Dear Ms. Raby:
I love a good enemies-to-lovers story. What also helped pique my interest in this book was the gorgeous cover of a strong woman NOT in a bizarre contorted supposed-to-be sexy pose.
On its face, this is the story of a super-assassin who falls in love with her target.
Vitala Salonius is trained from childhood by the Obsidian Circle, a secret Riorcan rebel organization against the Kjallan conquerors of their homeland. Her goal is to assassinate the Emperor of Kjall and bring civil war to the realm, which will presumably allow Riorcans to rebel and free themselves in the ensuing chaos.
By long-planned design, Vitala’s exemplary skills in the chess-like game of Caturanga bring her to the Imperial Palace and to the interest of the game playing, one-legged Emperor Lucien Florian Nigellus. Vitala’s mix of Caturanga skills, beauty and intelligence proves irresistible to Lucien. On the eve of consummating their relationship (and unbeknownst to Lucian, Vitala’s planned execution of him), they are attacked. Unaware of Vitala’s plans, Lucien unsuccessfully tries to save her, but is dragged out of the tent. Lucien’s lead captor, upon finding Vitala naked in the Emperor’s tent, orders her killed, and then decides to rape her first. As he climbs on top of her, Vitala tell herself that being raped is, “It’s mild discomfort, nothing more,” just before activating the spell that kills her rapist.
I kind of had to pause at this point. I wasn’t so sure that being raped would be something that could be so easily dismissed, even if you were a trained assassin. But then I thought, Vitala is supposed to be like a Black Widow-type femme fatale, the kind of evil seductive woman who has done all sorts of bad things (and had them done to her) that we see so often (and accept) in male-written narratives like James Bond. Why was I having trouble accepting it here? I still don’t have an answer for that, but considering the nature of her training where she was specifically trained to kill a man in the act of coitus, I decided that this could make sense and kept reading.
What comes next is a reversal of everything she’s been trained to do; Vitala decides to save Lucien. This could have been done poorly; too often we are told a heroine is smart and intelligent only to find her acting stupidly in the book. But here, Vitala’s Caturanga-political-intrigue-intuition decision makes sense; the Riorcan-desired civil war is more likely if Lucien leads a front challenging the usurper.
The ensuing quest for safety through Riorca was where I felt a lack of textual world-building. It felt like Rome with guns and magic, but I wasn’t given enough detail to really visualize this world. It’s a shame because I love the idea of a steampunk Rome, but I’m not sure if it was supposed to be.
On the other hand, the slow development of trust between the two was believable and thankfully, angst-free. As Vitala’s super spy skills save their lives over and over again, the very intelligent Lucien realizes Vitala is the key to gaining the aid of the Obsidian Circle and restoring him to his throne. As a result, he treats her like the sexy intelligent frenemy she is; someone you can negotiate with, even if you can’t fully trust her. Vitala, to her credit, knows that there, “could be no apologizing for what she was.” Moreover, Lucien’s belief in her abilities don’t suddenly cease because he falls for her. I found this refreshing because this avoided another tired trope: the hero who gets cave man-stupid-protective of a supposedly super-capable love interest who is often then shown to be not that capable so that the hero can show off his he-man skills. Bravo to the author for not shortselling her heroine in that way. In fact her superlative skills are what further engage Lucian’s interest.
Like many female protagonists in speculative romance books, Vitala is of mixed race (Riorcan/Kjellan), but unlike many novels, the plot actually deals with the ramifications of that in a world where those of mixed race are automatically assumed to be a product of rape. Vitala is no exception. Interestingly, her birth was not the result of a single incident, but the rather, kind of long term bargain a woman makes with a soldier of a conquering force to keep her husband and family alive. This was definitely an unexpectedly nuanced way of exploring female oppression and survival in a patriarchal world.
The social aspect of world building added nice depth to the story. We saw the effects of Kjellan oppression filter downward and manifest as racism into the lower parts of society. Kjellan camp prostitutes segregate their tents apart from the Riorcan women and charge three times the price of the Riorcans because the Kjellan look is more desirable. Common soldiers treat the Kjellan-appearing Vitala differently when they discover she is half Riorcan. All of this detail only further highlights what Vitala believes she fighting for, which at the same time heightens the conflict of interest she feels with her growing feelings toward Lucian.
