A Touch of Stone and Snow, by Milla Vane

10 Jan
A Touch of Stone and Snow cover shows a muscular white man, midriff bared, wearing a chaimmail cowl, and bit of pieces of plated armor around his neck, top of the right shoulders, the waist, skins or fabric underneath, holding a steel sword, tip down.

Once again, first things first: heed all the warnings. The world of A Gathering of Dragons is very, very dark.

These are romances, there is always consent between the protagonists, the world building is very progressive in its sexual politics, but the background is of violence, sexual and otherwise. There’s gore and a lot of very explicit sex on the page, and the language reflect this. Also, while considerably shorter than the first novel, this one is still almost 400 pages. Reader, beware.

A Touch of Stone and Snow, by Milla Vane 1

In this book we continue to explore the fantastic world of the Western Realms, where megafauma and dinosaurs exist alongside complex human societies, with technology vaguely equivalent to Middle Ages/10th Century–chainmail, plate armor, bows, crossbows, etc, and complex shared mythologies, where goddesses favor believers with quests and rewards.

As 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 thinking about both since I finished reading them).

While expanding on the central world plotline laid down in “The Beast of Blackmoor”, as well as the mythology and politics of the world, this is, in essence, a story about second chances.

Behold, the blurb from the author’s website:

Danger lurks in the western realms. The Destroyer’s imminent return has sent the realms into turmoil as desperate citizens seek refuge—but there’s no safety to be found when demons and wraiths crawl out from the shadows. Even Koth, a northern island kingdom left untouched by the Destroyer a generation past, is besieged by terrors spawned from corrupt magics.

When Lizzan leads the Kothan army against these terrors, only to see her soldiers massacred and to emerge as the only survivor, she is called a coward and a deserter. Shunned from her home, Lizzan now wanders in solitude as a mercenary for hire, until she encounters a group of warriors seeking new alliances with the northern kingdoms—a group that includes Aerax, the bastard prince of Koth, and the man who sent her into exile.

Though they were childhood friends, Aerax cannot allow himself to be close to the only woman who might thwart his treacherous plan to save their island realm. But when a goddess’s demand binds them together, Lizzan and Aerax must find a way to overcome their painful pasts. Or there will be no future for the western realms…

The love between the main characters is never in question, and while for some readers that may equal “no conflict”, I beg to disagree. The obstacle between them is set up basically from the moment they become friends, because it’s predicated on who they are, from birth, and only compounded by events over which they have zero control.

Aerax, the bastard son of a dead king (who was a right bastard towards his unacknowledged son), who has only loved two people 2 in his life: his dead mother, and Lizzan, is now an acknowledged prince, and potential heir to the throne. Lizzan, the warrior with the soft heart of a born rescuer and protector, who still loves Aerax, and who is still willing to die to protect the people who shunned her–and by extension, her family.

When they meet again, they must confront the consequences of their actions and decisions, made out of love in the aftermath of those events, from a new perspective and through hard-won wisdom.

Lizzan is another fantastic heroine. When we meet her, she’s an alcoholic, struggling with deep feelings of guilt and shame, and heading fast to an early death (as a likely victim of violence and/or poor judgement while drunk). And yet, Lizzan’s heart is still so open and so generous. And so she begs the goddess Vela for a quest, is given a task, and things get even more interesting from then on–including a rather harsh detox through divine intervention.

Aerax has his own, personal quest, a goal of long standing which once came between him and Lizzan, and is now tangled with the overt mission that puts him in her path. Compared to Lizzan, he has more room for growth through the story, but his complete devotion to her from the first moment won me over completely.

The rest of the cast of characters have their own arcs, some significant, some short and even a bit superficial, but they are all three-dimensional people with their own stories, personalities, aspirations. I dearly want to see more of Kelir and Aldyr, of Preter of Tolah, of Seri and Tyzen–and am quite impatient for the release later this year of A Dance of Smoke and Steel, where Laina’s and Saxen’s story will be told. 3

The structure of the narrative is brilliant; not only in that each chapter is told from the (third person) point of view of one or the other of the two main characters throughout, but also in how the details of their shared history are revealed. One, a story “not worth repeating”; the other, a story shared by a dead queen touched by a goddess, in a land far away, a full decade prior.

There are dragons, demons, wraiths, gods, evil and love, and oh man. Also! This is one of those times where a sex scene in the middle of a chase, makes all the sense in the world. It’s not just, seize the day! for we may die in the next few minutes; it’s also that at this point the foreplay has lasted years.

Once again, I’m left wanting more, and sad that the next book’s release was pushed from January to June (while grateful it’s coming, let us be clear) 4.

A Touch of Stone and Snow gets 9.00 out of 10

* * * *

1 Milla Vane is Meljean Brook

2 He also loves Caeb, a snow sabertooth cat, but you know, as great a character as Caeb is, he’s not people.

3 Everywhere I’ve looked, the A Gathering of Dragons books are referred to as a trilogy, but I hold out hope there will be more than three, even if the Destroyer plotline is fully solved in the third one.

4 Welp, I haz a sad! The release was pushed back, again; this time, for distribution chain reasons. Amazon says it’ll be out in May 2023. Still grateful it’s coming out, but. Damn, damn, damn. UPDATE: and now it’s been pushed back again, to late November 2023.

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