I read a lot, but I don’t have a lot of money to throw away. This means that I usually won’t try new authors unless they come very well recommended by a number of trusted reviewers and/or one of their books is on sale/free.
Even then, I am, fairly or not, much more leery of self published books than those which are traditionally published. Say what you like, in the second case at least one or two people who are not friends of the author read the material before contracting it.
Sometimes, despite those recommendations, the author’s voice or the story are not for me, and I go back to what I know and trust.
Sometimes, the fit is so perfect, I’m completely blown away.
This is one of the latter cases.
Radiance, by Grace Draven
I honestly have no idea when, or where, I first heard of this book. I know Dear Author praised Master of Crows a couple of years ago, but for whatever reason it just didn’t call to me. Time passed, and I honestly don’t remember hearing anything about Ms Draven’s work since.
Then I saw the cover and read this piece by Carolyn over at Two Old Farts. What is a reader to do, when amazon–blasted, customer-savvy place that it is–makes it so easy to read a longish sample?
One-click it, of course, then devour it like a mad person, and then search Ms Draven’s website for any indications that the next story in this world will come out soon. Or at some point–I’ll wait if I have to.
Now, like any of the newly converted, I must share this with you.
Two caveats: one, this novel is self published,¹ and two, there are a couple of graphic sex scenes, and zero purple euphemisms. If you cannot take adult language in your romance, this one is not for you.
Behold, the blurb (from the author’s site):
~THE PRINCE OF NO VALUE~
Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.
~THE NOBLEWOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE~
Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.
Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.
If the cover and blurb haven’t clued you in yet, this is a fantasy romance. In this world, humans are a relatively young race/species. The Kai, who inhabit the kingdom of Bast-Haradis, are one of the last Elder races still living. Once powerfully magical, their powers diminish with each successive generation. Physically, however, they are extremely powerful beings. Much stronger and usually taller than humans, they also have fangs in lieu of teeth and claws instead of fingernails. Their skin is grey, they live by the light of the moon, and their eyes have no irises or pupils.
As the blurb states, Ilkido and Brishen are willing, if not enthusiastic, pawns in a political game.They are each determined to make the best of their circumstances. In the excerpt available at amazon, we witness their first meeting, before they know who the other is. By no means is this a novel conceit, yet the scene is played beautifully–as is the follow up meeting.
Very early on, from Brishen’s point of view:
The way she said “wedding”–in the same way someone might have said “execution” or “torture session”–made him sputter with laughter. He had not doubt he’d uttered the same word in the same tone recently.
She was a challenge to look upon without wincing, but he very much liked her wry humor.
It is so refreshing to read of a dynastic marriage in genre romance that is not plagued with deeply-rooted prejudice or absurd insta-hatred. Which is, in a romance, even worse than insta-love. I mean, if a character can hate someone else before getting to know them, I’m already doubting their common sense. At this point, it’s a lot harder for me to care for them at all, let alone actually like them enough to root for their HEA. Having two main characters who are willing to work to make their relationship work, is just fantastic.
Ildika is a wonderful character. Her life since the death of her parents has not been an easy one. Yes, as the daughter of the king’s late sister, she’s never wanted for material things. But she has always known that her only value to her uncle is as a political pawn. The king has never cared for her, and the queen openly dislikes/despises her. And now that she’s been bartered to the Kai–the price being a war and commerce treaty that will protect her people from a rival human kingdom–she faces her future with courage.
Not only has Ildiko never before laid eyes on her future husband, but she knows that, in all likelihood, she’ll be the only human in the Bast-Haradis court. She is the one who must adapt to a new environment, among people who are different not just in language and social mores, but who are not even of the same species. What does a gently-reared noblewoman to do?
This noblewoman doesn’t weep for the future children she won’t have, nor does she rage against her fate–or her husband. From the moment we meet her, Ildiko is set to make the best of a less than ideal situation. Her expectations of marriage are very modest. She hopes her husband will not hate her, and is therefore very pleasantly surprised upon realizing that the friendly Kai stranger is her betrothed husband, Brishen. Still, she doesn’t expect fidelity from him. In her experience, dynastic marriages are only consummated to ensure heirs, and as a cross-species union such as hers and Brishen’s cannot bear fruit, she imagines they’ll be friends and he’ll find sexual satisfaction elsewhere.
