REVIEW: A Heart of Blood and Ashes by Milla Vane
Disclaimer: A Heart of Blood and Ashes is dedicated in part to DA contributor and site owner, Jane, who read the manuscript and provided feedback on it. I have no personal relationship to the author myself. – Janine
Dear Milla Vane,
In the past I’ve had mixed luck with the books you wrote under the name Meljean Brook. Demon Angel was a DNF for me, but I liked the first three books in your Iron Seas series much better. My curiosity was piqued by your new barbarian fantasy romance series written under the name Milla Vane and I requested an ARC of the first novel in the series, A Heart of Blood and Ashes. Unfortunately, the book did not work for me. At 60% in, I’m calling it a DNF.
The plot concerns a journey and a proposed alliance / marriage between two people from opposing kingdoms. Maddek of Parsathe is a leader of a contingent of barbarians and son to the King and Queen of Parsathe. As the book opens, Maddek receives news of the death of his parents, and he soon learns that they were killed by Zhalen, the regent king of Syssia, while in Syssia to assess a potential bride for him as Parsathean tradition dictates.
Together with three other realms, Syssia and Parsathe comprise an alliance against a powerful and evil enemy known as Anumith the Destroyer. The alliance council has accepted testimony that Maddek’s father assaulted a Syssian woman and his mother killed one of the Syssian princes. Zhalen’s executions of Maddek’s parents in retribution for these acts were therefore deemed legal. Maddek is certain these are only Zhalen’s pretexts and he burns with the desire to avenge his parents.
The alliance council forbids Maddek to take revenge. The Destroyer is about to make a comeback and the alliance can’t fracture if the five kingdoms are to defend themselves. But Maddek refuses to accept the council’s ruling and when he learns that his parents were lured to Syssia by a letter from a Syssian princess proposing a marriage between herself and Maddek, he is determined to avenge himself not just on Zhalen and his sons, but also on Zhalen’s daughter, Princess Yvenne.
Maddek learns that Yvenne is on her way to marry the king of Toleh. He and a group of his closest fellow soldiers intercept Yvenne and her brother’s retinue. But when Yvenne kills her brother, an accomplice to the murders of Maddek’s parents, Maddek’s desire for vengeance on her cools very slightly—just long enough to allow Yvenne to state her innocence and propose their marriage.
Syssia is a matriarchal kingdom. Zhalen hid Yvenne’s existence so as not to be deposed, locking Yvenne and her mother in a tower. Yvenne is only newly released in order to be married to the malleable king of Toleh. But in Syssia succession is matrilineal. If Yvenne marries Maddek and produces a child, she and Maddek can lay claim to the Syssian throne and take everything Zhalen values. It would be a crueler revenge than his death.
Maddek considers the idea and it stays his hand. He doesn’t commit to the marriage, though, because he mistrusts Yvenne. She was the one whose letter lured his late parents to Syssia, however much she claims that she didn’t mean them harm. And when Yvenne tells Maddek that his mother wanted a marriage between them, he doesn’t believe her. Yvenne is small and physically weak, and his parents sought a warrior queen for him.
But though he thinks she’s lying, Maddek believes in Yvenne’s enmity toward her father. And he recognizes that if she is telling the truth, marrying her and producing an heir would be the best revenge possible. Maddek decides to bring Yvenne with him back to Parsathe but he is unwilling to listen to any more lies. He threatens to cut out Yvenne’s tongue if she says anything more about his mother.
As Maddek, Yvenne, and his six closest warrior friends travel together, Maddek feels attracted to Yvenne. Yvenne has a quick mind and a strong will, and as she is exposed to the world outside her tower for the first time, she develops strength and wins the respect of Maddek’s compatriots.
Because she’s a virgin, Maddek and Yvenne can’t have intercourse until the next full moon. To do otherwise would be to risk the wrath of Vela, the moon goddess. But they find other ways to satisfy their growing hungers. Yvenne also advises Maddek on how to be more than a warrior, how to become a future king. Maddek comes to like and respect her, but his distrust of her stands in their way.
