Guest Review: A Heart of Blood and Ashes by Milla Vane

Today’s guest review comes from Crystal Anne With An E, who has written a few guest posts before!

Crystal Anne With An E is an autism consultant by day, goes to library school by night. She reads a lot, cross-stitches with a vengeance, and is a Hufflepuff, because honey badgers don’t give a shit.

CW/TW: All of them. Child abuse, spousal abuse, animal death, discussion of rape, patriarchy being assholes, gaslighting, possible/likely miscarriage

So this book caught me when I was teetering precariously on the edge of a reading slump. I had had some books that, while good, were leaving me feeling…wanting. I’ve been very lucky during the Very Weird Time in that I am still able to read; I know many are having difficulty with everyday activities, and realize that I am highly fortunate. That said, there was some DNFing, and some other feelings of just going…

As I was hopping around social media, I saw an author I follow talking about the sequel to this book, A Touch of Stone and Snow, due out in July. She was pretty much raving about it, and I liked what I was hearing. I had also been craving something along the lines of the The Blacksmith Queen, which is a surprisingly difficult spot to hit.

This was what I saw when I read the dedication. You know what? I didn’t know I needed a Beastmaster reference in my life, but there we were, and my interest was officially caught.

The book is dedicated to Marc Singer's loincloth

We start with Maddek, our hero. He’s the presumptive king of Parsathe, a semi-nomadic group of barbarians. As we open the book, Maddek receives the news that his parents, the king and queen, have been killed. The circumstances scream foul play, but it’s going to be very hard to prove, and just going in and killing those responsible (his first instinct) will upend an already fragile alliance that the kingdoms have formed against an enemy known as The Destroyer. They’ve already fought him once, and barely escaped intact, and while he’s currently raising hell overseas, rumors have him coming back in the near future to finish what he started.

So, still grinding his teeth and vowing all of the payback, Maddek sets off to the vote that will officially name him “Ran” (king) of the Parsatheans. They have a semi-democratic setup, in that yes, while he is first in line, he still has to make a case for becoming their leader, and if the case he makes sucks, other candidates can be put forward. On the way to the vote, Maddek and his group are contacted by the handmaiden of Yvenne, the daughter of the man that had his parents murdered, and she is requesting that they meet, as she proposes marriage. Maddek sets off at once, murder on his mind.

However, Yvenne? Woman, let me love you.

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Yvenne’s been kept imprisoned and brutalized by her father and brothers for years. You see, her kingdom is in actuality a queendom, she’s the heir, and they’re trying to keep her from being able to take power. Most of the kingdom doesn’t even know she exists. So the first thing she does when she gets the chance? Kills one of the brothers who was abusing her. That’s our introduction.

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Maddek’s first instinct is to kill Yvenne, but she convinces him that instead, they can join forces, get her knocked up, get hitched, and take her mothertruckin’ crown and kingdom back from her dad. Oh, and kill her dad and brothers, natch.

Yvenne is small and physically weak. Her isolation and abuse have resulted in physical consequences, and initially, Maddek and his companions (an elite guard known as his “Dragon”) laugh derisively about her physical condition and how it affects her ability to be a queen. Yvenne brooks no nonsense, and lets no one shame her.

“My father imprisoned me in a tower chamber from the day of my birth. There was not much opportunity for riding.”

Uneasy laughter fell to shamed silence.

Because she is aware of her physical limitations, she has made it a point to become the smartest person in any room. She is sneaky, but she is also compassionate and curious, and interested in the lives of those around her. She later informs Maddek that she had other options when it came to choosing a union, and she chose him not only because she judged him most able to hold his own from a combat standpoint, but because strategically, he was best positioned to be able to help her take her vengeance and take her throne. She also tells him that he’s not yet a king, which throws him for a loop, because she’s absolutely correct.

She did not have that strength. Only courage and wits and rage.

