A Heart of Blood and Ashes, by Milla Vane

7 Jan
A Heart of Blod and Ashes cover shows a muscular white man, barechested, wearing a pelt over his right shoulders, and some sort of leather garment covering from wait to mid thigh, and what look like tall boots

Once upon a time, I read a novella called “The Beast of Blackmoor”, from the Night Shift anthology. Like all the best short stories, it introduced me to a world I got utterly lost into, where I wanted more, more, MORE!

Years passed, and while that novella was the one memorable one in the anthology, I stopped checking the author’s website for updates on upcoming books (oh, reader slump from hell, you most hideous of fiends!). Then, on the last day of the horrible, terrible, no-good year of our doom 2021, a tweet crossed my feed: the first two full-length books in the series were on sale for just $1.99US each. What’s a reader to do?

First things first: heed the warnings! This is a very dark world; there’s a lot of violence and abuse, physical, emotional, and sexual, as part of the world building, and in the past of several of the characters.

There’s quite a bit of graphic sex on the page, all of it consensual, and though this novel is about a heterosexual couple, the world itself is not puritanical, and we see other relationships. There’s a nonbinary healing god with they/them pronouns, and while the cover of the book (in fact, all three covers in the series so far), are of muscular white men, the descriptions of various characters, including the female protagonist, make it clear that this is a very diverse world indeed.

Finally, this is most definitely a romance; the road to the HEA is hard, but once there, it’s set in stone. Oh, and this novel is long. As in, 550+ pages long.

A Heart of Blood and Ashes, Milla Vane 1

The story begins in the frontlines of a border war that’s lasted a generation, where we immediately learn a lot about both the world and the main male protagonist of our story. We have mammoths, dinosaurs, at least one species of hominins (or perhaps just primates), alongside humans, and gods who interact with people and, quite literally, walk in the world with them.

Maddek, Commander in the Great Alliance of the Western Realms, and son to the Rans of the Burning Plains, is honorable, compassionate, courageous, and has a healthy sense of humor.

By the time we meet the heroine, he’s a lot less light of heart, and a lot more bent on vengeance. And boy, are he and Yvenne well matched there, as she has suffered a lifetime of abuse and cruelty herself.

Of course, there’s a bit of a hitch.

Here’s the blurb, from the author’s website:

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…

I love how immersive this world is. Even the rhythm and cadence of the language is its own, and I really like how without using odd word choices or inventing a foreign tongue, the author invokes the sense of a different time and place. The worldbuilding goes well beyond geography or mythology, instead tackling the reality of cultural differences and prejudice between peoples, and how this dictates the reflexive behavior of even those who we, the readers, can see are ‘the good guys’ in most everything else.

There is a lot of social justice aspiration woven into the book, from several characters’ points of view. Hell, there’s even a nod to “those who support law and order over justice, have neither justice nor law”. 2

While it’s clear that this is happening, it never feels preachy; the characters talk about their lives and their realities, and it matters how they perceive each other. There are real-life consequences for them, over those shallow opinions and entrenched prejudices.

And it all works beautifully, because these are all people growing in understanding of their own biases and privileges. None of the characters on the page, other than the villains (and potentially the goddess Vela), remain unchanged by the events of the novel, let alone their interactions with each other.

And the villains remain unchanged, not so much because they’re two-dimensional, but because we spend very little time with them, never seeing events unfold from their point of view. Which, frankly, is just fine with me–I read for characters over plot, but the characters I read for, I want to like.

I mentioned recently that I have been struggling, for several years now, with angst in my genre romance reading, so I can’t really explain, even to myself, my enjoyment of this series (have I mentioned yet the violence in the worldbuilding?).

Perhaps it is that, even though this is a very dark world, and the stakes are high, it is removed enough from reality, that I can immerse myself in the story without anxiety.

For example, none of the abuse in Yvenne’s backstory feels gratuitous. Yes, her father is a sadistic asshole, but his abuse of Yvenne and her late mother makes sense; there’s a political purpose beyond “he enjoys causing pain” or “he likes hurting women”. Even the hint of “the cruelty is the point” in the larger world makes sense as a strategy to control the masses, rather than petty aimless sadism (again, making a point about reality, and again without preachiness).

So yeah, the writing voice and the clearly fantastic setting definitely help, but there’s, I feel, more than that.

It helps, immensely, that both Yvenne and Maddek are not just good people when we meet them, but that they both want to grow. He’s a warrior who needs to become king, she’s a queen who must become a warrior. He seeks her out with the intention of killing her; she ~lured~ his parents to Sissia with honest intentions and desperate need–not just hers, but her people’s.

And because they are both so sincerely invested in being more, in serving a purpose beyond themselves; because there is no petty personal animus or irrational malice in their interactions, the bleak moments hurt but do not devastate me to the point where I must stop reading. This is not an easy balance to find; however, as I inhaled this behemoth of a book in one sitting (and followed it literally on the spot with the next one), the author delivered in spades.

Of note: the blurb makes it clear that Yvenne needs Maddek’s help, and in that sense he ‘rescues’ her. However, she’s never truly helpless, and she’s never weak. To free her people, she must survive, she must kill her father, she must be queen. She may suffer, as she has already suffered, but she will free her people. Yvenne keeps her ultimate purpose always present, and that makes her the strongest character in the novel.

A Heart of Blood and Ashes gets a 9.25 out of 10.

* * * *

1 In case you don’t know, Milla Vane is Meljean Brook

2 I am paraphrasing A.R. Moxon’s often repeated sentiment here:

Nov 2 2018 tweet by JuliusGoat aka A.R. Moxon: If order is prioritized over justice, or if order is mistaken for justice, you will eventually begin to hear all sorts of propositions that might otherwise seem shocking, that end, either implicitly or explicitly, with "and that's why a lot of people have to die."

Which, in turn, is but a paraphrasing of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s statement in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (16 April 1963):

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season”

One Response to “A Heart of Blood and Ashes, by Milla Vane”

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  1. A Touch of Stone and Snow, by Milla Vane | Her Hands, My Hands - 10/01/2022

    […] I mentioned in my review of A Heart of Blood and Ashes, I started reading this second novel within minutes of finishing the first (and I have not stopped […]

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