REVIEW: Healing Heart by Thom Lane
Dear Mr. Lane:
As I immediately emailed to you when you sent met his book, “Good God, the fairy godmother of cover images likes YOU, doesn’t she?!” I adore this cover, as I did the cover of the first Amaranth novel. (Anne Cain did the art. One might almost say “Of course, Anne Cain did the cover art.” I’m not sure she’s capable of doing a bad cover.) And while I read the novel in one sitting, unable to put it down, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Dark Heart and, despite its labeling on Loose Id, I wouldn’t call it a BDSM novel as such.
Coryn is a newly trained Master Mage, a healer. On his travels one day, he stops three men from slaughtering a plague-ridden slave. He heals and claims the slave as his own, then goes to the plague-ridden city Elverton to help the people there. Days later, he has healed so many people, he himself is dangerously weak, but he’s not closer to figuring out where the plague came from and how it’s spreading, which is when he calls in more of his Guild, healers and necromancers and other mages.
Healing Heart was no less lovingly crafted than Dark Heart, but the issues I had with Dark Heart were not superseded in Healing Heart by the romance or the brilliance of characterization. Instead, they became the story for me.
In Dark Heart the disturbing fact that slavery is the foundation for the world you create was subordinate to the explicit domination/submission dynamic between Lucan and Tam. Even though he was a slave, Tam was much more submissive to Lucan than anyone else, because that’s the reaction Lucan specifically brought out in him. This dynamic was very well-depicted and lessened my issues with the slavery aspect of the world you’ve built (as morally questionable as that lessening might be). In Healing Heart, however, I don’t know if I was too aware of the troubling issue of slavery in the world you have created and therefore unable to sink into the book, but the book seemed to me to be more about solidifying the world-building around and justifying the existence of slavery in Amaranth than in demonstrating that Coryn and Raff specifically had a D/s relationship. Maybe it was because Coryn was so young and needed to remind himself how to treat a slave, but the beatings inflicted on Raff seem to be much more about supporting the system of slavery, rather than an expansion or expression of the sexual relationship between the characters. What I’m trying to say in my long-winded professorial way is that the beatings and whippings in Healing Heart were about Raff being a slave, not about Raff being Coryn’s sexual submissive. The beatings and whippings, in fact, had nothing at all to do with the sexual relationship between Coryn and Raff (unlike in Dark Heart) and as such, the novel itself was much more difficult to enjoy, because I felt complicit in supporting a world based in an unquestioned, unchallenged system of slavery.
This also, to my mind, made the novel NOT a BDSM novel. The relationship wasn’t one of sexual domination/submission, but societal D/s, with a strange sort of sexual equality, as much as there can be in a novel about a slave and his master. This quote, for example, would be an interesting depiction of a voluntary D/s relationship:
Oh. Yes. I’d forgotten that chain. I subsided, feeling the tug of it now almost as a comfort. It’s good sometimes to have no choice at all. Maybe that’s why we love our masters, us poor doomed besotten boys: because they take away all our choices, because they name us and dress us-‘or not, as they choose-‘and feed us and work us at their will, love us back if they choose to. I don’t know. I only did know that I would wear one man’s chain gladly, proudly, as I wore his tag; that I would kiss his feet and serve him all my life if he would let me, if he would keep me. That I would love him whether or not he ever returned that love. That I would settle for a smile, for an occasional touch of affection. And live without even that if I had to, because I belonged to him regardless.
Helpless, hopeless, my master’s boy entirely.
Except, it serves instead to naturalize the slavery. Once a character becomes a slave, they apparently lose all desire to be free. Raff’s only been a slave for three years, and yet he never questions his status. Ever.
Maybe my hyper-awareness of the issues I had with the book made me unable to turn off the literary critic in me, but I thought that the writing didn’t seem as smooth with this book as with Dark Heart. Mainly I noticed a lot of repetition. If you made a thematic point once, you made it three times, often within about three pages, and that got a little wearing. Trust your readers. Your writing is good enough that you should be able to trust us to get the nuances of theme threaded through the novel.
Once again, though, the characters shone through. I loved Coryn, confident in his powers, but so very young and inexperienced. I loved Raff, a cheeky, mouthy young man who chaffed at being a slave. I loved seeing Lucan and Tam again, in scenes that were necessary to the plot, not just a revisiting of previous character for the mere sake of seeing them again. The characters almost made me forget my major problems with the world in which they lived — almost, but not quite.
But the depth of the characterization made it difficult for me to trust the depth of Coryn’s and Raff’s feelings for each other, because the love that bloomed between them seemed abrupt, unexplored, and mainly founded on hero-worship and idealism, rather than based on the characters’ personalities. Lucan and Tam in Dark Heart loved each other because of who they were, their life experiences until that point, and their reactions to each other. Coryn and Raff seemed to love each other because of proximity, hero worship, and narrative necessity — they had to to make it a romance. Late in the story, Coryn thinks:
What good could it do a slave to learn that his master loves him? It changes nothing, except that it might go to his head and make him behave foolishly, give his master cause to regret the confession or even the emotion.
No, better to stay silent and let the boy stay ignorant, keep him strictly and never let him guess.
Besides, I could never know if he loved me in return, not truly. He’d probably never know himself. How do you tell love from duty from obedience from fear, when they’re all so intricately bound together? Or love from desire from simple physical pleasure, from the sensual touch and the physical strain and the erotic rush?
I was sure, entirely, on my own account: I loved him and owned him and wanted him, all three. But I could never be sure of him. So no, I’d not say a word.
I would expect this concern to be overcome by the end of the story, some sort of reciprocal acknowledgment given between the characters. And while I believed they would be happy together and would stay together, I wasn’t convinced by the emotional depth of their relationship.
All this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. I enjoyed the medical mystery (where DID the plague come from?) and I enjoyed seeing Coryn grow into his power and knowledge of himself. I liked Raff as a character — he wasn’t brave, but did what he needed to do anyway, as best he could. And I will probably still be reading more Amaranth novels, as they come out. While I was definitely squicked by the society’s unquestioning reliance on slavery and the narrative’s own lack of undermining or questioning of the system, I’m fascinated to see how you’re going to continue to build Amaranth and the characters there. I’ll also be reading it because this novel more than the first reminded me of nothing less than Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, not only in the particulars of the world itself, but in the writing and the voice of the story. And I loved that aspect of it.
This book can be purchased in ebook format from Loose ID.