As mentioned before, I quit this book at 60%. A big part of my disinclination to read further has to do with this fantasy world. The worldbuilding is detailed and therefore stronger than that of many fantasy romances, but it’s also confusing. The location of the various kingdoms relative to one another befuddled me. Having a map would have helped.
The world was also off-putting. I think I’m just not into the barbarian thing. Occasionally the male characters wear only loincloths. Both the main and supporting characters eat giant millipedes, snakes, and on one occasion, raw lizards. Both the internal monologues and the dialogue are written in a style I came to think of as “barbarian speak” that didn’t work for me. For example:
Before even three seasons had passed, however, the alliance council bade Maddek to return to the river with a message for Iova—the Rugusian king was dead—and resume command while that realm’s affairs were sorted. Iova was to have returned when all was settled. Yet despite the passing of a winter, she had not.
And another example:
“What life would it be when every breath is of air that Zhalen still breathes? As a son, I cannot let their murders go unavenged. I cannot be part of an alliance that will turn their gaze from truth and say that justice has been done.”
And a third:
“I will be your queen, warrior. And I look forward to the full moon, when the blood and wetness upon your cock are not my brother’s but mine, after you have thrust your sword into my virgin sheath and spilled your seed. For when that seed takes root, we will have the vengeance we both desire.”
As you can see from the last example, the book is earthy. The degree of earthiness was crude at times, but other readers might like it better than I did.
Additionally, mentions of Yvenne’s “moon night,” the anticipated loss of her virginity, are an ongoing refrain. Much of the times they touch, flirt or banter, Yvenne’s “moon night” comes up. I suspect that the preoccupation with it was intended to whet the reader’s appetite, but it made the characters seem like gossipy middle schoolers. When I searched for “moon night” on my kindle I came up with 33 instances. The frequent drumbeat got annoying after a while.
Although Maddek was handsome, physically strong and a pretty good leader to the warriors who traveled with him, I had an active dislike of him. At times he seemed obtuse, both in the way he missed some leadership opportunities that Yvenne had to point out to him and in the way he clung to his misconceptions about her.
Also, on their very first meeting, Maddek demanded that Yvenne (who has no sexual experience whatsoever and was locked in tower for most of her life) bring him to orgasm. He expected her to refuse (she didn’t) but nevertheless, it read like an attempt to degrade her. That Yvenne was turned on didn’t make it any less of a turn-off for me.
Then there is his unwillingness to hear out Yvenne where his mother is concerned. Maddek takes this to an unpleasant, even abusive degree.
Yvenne was a more appealing character than Maddek, with an insightful mind and strategic thinking. She didn’t complain even when the journey became arduous despite her limited strength. She bantered with Maddek and his warriors. These were all admirable qualities but she too annoyed me, largely because she started to develop feelings for Maddek long before he began to treat her with affection. She was smarter and more perceptive than Maddek but her budding love for him undermined that. Since I felt Maddek was no prize, it was hard to respect her judgement.
At the 60% mark, I realized that I cared more about the external plot that had to do with the politics between the kingdoms and about Yvenne’s history with Maddek’s mother than about Yvenne and Maddek’s romance. I ran out of patience with Maddek’s mistrust and didn’t much care about his fate. I liked Yvenne better, but not enough to keep reading.
My favorite characters were the six people in Maddek’s entourage (aka his “dragon”), even though it was hard to remember who of them was who. Their camaraderie and easy rapport were some of the best things about the book.
Another thing that worked well was the atmosphere of the woody terrain through which the group travels, or of the tavern where they stop for a night. These places are well-described and effectively spooky or haunting at times. The unfamiliar life forms that populate the world aren’t that easy to visualize, but the settings themselves are an adroit blend of the familiar and the new.
Still, what I read of the book rubbed me the wrong way. Other reviewers have liked it much better; I’ve seen multiple A grades for it. I think a big part of the issue here is that the barbarian world isn’t one that I find romantic. A Heart of Blood and Ashes simply wasn’t for me. DNF.