Maddek, at the beginning, is only in this to take his own revenge for what was done to his parents. He is suspicious of Yvenne, and absolutely believes that she could have played a part in their murders and is capable of treachery (he’s not wrong on that last one, and she’s fairly upfront about it). Frankly, he’s often a jackass, and cruel at times. He forbids her from speaking of his mother, and ends up missing out on vital information as a result. He assumes the worst of Yvenne at several points. His tendencies to be rash and assume the worst of others cause him to miss information that would make him a more effective ruler and able to better plan his actions. He commits at least two violent acts toward Yvenne, which I could see as being deal-breakers for some (heed the content and trigger warnings, I like people to be safe).

The fact that this couple had the beginning they did, and still worked out a believable and in some areas sweet love story is impressive. This couple worked because they had a common goal, but neither one was going to accomplish it alone. Their skill sets were highly complementary. In addition, they are able to learn from one another, and become better people as a result. Maddek helps Yvenne discover and develop her physical abilities, giving her the power to defend herself or escape to safety. Yvenne helps Maddek learn how to read other people and listen to the experiences and viewpoints of others so that they can be taken into account when he makes decisions. Trust has to be built both on both sides, and interestingly, it’s Maddek who screws that up on more than one occasion. Yvenne refuses to take anything less than what is due to her, and calls him on his actions every time he messes up, and he has to earn his way back into her good graces.

Honestly, Yvenne has the narrative arc that I would have really liked Daenerys Targaryen to have had. You know, one that didn’t depend on an 8th hour narratively-unearned heel turn (no, I’m never getting over it, why do you ask)? Yvenne deliberately learns all that she can about the people around her, and about the people that she would be responsible for. She wants to understand their needs, their wants, what causes them happiness, and what causes them pain. She considers the main role of a ruler to be that of a protector, and that is what she wants to be able to do, especially since she is very aware of the oncoming threat posed by the Destroyer. In addition, her awareness of her physical limitations means that her mind is her best weapon, and she displays a natural talent for strategy and statecraft. She doesn’t mind being underestimated if it means that she gets to off her enemies, and she’s happy to commit a righteously deserved murder when the opportunity arises.

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There’s a lot to enjoy in the world surrounding Yvenne and Maddek. We’ve got dinosaur monsters, zombies, zombie dinosaur monsters, evil sorcerers, giant bugs, zombie demons, you name it. This club has everything. Things can get a little gross (barbecued millipede, anyone?), but hey, I asked for fantasy and action.

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I also liked that power in this world was held by both male and female rulers, with examples of both strong and poor leadership among them. Yvenne’s royal line is matrilineal, and in one of the other kingdoms, it is a queen that rules, if not particularly wisely or well, as Yvenne uses her as an example of what not to do. We also see that much of the abuse endured by both Yvenne and her mother is designed to keep them from being able to fight back, both physically and emotionally. The actions of Yvenne’s male relatives are not because they think a woman cannot rule; they know they can. They just want the power for themselves. Women are shown to be just as physically capable as men, with women in Maddek’s Dragon, and the information we get about his mother indicates that she was also very physically formidable.

There are some very hard to read scenes in which her father, in particular, gets the better of her by engaging in some grade-A gaslighting, sparking Yvenne’s temper and playing on his past abuses. In addition, while rape is considered a capital offense in this society, and will get you very dead, it is wielded as a weapon and a threat by some of the villains. Again, consider the trigger warnings, and please stay safe.

Interestingly, the scenes like the one with Yvenne’s father are where we get to see Maddek’s growth, as by this time, the two have developed some trust, and he doesn’t even pretend to buy what Daddy Dearest is selling. Yvenne and Maddek are becoming the partners that they need to be, one supporting the other, helping them bear the burden. Another example of their partnership: they learn to team up for bow and arrow work. Maddek has the strength to pull the bowstring and cause the arrow to travel fast. Yvenne has the aim and eyesight to land that sucker in a soft spot.

I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. If you’ve been in a female rage kind of mood, really want to see some bad guys get what’s coming to them, and can deal with a hero who has strong asshole tendencies, but will grow and get better and develop into a worthy partner, this is a good one for you. Also, if you feel yourself getting ready to launch into a rant about how Daenerys deserved to have her storyline be at least narratively earned and Sansa deserved that ugly sword chair anyway when you think about Game of Thrones, this will make you feel a bit better. All in all? Nice solid B, with Yvenne being an A for badass.

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