Review of Magic’s Muse (Hidden Places #2) by Anne Barwell

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Rating: 4.5 points

Tomas Kemp and Cathal Emerys have finally returned to Tomas’ home after escaping from Naearu, Cathal’s world in an alternative universe.  And while the men hope they are finally safe from Cathal’s cousin, Lady Deryn and the laws governing his world, neither man really believes it.  The cost of their escape is high.  Christian, another of Cathal’s cousins, has lost almost everything he loved and is confined to the shape of a cat for as long as the magic of his punishment holds.  Cathal is also confined within the boundaries of the inn where they now reside, chained by magic to the oak tree that is the portal between the worlds.

Cathal’s nightmares are increasing now that he and Tomas have consummated their relationship and Tomas seems to be acquiring some magic of his own in the interim.  Naearu’s enforcers, The Falcons, are still capable of coming after them, and nightly Lady Deryn whispers threats in Cathal’s mind, promising to kill Tomas if Cathal doesn’t return to their world and marry her. Cathal and Tomas are struggling with their relationship, Cathal is still keeping secrets from Tomas and Tomas is still trying to overcome his self centered impulses and isolated ways to find a way to have an equal relationship with Cathal.  Only when the portal is closed, can both men feel safe to plan for their future.

Magic’s Muse is the second in the Hidden Places series but the first that I have read by Anne Barwell.  The first book, Cat’s Quill, centers around Tomas’s meeting Cathal and their time in Naearu.  It sets out Anne Barwell’s world and myth building that is so important to the events that occur here and introduces us to characters in the continuing storyline of  the Hidden Places.  That said, I am not sure I wish to  go back and read what must be a very bittersweet story.  If I do, it will be because Anne Barwell has such a beautiful way with the English language.  Her sentences flow with a magic all of their own, transporting us easily to places we have never been to meet people not of this world.  Her narrative is rich in its descriptions and the tumultuous emotions of all the characters involved.  From the lyrical passages of the countryside with its fields and  magical oak tree to the  dust motes in the attic of the inn that has been the focal point of time travel, it makes us feel that we are there, listening to the floor boards creak and the branches sigh with the wind.

Her characters are as rich and complex as the story she is telling.  Tomas Kemp is a author of popular books and initially a tough character to invest your affections in.  He comes across as extremely self centered, oblivious sometimes to the feelings of those closest to him. Tomas’ attention is all about his writing, he is consumed with his stories, one of which will bring him into contact with Lord Cathal Emerys of Naearu. We can recognize Tomas as one whose social skills are sadly lacking and whose focus is always somewhere else, even when someone is talking to him. Indeed while Tomas can come off as quite dour, Cathal shimmers with magic and vulnerability.  Cathal easily endears himself to the reader, for Tomas it takes a little longer.  Cathal misses his family even as he recognizes that Tomas’ world is the only place they will be safe and have a future. Cathal is filled with guilt over his role in Christian’s punishment and struggling to find a balance in his relationship with Tomas.  So much is going on in Cathal’s head and heart that sometimes he is feel estranged from the every day moments in the inn. Barwell imbues all of her characters with so much heart, soul, and intelligence that everyone breathes and bleeds across the pages.

And bleed these characters do.  Whether is it actual blood, or their emotions bleeding out of them, there is so much sadness and loss within these story that your heart hurts from reading it.  Christian is an especially tragic figure.  Condemned to being a cat, he was torn away form his wife and  newborn son.  His beloved wife continued to wait for him to return up to her last breath as what is months in one world is years in Tomas’.  And now his son is dying in a nursing home and his grandson needs him badly.  Christian’s wife’s sketches and paintings pop up throughout the story bringing with them the bittersweet memories of their all too short time together.  He too awaits the closing of the portal, the only thing that will restore his human form.  No character is left untouched by regret or sorrow.  Looming over all the events occurring is the threat that the Falcons can reappear to pull one or all of them back to Naearu for judgment and jail.  Over and over we are told their reappearance is eminent and the foreboding builds incrementally. And that brings me to my only quibble with this tale.

We are left with quite a few dangling ends of the saga, so many that I assume that another book will follow this one.  A child is still missing, two characters have just paired up and all agree that Lady Deryn will never give up on her goal of marriage to Cathal and her need to destroy Tomas. With all that hanging over our couple and their friends at the end, I would classify this as a happy for now, not the happy ever after others see it as.  Perhaps I am wrong, but I think not.  That would let Cathal and Tomas off too easily, something I would not expect of Barwell and her saga building. With descriptive passages and a richly enthralling narrative Barwell conjures up a tale of two worlds and a rising rebellion that will effect both.  This story can only be part of a much larger plan.  I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Cover by Anne Cain is one of my absolute favorites.  As rich in detail and evocative in feeling as the book itself, it is one of my best of the year.