::adds barbarian fantasy to “not interested” list already containing motorcycle clubs and mobsters::
This sounds like the old SNL skit “Lothar of The Hill People.”
I tried to read the introductory short story but it’s not for me. I loved The Iron Duke series, barbarians not so much
@Jayne: This world just did not work for me. I wanted to like it better than I did. Maybe there’s a barbarian book out there that I could really love, like i loved M. O’Keefe’s books despite disliking the mob and motorcycle tropes, but I’m not going to seek it out.
@Tanya: Heh. I don’t remember that one.
@HelenB: I read the precursor novella that was published in the Berkley anthology years ago and while I didn’t love the story and thought it was a bit too dark, I had no difficulty finishing and I thought it wasn’t half bad. I think the world wasn’t my cuppa then either, but since it was short it was easier to ignore that.
You might try Kati Wilde’s Deadlands books, starting with THE MIDWINTER MAIL-ORDER BRIDE. Barbarians, princesses, magic, and really hot sexy fun-times. Consistent but not overly complicated world-building. There are two sequels (same world, different characters) that are good but not as good as the first book.
I liked the novella and preordered a copy of this one. It’s now waiting until I have time to read it because the release date naturally fell at a time when I’m really busy.
Also, two thumbs up for THE MIDWINTER MAIL-ORDER BRIDE. :D
Is Jane going to come back to reviewing? Our reading tastes aligned about 90% of the time so I’ve been really missing her reviews.
@DiscoDollyDeb and @MaryK: I have not had the best luck with Kati Wilde. I didn’t finish Going Nowhere Fast even though a lot of people loved it.
I loved this book, the world building is incredible and yes, the story telling is gritty, but I expect that of a barbarian story.
I don’t mind gritty in my fantasy novels, but that overwritten nonsense dialogue is a hard pass for me. Janine, thank you for saving me from buying this.
@Tara Marie: Thanks for offering a different perspective. A lot of readers and reviewers have loved this book so I encourage readers to try a sample and see if it works for them.
@Melusine: I should add that the last quote is describing something that has actually happened and not an awkward metaphor. Yvenne kills her brother and his blood is literally still on her hands when she uses them on Maddek.
I loved this book – I’ve never had that much exposure to barbarian fantasy, but I thought the world-building, characters (yes to Yvenne) and plot were epic.
@MaryK: I belatedly realized my comment might’ve sounded like a criticism. It wasn’t meant to be and I’m sorry if it came across that way! The mention at the top of the post brought it to mind.
No worries. I didn’t take it that way at all.
I am so on the fence about this book (despite being abt 1 week away from borrowing it from my library). OTOH, I am not exactly interested in or even familiar with Barbarian Romances. OTOH, I have read some good reviews for the book (that go beyond the fluffy/gushing type of review thar doesn’t say anything really.)
Your review has given me pause. Especially because I have a feeling I will have the same issues you did with it. Not every book is for every reader, but hmmm.
@Ariadna: I’m an outlier. Most of the reviews have been glowing, and Brook is a good author. Like Helen B. I loved The Iron Duke. You have nothing to lose by getting it from the library so I recommend giving it a shot. I would love to hear what you think if you do that.
I finished the book because I was interested enough in the plot, but OMG, the writing style. One thing that I don’t think comes through in the review examples is the odd sentence structure. I get that it is intended to sound poetic, or archaic, or evoke “barbarian”, but it mostly made it hard to read for me. “Never had sinking into heated water felt so fine”, “never would his family conquer his people”, “not once had Maddek journeyed home to Burning Plains”, and, especially in the middle of the hot love scene: “endlessly his thick cock wedged deeper”. I guess this is covered by the overall “overblown” feeling, but there were so many sentences where I had to stop and read twice because I could not make sense of them the first time round. The world was OK for me but reading it felt like a hard slog just because the language seemed so convoluted, so I’d probably skip the next book.
@MD: I felt somewhat similarly—the plot engaged me but the characters, the language and the world were all irritating to me.
