A Heart of Blood and Ashes by Milla Vane
A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsathe and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil—until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.
Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.
Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surprising is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own…
This book is a lusciously brutal foray into romantic fantasy, with a love story that burns so hot, you might singe your fingers while reading it. I devoured it in a single sitting and have been struggling to re-emerge back into the real world ever since. It’ll be a travesty if it doesn’t top the “Best Romance of 2020” lists.
“There are enemies, and there are monsters. Always slay the monsters first, because enemies may one day become allies – but monsters never will.”
I know we’re barely into January, but I’m just going to come right out and say it:
THIS WILL BE MY FAVORITE BOOK OF 2020
I’m confident in that, because I have been waiting for a book like this for years. YEARS, I TELL YOU. My two favorite genres are romance and fantasy. Therefore, my favorite subgenre of all time is romantic fantasy.
Do you know how many romantic fantasy books there are? I do, because I have read all of them and there are simply NOT ENOUGH.
With A Heart of Blood and Ashes, Milla Vane has crowned herself as the new queen of the genre for me. Seriously, this book was THAT good.
Okay, now let me try to get my shit together and do it justice in an actual review instead of just flailing all over my keyboard.
This story is centered in a fantastical world. It has a sort of medieval setting, complete with towering castles, barbarian hordes, vengeful gods, and evil sorcerers. Also, dinosaurs are a thing. Just an FYI for those of you with shorter attention spans, this is definitely on the high fantasy side of the genre, with extensive world building.
The great thing about that world building is that it never once reads like an info dump. Milla Vane did a genius thing with this. The female lead, Yvenne, has spent her entire life locked away in a tower, so you see the lands and cities she travels through from her awed perspective. Everything is fresh and new, and because of this, the setting and history of all the places she visits unfolds in a natural, organic way.
The story opens with the murder of the king and queen of one of these nations. Their son and heir, Maddek (the male lead), is a military commander at the time, fighting on the front lines of the allied nations’ territory.
The message he receives about their deaths is cryptic. Because the leaders of the alliance council know he will freak out when he learns the truth. As much as these allied nations claim to be civilized and fair, they know the story they were fed about the deaths of his king and queen is total bullshit.
And so does Maddek.
Seeking vengeance, he abducts the daughter of King Zhalen, the man who had his parents murdered. That princess would be Yvenne, and whoo-boy do they have some instant chemistry.
Real talk: I’m not typically a fan of darker romances. In fact, I usually avoid the subgenre at all costs, because I almost always find the “romances” in them to read more like glorified tales of abuse and manipulation. Seldom do I understand the character choices.
That said, I loved the hell out of Maddek and Yvenne, regardless of the fact that their interactions sometimes dipped toward the darker side of romance. Because, through their perspectives, I understood them both, and though I might not agree with their choices, I could see why they made them.
Thanks to the book blurb, it’s not a spoiler to say that Yvenne is nothing like what Maddek expected. He’d been led to believe that she acted as an agent of her father and betrayed his parents by luring them to their deaths. Imagine his surprise when he finds out that her hatred for her father eclipses even his own. Instead of murdering her, he winds up betrothed instead.
From the moment they meet, they’re on the run. Because Yvenne’s father will do anything to keep the truth of what he did hidden. And he’s even more desperate to keep his motivations a secret.
Yvenne and Maddek are pursued through several nations, guarded by an incredible cast of side characters that I liked so much, I would gladly read a story from each and every one of their perspectives.
Another thing I’ll say is that this is not always an easy read. There are some harder themes in here. The violence is brutal and sometimes gory. I was so invested in these characters that every time one of them was hurt, I got a little bit ragey on their behalf. And it’s not always smooth sailing for our hero and heroine. It’s more like they chartered their course through a storm-swept sea. But what never flags is their heat.
Good lord, these two set the pages on fire.
One thing I loved, loved, LOVED about this book was how inclusive it was. More than half of the cast are characters of color, men and women hold equal power in leadership roles, and sexuality is so widely accepted as being fluid that it’s literally never made into a “thing”. It’s just written along the lines of “she took her to bed”, without further dissection, and amen for that.
Another thing I loved was the way that Yvenne was portrayed. She’s easily one of my favorite female leads of all time. I am sick to death of readers equating traditional male qualities as strengths in heroines. Like, a heroine is only ever deemed “strong” if she swears a lot, and is violent, and is short-tempered, and never cries, etc.
Yvenne is not physically strong. She spent her life locked in a room. She has chronic pain thanks to a knee that was once shattered. But Yvenne is not without strength. Her mind is an exquisite thing. Her political acumen is prodigious. She was cutthroat and manipulative and deceptive and did anything to get what she wanted – all for the good of her people – and I fucking adored her for it.
And Maddek. Oh, Maddek. At times I wanted to punch him in the face. Then half a page later I wanted to climb him like a tree. What I’m saying is that I understood why Yvenne lusted after him and was pissed at him in equal measure.
It’s important to point out that I never, ever gave up on him. I rooted for him as hard as I did Yvenne, and his character arc is as strong as hers. He learns from his mistakes. He strives to be a better man. While he sometimes pissed me off, I totally got why he acted the way he did, and I never stopped believing that he would work through his demons.
Which he does, and lord is it worth it. I damn near cried when this ended.
One last note is that while their romance is a dominant part of the story, it shares space with one gloriously complicated plot. This is a highly political fantasy setting, with kings and queens and gods all vying for power on the same playing board. Just when you think you know what is going on, the rug is pulled out from under your feet. Just when you think these characters have finally made it to safety, a new threat emerges.
I was honestly terrified that this was going to end on a massive cliffhanger and I’d be left waiting in breathless desperation for the next one to come out.
Fear not, fellow reader! This ends with the HEA we expect from romance, but with room for more installments.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to avoid the massive book hangover this will give me by just picking it back up and reading it all over again.
What a way to start the year!