by Grace Draven
Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital–her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion–and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. And unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will risk everything to return to the Empire–and burn once more.
I was expecting to love this book; I saw so many rave reviews and I really enjoyed the last novel I read by Grace Draven earlier this year, so I was convinced I’d found a new go-to author when I’m in the mood for romantasy.
Draven could still very well be a go-to author, I’m still interested in checking out her other work, but my major problem with this novel can be summed up in one word: consent.
In this rather dark fantasy world, the Empire rules with an iron fist. Every year they take a woman from each of the surrounding villages, give her to the gladiators for the night and then burn her at the stake as a tribute to the gods. Gilene is one such woman, but Gilene also has fire magic that helps her to survive, meaning her village sacrifice her year after year to save the rest of the women in the village.
Azarion is one of the gladiators who, for some reason, can see through the illusions that Gilene weaves around herself and realises that Gilene is the same woman year after year. One year he decides to use this to his advantage and uses her to help him escape from slavery so he can return home and reclaim his birthright from the very cousin who sold him into slavery in the first place.
Rather than let Gilene go on her merry way, however, after he’s already threatened to tell the Empire what her village has been doing, Azarion then snatches her away from her family when she needs time to heal and takes her with him so he can use her to help reclaim his birthright.
Just writing that brief synopsis is already making me angry.
I tried – I really did try! – to see things from Azarion’s point of view. He was sold into slavery by a member of his own family and forced to endure all kinds of horrors, including mental, physical and sexual assault. You’d think going through something like that might make him more sympathetic to Gilene, who also endures sexual assault once a year and then literally burns alive to save the other women in her village, but it doesn’t.
Azarion is the worst. He spends a hell of a lot of time trying to convince the reader that he’s not a bad guy. He’d never sexually assault Gilene, he’s a good guy! But it’s perfectly okay to abduct her and blackmail her when she’s in the middle of trying to heal after already saving his ass. In fact throughout this book it felt like Gilene was always the one having to make an effort to improve their relationship; at one point he notices she’s smiling around him and, when he asks why, she reveals it’s because when he spoke to her it was the first time he did so without blackmailing or ordering her.
Honey, no. He doesn’t deserve praise because he remembered to treat you like a person.
I get what Draven was going for in terms of how the Empire turns good people into monsters, and at one point Azarion does apologise (way too late in my opinion) for being a complete bellend, but no one else seemed to sympathise with Gilene either. We meet Azarion’s mother and sister who eventually learn the truth about Azarion kidnapping and blackmailing Gilene, but at no point do either of them call him out on how that was a really shitty thing to do. If I had a son who brought a woman home and I later found out she was there because of abduction and blackmail, I think I’d want to have a good, long talk with my son!
In fact Gilene’s treated quite coldly by a lot of Azarion’s people because she’s an outsider, and Azarion just sits back and lets her be treated like that rather than standing up for her because it’s literally his fault that she’s there.
I understand that this is a dark world and some relationships even in our world are built on rather shaky foundations, but the reason this annoyed me so much was because it so easily could have been done with consent. Azarion not only wants to reclaim his birthright because it’s his and he wants to go home, but also because he genuinely thinks doing so will give him a good chance at taking down the Empire. I don’t understand why he didn’t explain all of this to Gilene in the first place and enlist her help willingly, rather than just kidnapping her and making her feel like shit.
It’s 2019. I don’t have time for romances that aren’t built on mutual consent.
Outside of all that, I also felt like the journey to Azarion’s home dragged and, having read this and Entreat Me, I don’t think Draven writes particularly strong villains. I never quite understood how the Emperor and Empress were in power. In all honesty I would have been fine with this (after all, I can’t say I read Romance for the villains) if it weren’t for the fact that this read more like a fantasy novel with a dash of romance rather than a Romance novel with a dash of fantasy which was what I was expecting. If I’m reading a fantasy novel, I want a villain I can believe.
I wasn’t keen on how underdeveloped Gilene’s family and village were either. I felt as though they were all written as villains just so it would seem okay for Gilene to want to stay with her abductor, and I would have found it much more interesting for Gilene to be torn between Azarion and her family because she loves her family, not because she feels obliged to stay with them. In fact her obligation made no sense – if my entire village treated me like garbage, I sure as hell wouldn’t burn alive for them once a year.
There were still parts of the novel I enjoyed, though, and Draven is still a writer I’m keen to read more from. In all honesty, I mainly read this one so I’d have all the background information ahead of the second book in this series, Dragon Unleashed, which sounds much more up my street than this novel. Earth magic and dragons? Yes please!