And yes, the Yoda speak was a factor when it came to the latter. I had no trouble following the meaning of the sentences but I thought it read like an attempt at conveying barbarian too, and in my case it just sounded…. I’m not sure why, but the word immature comes to mind. Like an unimaginative, cliched and misguided attempt at conveying what another culture’s language might sound like. In any case, it fell flat.
@Janine: Ah, you captured what I felt but didn’t quite know how to put in words: yes, cliched and generally misguided attempt to convey another language and culture.
“Yoda speak” works for Yoda because he is an alien talking to the main characters. So maybe it’s not his native language, or in any case he is clearly “other”, even if in a good way. My English may sound a bit strange to a native speaker because I have an accent and I may make grammar mistakes or maybe use an odd turn of a phrase here and there. But in my native language, even though grammar rules are different, general principles of conversational speech are the same – short sentences, clear words, maybe some slang (or swear words, whatever). But the point is, I sound like a normal person.
Clearly the characters in the book are not speaking English :-) But they sometimes sound like caricatures of foreigners, as imagined by someone who never met a real foreigner. Like people who learned English (or whatever their language is) from poetry books and now they are using a lot of unnatural phrasings. This also marks them as “other” in some way, but for me it wasn’t a good way. So I felt both distanced from the characters and vaguely uneasy about the way it seems to represent a foreign culture.
By definition any culture in a fantasy or sci-fi romance is different. But it works much better if the characters sound natural in English and the culture is conveyed through other means – whether this is invented words or other world building. I love the “Foreigner” novels by C.J.Cherryh where she takes on that directly – tow foreign cultures clash, she makes it very clear that the Atevi language is different from human languages in some very fundamental ways, but her Atevi characters sound “normal” – the cultural differences are conveyed through speech patterns in greetings, and in the Brent’s (human translator) head trying to reason through them, but at the same time they sound like normal people because that how we all sound to ourselves in our heads.
Yes! English isn’t my native language either, I wasn’t fluent in it until I was eleven or twelve. And yeah. Some language grammars flip the order of subject and object, and some (like Latin) even have declensions that make it so the order doesn’t matter, it’s the declension that makes the difference as to whether a word is the object or the subject. I was fascinated with Latin in high school because “man bites dog” and “dog bites man” could be declined to mean the same thing.
BUT. In my experience native speakers don’t speak in such a stilted way in their own languages, as they do here. The grammatical structure in this book also felt bedecked with a series of flourishes. Like formal rather than everyday languages. Anyway, it was not for me.
I wonder if it’s because neither of us is a native speaker of English that it bugged us both? I never made that connection, I just knew that it didn’t work for me.
I have not read Foreigner but a book that comes to mind is The Goblin Emperor, a fantasy novel (and an excellent one at that, I really recommend it). Katherine Addison used an invented grammar for the naming conventions and while they were difficult to get the hang of at first—the glossary that explains them at the end was very useful—once I did figure them out, they made perfect sense.
Otherwise the characters spoke in normal English, except for using the pronoun “we” in place of “I,” with an exemption for close relatives, and the absence of contractions. The use of “we” did sound formal, but was used for formal relationships, so it worked. The absence of contractions seemed formal too but since the book took place in a palace and the hero was an emperor, it fit the book too. Also, as with Yoda, the characters were of a different species. The culture was different from our own and had a somewhat different grammar but it worked well for that book and for me it enhanced the reading experience rather than detracting from it.
@Janine: I loved Goblin Emperor! It was long enough ago that I don’t remember the details of the language, but your examples make a great point. Naming conventions, whether it is titles or places, can say something about the society. Similarly the use of pronouns and making a distinction of the level of formality. These are parts of everyday English for us as well: we may use different forms of address depending on the formality of the situation and our relationship to the people involved, and we can switch depending on the situation. So your examples use a change to the grammer to convey specific meaning and difference in culture and contribute to both world building and character development.
But, for me at least, the weird sentence sturcture used in this book doesn’t convey anything other than “these folks are not from here and therefore speak funny, even in their own heads”, which probably particularly irritated me because I am a foreign language speaker as well, it’s an interesting connection there.
Yes, I agree.