The medieval part, on the other hand, I can just about see – there’s a king and a whole royal family, there’s a castle, the nobility indulge in boar hunting, archery and tournaments, the usual things. But it’s set in a created world, not part of the real medieval world, and to my mind it is clearly fantasy. So, fantasy romance, then? Well, no. Although this is about two people falling in love and being together despite obstacles, the equivocal ending puts it firmly outside the realm of romance. Let’s call it alternate world fantasy, or just a genre mashup. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The premise: poor farmer’s daughter Aldara is sold by her mother to the obnoxious prince Pandarus, who gives her to his brother Tyron as a Companion. Companions are an interesting concept. On the one hand, their function as royal bed-warmers is a time-honoured and unoriginal one. But they are also trained to be beautiful, talented and adept at conversation, which makes them in some ways comparable to Geisha girls. Aldara finds the transition from independent-minded farm girl to meekly subservient courtesan a difficult one, not helped by Tyron being a reclusive and tortured soul, subject to black moods after action in one of the many border skirmishes plaguing the kingdom.
I found Aldara to be an uneven character. Sometimes she’s behaving with the utmost propriety, curtsying and remembering titles and pretending to be interested in the men’s conversations, as she’s required to do, yet at other times she’s being wildly outrageous, scandalising everyone. I’d have liked to see a little more consistency in her actions, and perhaps a steady progression towards a clearly defined goal. I’m not quite sure, looking back on it now, whether she ever truly accepted her role as Companion or not. It seemed to depend rather a lot on Tyron.
As for Tyron… well, what to say about a hero who causes his love so much grief? Would it have been so hard for him to make some effort to protect her, instead of simply ignoring her? And even when they’re lovers, he doesn’t bother to let her know that he’s safe and well. To be honest, I found his behaviour unforgivable, which is not a word I use lightly. When bad things happen to the heroine, and here the bad things are pretty harrowing, I like to think that the hero would have done everything in his power to prevent the bad things, and that if they happen anyway, it’s because his hands were tied and he was helpless to intervene or protect. But not in this case. Here the supposed hero actually creates the situation where it was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, bad things would happen. So, no, I can’t quite forgive him for that.
Some of the other characters in the book were, in many ways, far more interesting than the two main characters. The retired Companion who trains the new recruits, for instance, is a very complex creation. I’d have liked to see more of the queen and the princess, too, who I felt had more depth than portrayed here. And then there was the younger brother and his archery-champion Companion, who were simply enjoying a pleasant and amicable relationship. That would have been a bit more fun to read about than the darkness around Tyron.
I had a few issues with some of the premises. The idea of a Companion, taking a peasant girl and training her up (in just a few months!) to be a sophisticated and intelligent consort for a prince, able to hold a conversation amongst the nobility, is intriguing but inherently implausible. I couldn’t see any reason why peasant girls were preferred over (say) minor nobility. And then there’s the issue of motivation. Why, for instance, did Aldara’s mother sell her in the first place? They didn’t have so many children that a daughter would be an excessive burden. And why tell her nothing at all about what she is being sold for? That made no sense. Then there was the issue of poverty. I get that the ordinary folks were struggling to survive, but why on earth were servants within the royal estate struggling to survive, to the extent of needing to steal food? Surely the servants would be fed, and fed pretty well, too. And then there was Tyron’s behaviour, which made no sense. Even when he was supposedly falling in love with Aldara, he never cared enough for her to protect her. And why not sleep with her? That was what she was there for!
Some minor quibbles: lots of little typos, like a wide birth, pales of water, and something that was omitting noises. There were intrusive modernisms (to my ear), like sourcing food, or the need for personal space. Sometimes modern insertions like this are done for effect, but I found they just jarred me out of the pseudo-medieval setting.
This was an interesting and unusual read that would perhaps do better marketed as literary fantasy. I applaud the author’s attempt to explore a refreshingly different setting and some unusual characters. Despite all my quibbles, I found it fascinating, because I never quite knew what was going to happen. The weaknesses in the characters and the unsatisfying ending keep it to three stars for me, but I recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different.