Not surprisingly Lucian has a different view of the Riorcans, who he sees Kjall as the ungrateful recipients of Kjallan civilization. And yet despite the painful differences, Lucien and Vitala are able to negotiate their people’s enmity, though not without bumps in the road.
“Vitala, old wounds can’t be healed in a day. I’m helping your country. Don’t ask me to love it.”
“It would be nice if you stopped hating it.”
“Vitala, look at this.” He jabbed a thumb at his maimed leg. “You expect me to love the people who did this to me? And you! They turned you into an assassin who seduces men and kills them. It’s disgusting. It’s horrifying! What amazes me is that you don’t hate them!”
“They didn’t force me to be what I am.”
“Did you ask for the job?”
Vitala burst into tears. “Riorca is what your people made it. Do you think the Circle would even exist if Kjall hadn’t enslaved my country?”
He gave a sigh of exasperation. “So it’s Kjall’s fault.”
“Yes it is! If you hate me, if you hate what I am, blame yourself for it. Blame Kjall…”
He was silent, and for awhile, all she could hear were the sounds of her own choked weeping…
“I don’t hate you,” said Lucien softly.
“Never mind,” said Vitala. “It’s not important.” But it was.
“Can I make deal with you?”
She screwed her eyes shut. Her sobs had ceased, leaving her in the desolate, empty state that followed. “What deal?”
“I don’t have to love your country, and you don’t have to love mine.”
“Fine. I accept.”
A warm hand touched her cheek, and she instinctively turned toward it, opening her eyes again, though she could see nothing in the darkness.…
“I don’t love your country,” he said. “But I love you.”
However, there are other aspects to this story that also gave me pause. Generally speaking, I’m usually not wholly comfortable with the “Sexual Abuse as a Rite of Passage” heroine trope, which is definitely on display in this story. Vitala’s traumatic assassin training is crucial to giving her the skills that she needs to defeat the dangers she must overcome. Although the story of how a woman overcomes her past to achieve amazing goals is empowering on its face, some might find this problematic because it suggests that the best thing to happen to a woman in this world is the sexual brainwashing of assassin training.
[spoiler]This, along with the fact that the most memorable female non-assassin characters (midwives, which couldn’t be a more female centered profession) end up staked by Kjallen forces, sends an odd message about female power.[/spoiler]
On the other hand, we do see the consequences of that sexual abuse. Vitala suffers from post traumatic flashbacks from her first practice kills (though not from being raped by Lucian’s attacker earlier in the story). In fact, they become such an obstacle to physical consummation that Vitala decides to run away from him in the middle of the night.
However, Lucian also suffers his own post traumatic stress flashbacks from the Riorcan assassination attempt that resulted in the loss of his leg. In an effort to keep her, he pours out his own painful memories, and admits to Vitala his flashbacks interfere with his daily life. When she further insists that the flashbacks make her not normal and therefore, unworthy of him, points out his own flaws that she has clearly overlooked.
“You deserve more,” she choked out. “You deserve better.”… “I’m not normal.”
“No, you’re certainly not normal,” said Lucien. “You’re extraordinary. You’re beautiful, smart and deadly, and I love you…”
“Look,” he said grabbing her hand and placing it on the stump of his missing leg. “Am I normal?” She rolled her eyes. “You get around fine. It’s not a big deal.”
“Not a big deal?” He snorted. In Kjall, a nation that worships physical perfection?…Do you have any idea what my father used to think of me?”
“I’m sorry – I had no idea. It’s never bothered me.”
He kissed her. “I know it doesn’t bother you. You’ve never reacted to my weakness with anything more than curiousity and I love you for that… We’re neither of us flawless. You accept my broken parts, and I’ll accept yours.”
Ultimately, I decided that my qualms regarding the “Sexual Abuse as a Rite of Passage trope,” were overcome by the fact that both Lucien and Vitala suffered consequences from their abusive pasts that had clear ramifications on their current relationship. Moreover, the fact that they were both trying to overcome their symptoms together (rather than relying on the too standard manly-magiccock-that-heals-all) made me feel even more strongly that this was a good illustration of how damaged individuals can find strength in each other.
Despite the issues, I think that this was a great read. It was wonderful to see two intelligent individuals continue to value and treat each other with respect throughout their relationship. Moreover, it was great to see a book tackle spectrum of issues that are raised between a conquering and oppressed people. I am looking forward to the next in the series, but some of the issues I raised may keep other readers away.