Because they are honest to each other even before they have been formally introduced, Ildoko believes Brishen is pretty much on the same page as her regarding their relationship. As their sense of humor is similar, despite cultural differences, they like each other immediately, and thus a true friendship starts developing quickly between the two.
Of course, the more they get to know each other, the more they care for the other’s wellbeing and happiness. It is not difficult to believe that these two specific people, under these particular circumstances, would grow to love each other, or that such love would change and deepen from a cherished friendship to physical desire.
Brishen is another great character. He is an honorable and easy going man despite his parentage. His mother in particular is casually cruel. Therefore, he is extremely relieved to find in Ildiko a like-minded and interesting spouse. It would be very easy to dismiss him as too likable, if it weren’t for the secrets he keeps–some of which are not revealed until very late in the story–which give him depth. He is by no means perfect.
Brishen is self-aware enough to realize first how his feelings towards her have changed, as well as the depth of her sacrifice in becoming his bride. She works to adapt quickly to his people’s ways, but she’ll forever be human, after all.
I think that for me the best part of this awakening between Ildiko and Brishen is that neither of them is blinded to reality. They don’t suddenly consider the other the most beautiful/handsome thing they’ve ever seen. They’ve become used to the other’s physical appearance, but that doesn’t make it any less ugly compared to their own cultural norm.
So when Ildiko thinks of Brishen as handsome, she is seeing the whole person and not just the glowing, iris-less eyes or the slate-grey skin. When Brishen thinks of Ildiko, he knows she is homely–and yet, she is beautiful to him.
If the love story was the only thing to love about this book, it would be enough–but luckily for us readers, it’s not. The world building is top notch.
The setting is vaguely medieval, in the sense that people travel by horse and cart. Armies fight with bow and arrow, axes, swords and knives. The cultural and physical differences between humans, in the person of Ildiko, and all the Kai, are organic to the story, and written in lovely scenes.
For example, early in the story there’s a brief skirmish in which three of Brishen’s warriors are killed. Naturally, Ildiko assumes that there will be some sort of funerary rite, and that the bodies will either be buried or cremated. Instead, she witnesses a truly magical thing: three living people absorb into themselves the light–the memories–of the dead, so they may be delivered to their families back in Bas-Haradis.
From Ildiko’s point of view:
Brishen had told her his were a people of night. They avoided the sun when possible and rejected the day for their hours of activity. Yet seeing her princely husband and his two subjects lit from within by the resplendent dead, she couldn’t imagine any who embraced light more than the tenebrous Kai.
Ms Draven doesn’t gloss over the difficulty of a daytime creature to adapt to a night existence. Ildiko’s eyes are much weaker than those of the Kai, and she needs the sun to thrive. Most of the food and animals in this world are the same as in ours, but the differences in how humans and Kai approach them are hilariously funny. For Brishen, potatoes are vile and disgusting, likened to rotting maggots. While scarpatine (something between a scorpion and a lobster, from what I gather) is a dangerous and prized delicacy that sends Ildiko to the chamber pot with alacrity.
The politics and economic currents of the world are presented in such an organic way that the reader can follow them, and appreciate their implications and subsequent events, without getting bogged down in minutiae or yanked out of the story.
There are several key secondary characters who are written as carefully as Ildiko and Brishen, even though we only know them from the two main characters’ point of view–with one notable exception, in the epilogue.
Which, oh my good heavens! In other books, I would decry the epilogue as sequel bait. In Radiance? It works perfectly, because I can barely wait for whatever Ms Draven has in store for Ildiko, Brishen and the Kai.
I do have one relatively minor quibble regarding the structure of the story. At one point, a chapter ends from Brishen’s point of view. The following chapter starts three days later, from Ildiko’s point of view. Then, out of nowhere, she is remembering what happened between the end of the previous chapter and the current timeline. Then, we are back to the present. This digression is several pages long (thirteen in my phone, but I read with the smallest font setting) and involves a key moment in hers and Brishen’s relationship. It would well be that I was reading too fast and that’s why I had to back track to figure out exactly what was going on, but I did find it disconcerting.
Radiance gets a 9.00 out of 10.
~ * ~
¹ For readers who may be concerned about the fact that this is self published–and I cannot find evidence that Ms Draven’s work has ever been released by a traditional publisher–you may rest easy. I believe I spotted a whooping three typos in the entire novel–which is definitely no more than you might find in a book put out by any of the Big 5.