Fae, themes of identity with the land, and magical gardening, and there’s real depth to the setting.
On the negative side, the plot hinged on (amongst other things) the delicate political balance between Darest and its immediate neighbours, and to be honest, most of this whizzed over my head. There were just too many countries, royal houses, succession battles and (frankly) characters for my poor brain to keep up with. If you like your politics complex and devious, this won’t bother you, however.
The magic was another aspect that I couldn’t quite keep up with. The characters seemed to be able to do an inordinate amount of clever stuff (flying, even!), and even those times when they said: ooh, this is tricky, we haven’t the power for this, somehow a way was (usually) found. But so much flexibility meant that I could never predict how a problem would be solved, so very often the solution seemed to come out of left field. Probably if I’d paid more attention, it would have been more understandable, but I’m a reader of very little brain, I like things kept relatively simple.
Then there’s the romance. After the complicated and (frankly) traumatic romance of ‘The Champion of the Rose’, this is a much more muted and simple affair, which somehow didn’t set me on fire. In some ways it felt bolted on as an afterthought, too perfunctory to be believable. Although the resolution was lovely.
Despite these minor grumbles, the plot raced along from one crisis to the next, and I loved the strange place our heroes found themselves trapped in, struggling to understand what was going on, and the consequences. I generally didn’t have a clue what would happen next, but that kept me turning the pages compulsively. There were some lovely moments along the way, revealing unexpected aspects of the characters, and it was great fun watching the large number of royals coping with simple tasks like cooking and getting the toilets working again.
A slight let-down after the awesomeness of book 1, but still a very readable, enjoyable book. The battle with the water fae was a highlight. And Aspen, of course, the ever delightful Aspen. For me personally, the many little niggles keep it to three stars, but it’s still a well-written book I can recommend.