REVIEW: A Heart of Blood and Ashes by Milla Vane

Torso and upper legs of a muscular white bare-chested barbarian wearing leather and furs against a black backgroundWhy I read it:  My friend Brie recommended it to me.

CW: Extreme violence and gore, rape, torture, abuse (mostly – but not all – off page).

What it’s about: (from Goodreads) 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…

What worked for me (and what didn’t): When I think of words to describe my reading experience, ones like “epic”, “sweeping”  and “magnificent” come to mind. In ‘old skool’ romance this often means that the main characters spend a lot of time apart however and that’s so not my jam. A Heart of Blood and Ashes has the advantage of being epic and sweeping but Maddek and Yvenne are together for most of the book so it is way better than my experience of most old skool sagas.

I’m usually a hero-centric reader and I did like Maddek very much – but the most amazing awesome and fierce character in the book is Yvenne. She is frail and fragile, injured and weak but she is also the strongest and the bravest of all the cast. And, given the strength and bravery of the Parsatheans and many others, that’s really saying something. I loved the way the book explores all the different kinds of strength and resilience. I loved how she taught Maddek to be a king and not just a warrior and I loved how he came to value her wisdom and all the wonderful things about her.

When the book begins Maddek believes, not without good cause, Yvenne is complicit in the murder and torture of his parents and so it is not a wonder he is not particularly interested in being kind to her. Yvenne, alone amongst people inclined to hate her, fleeing from family who do hate her and want to harm and use her for their own evil ends, has to navigate a treacherous path to her throne and to happiness.

On my reader, the book was over 400 pages long (though Kobo tells me the page count is 624) – a doorstopper when compared to most genre romance books but it uses each and every page to build the world, the characters and the tension and romance. In this hell year of 2020 I’ve been struggling to read new-to-me books and have only rarely been completely caught up in one. I stayed up way too late reading four nights in a row to finish this book, sacrificing sleep to stay in the universe of the book and find out what would be next for Maddek and Yvenne and their companions. (In my defence it only took four nights because some of those nights I could not start reading until after 10pm). There have been books I’ve stayed up for this year but this one is the first that I’ve stayed up four nights running to finish.

I enjoyed the rich worldbuilding which included descriptions which were just detailed enough to provide colour and information without ever being boring info-dumps or descending into tedious minutiae and I liked the way the different peoples of the world were described along with their legend, history, religion, politics and mythology. I liked that the Parsatheans had a healthy and inclusive attitude towards sex (though I will note that for those who do not like the c-word this is probably  not the book for them – it is the word most often used to describe ladyparts). I liked that the Parsatheans, barbarians that they were, had a complete abhorrence for rape and that, perhaps barring an initial somewhat ambiguous sexual encounter between Maddek and Yvenne (it was – mostly – consensual but not exactly sexy) there was never any question of Maddek forcing Yvenne.

I liked the word pictures and the way that the book showed, over and again, that together, Maddek and Yvenne were greater than the sum of their parts, perhaps best illustrated here:

I am Nyset’s heir. The goddess Vela looks through my eyes. She will guide my aim. But I need your strength.”

His head snapped down, his dark gaze searching hers. Only a breath passed before he was suddenly behind her, all around her. His left hand gripped the bow beneath her grip, his fingers closed over her fingers, and it was as if his hands were hers when they pulled the bowstring together.

What else? I had the advantage of knowing before I opened up to the first page that there would be a few confronting scenes in this book and, my friend had explained in advance a scene that happens about a third of the way into the book where Maddek violently threatens Yvenne. For some readers it will be too much. For me, it skirted right up to the line but did not cross it and the context worked well enough for me to forgive the lapse. Also, Maddek himself is extremely remorseful afterwards even before he understands the full truth so that helped too. As to the other violence, it is mostly done in context of battle or by the villains (the rape and torture in particular, the former of which happens off page and is not detailed, thankfully) and, given that this is a barbarian romance, I was able to go with it. However, readers do need to note that the book is extremely violent. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

There were a couple of things I had some misgivings about. I thought the truth of Yvenne’s relationship with Maddek’s mother took a little too long to be revealed to him – mostly because he stubbornly refused her permission to speak. That said, he did have his reasons and even when he began to believe her, the explanation given about why he needed her to hold off a bit worked for me. Still, the conceit of it lasted just a little too long for me and edged over from tension into frustration for me. Also, the full story wasn’t quite revealed – or rather, it was done in snippets and I was kind of hoping for a scene where Yvenne got to tell the whole of her story. But those were little things. The bigger issue was with the Farians. They did not play a huge part in the story but I was uncomfortable with their depiction. They are a humanlike people but more akin to apes, referenced as savages who eat their own children and anyone else they come across and who like to rape. I’m not sure what value this really added to the story and I had some discomfort about their depiction. I can’t put it any higher than that. They weren’t clearly of an ethnicity that is recognisable in the real world or anything. Maybe I’m being oversensitive but I mention it because it didn’t sit quite right with me.

A Heart of Blood and Ashes is not like our own something about it fit the zeitgeist and this line seemed particularly apt:

“…but sometimes the only justice is burning rule and law to the ground.”

Grade: A-

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