A woman with power over fire and illusion and an enslaved son of a chieftain battle a corrupt empire in this powerful and deeply emotional romantic fantasy from the USA Todaybestselling author of Radiance.
Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital–her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion–and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire–and burn once more.
**Content and Trigger Warnings** (rape, assault, slavery, murder, torture, gore, and violence)
The threat of rape, and then the actual torture and rape, at the beginning of this book – of both the main characters – really put me off. It took me a long time to get past it enough to actually continue reading. I’m not sure why it hit me so hard here, in this book. So many books use it. So many books use it and then forget it was ever a problem. It’s exhausting. As if being burned alive, or being a slave gladiator isn’t bad enough….there’s rape on top of it.
Once I got past that, it was much easier to get into and enjoy the story. The world is fascinating. Though there is an evil Empire to fight, the main battles are much more personal and close to the characters. This really drew me into their story.
We first meet Gilene as she’s being taken from her village to become a Flower of Spring. The capital city burns many women each year as tribute.What the Empire doesn’t know is that Gilene has power over fire, and that she’s been her village’s tribute for the last several years. Every year she goes under illusion of someone else, so that no one in her village has to die. She’s as much a prisoner of her village as she is a victim of the Empire. She can go to be raped and burned year after year, or they can kill her family.
Despite these pretty horrific facts of her life, Gilene is both loyal to her family, kind to those she can be, and smart. When everything changes for her she doesn’t bemoan her fate, she figures the odds, calculates the best path, and chooses. This is what happens when she meets the Gladiator Prime.
Azarion has been a gladiator in the city, a slave, for the last 10 years. He is the best they have. His skill at killing has captivated this blood-thirsty city, and their blood-thirsty Empress. Azarion’s torture occurs in the pit and in the Empress’ bed. But Azarion doesn’t give up, doesn’t forget that he has a people to go back to. And when he sees a Flower of Spring, the women to be burned on the pyre that he’s sure he’s seen in years past, he knows this is the time to act.
I thought I would have issues with the power-imbalance between Azarion and Gilene. He threatens her family, her village, and herself to get her to cooperate with his plan. He takes her prisoner and orders her to do many things. In his mind he’s doing what needs to be done to get back to his family and to avenge the wrongs done to him. He knows he’ll never truly hurt her, knows that he’s bluffing. But she doesn’t.
What I enjoyed a lot is that Gilene doesn’t just bow under the pressure Azarion presents. She challenges him and the status-quo consistently. She never lets him forget that she’s not there willingly. That she has no reason to trust him. And though it takes him a while to understand this, when he does it’s beautiful.
Regardless of this power imbalance, there is a consistent emphasis in this book on consent. Sometimes it’s more subtle than others, but it’s always there.
When I finished the book and began to think of what I would write in my review, examining Gilene and Azarion’s relationship specifically, I began to think about Stockholm Syndrome. I think that someone else could probably better argue why this is or isn’t that, but I’ll say that it never felt squicky or wrong to me. The development of their romance was organic. Occurring only when the power imbalance had been resolved.
I appreciated so much that Azarion came to see her as something more because of her inner strength, her choices, and who she was as a person. It all made her more beautiful to him. Inside and out.
Gilene developed so much, but never beyond who she was. She gained the strength to become – on the outside – who she always was on the inside.
A lot of time is spent on Azaraion’s and Gilene’s separate but intertwined journeys. Their romance is a slow burn that captivated my romantic heart . I couldn’t get back to them quickly enough when they were separated in the last third of the book. That part of the story dragged a bit for me.
Despite a rocky start – because of my own personal triggers – I really enjoyed this book. Grace Draven is definitely becoming one of my go-to authors for fantasy romance.