Hidden Places series in the order they should be read:

Cat’s Quill (Hidden Places#1) 350 pages

Magic’s Muse (Hidden Places #2)  294 pages

Review of the Mending the Rift Series by Valentina Heart (King’s Conquest and Owner of My Heart)

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Rating: 4 stars for each book

The Kingdoms of Kari and Jede have been at war for ages. When the death of Kari’s King brings about an opportunity to mend the rift between the nations, both countries jump at the chance to end the war and bring their Kingdoms casualties to a halt.  Prince Rinnen is the only son of Kari’s late King and a male capable of bearing children.  King Merinej of Jede needs an heir to carry on his lineage.  An heir with the combined bloodlines of both countries would heal the wounds left behind by the war and bring both peoples together or so the thinking goes.  But Prince Rin won’t settle for being just another “uralain” or concubine of the King’s.  Rin wants a contract stating they will be married and the King will pledge his fidelity to Rin alone or Rin will call the whole thing off no matter the price his people will pay.  Rin wants to be safe and have his place assured by the  side of Jede’s King. When King Merinej agrees to  Prince Rin’s terms, the marriage is on.

Surprises lie in wait for both men after the ceremony is finished.  Rin is far from the calculating prince Merin expects. Rin is an innocent, kept locked away in his father’s castle, ignorant of politics,  customs and sexual practices of any kind, a blushing virgin that captivates Merin with his beauty and innocence immediately.  Rin is also surprised to find that instead of a hardened warrior who treats him harshly, Merin is tender, considerate of the unschooled, virginal Prince and gently passionate in their lovemaking.  But the harsh necessities of their marriage means that Rin has to become pregnant as soon as possible and a child could mean Rin’s death in childbirth.  And not everyone is happy that their King has married one of their enemy.  An assassin lurks in the hallways of the palace, waiting for their chance to kill the Prince, even if it means the Kingdoms will be at war once more.

Valentina Heart has all the beginnings of a very interesting series here, complete with vivid characters, magic, male pregnancy and constant territorial conflict as well as assassins that constitutes a constant threat to our main characters and their children.  Each nation has a certain physical type to them.  Kari’s people of pure lines have black hair, silver eyes that proclaim their nobility, and small, lean physiques.  Jede’s warrior race is comprised of beings of large statue, huge frames of muscle, with blue hair tightly knotted and braided according to custom, brown eyes and facial markings whose patterns differ with each person.  Both nations have intermarried and half breeds are common. Each race uses magic to communicate and heal.  With relatively few facts, Heart gives us some wonderful world building.  Also interesting is the male pregnancy aspect of the stories.  In this universe, children are becoming rare as the ruling class refuses to risk itself in childbirth.  Even in the lower classes, the birth rates are falling.  Some males of Kari are able to give birth to one or more children but only at great personal risk.  Magic must be used to assist in the birth and magic must also be used to keep the “birther” or the being carrying the children from bleeding out.  This becomes problematic when only the father and birther are allowed to touch the children and each other, their magic spread so thinly between all the parties that either the children or the birther is lost.  Heart  has really worked out some unique twists to the male pregnancy subject here that really kept me engaged in that part of the storyline.  Males do not carry children like a female would.  Instead they have 3 scars on their side that accept sperm much like an incubating pouch, a neat idea that has its basis in nature here.

Another great idea is that each book is told from the POV of one of the main characters.  This brings us in close to each person and we able to feel each characters emotions and thoughts as they occur.  However, both books suffer from a “evil voice” that threatens to kill Rin and then Merin in each book.  It pops up between chapters to let us know that an assassin is on the loose who threatens the safety of our beloved Rin.  To me, this narrative took away from the main story and quite frankly seemed a little hokey.  I could have done without this device as there are other ways to let the viewer know that someone is trying to kill one or both of the main characters.

King’s Conquest (Mending the Rift #1) is told from Rin’s POV, starting with his father’s death and the Council’s proposal that he wed King Merinej.  He grabs our sympathy immediately.  We learn first hand of  his innocence that is combined with a practical, pragmatic nature which makes sense when we learn of his isolated childhood.  It is almost a necessity that we see King Merin from Rin’s viewpoint.  With his eyes, we see what the various Jede look like, including their facial patterns.  We learn about Jede customs and practices as Rin does, sometimes to his horror as the Jede don’t have problems with nudity and sexuality that the Kari have.  The relationship between Rin and Merin is handled beautifully as two strangers try to find a common ground on which to build a marriage.  All told, Heart did a great job with a story that is only 96 pages in length.

Owner of My Heart (Mending the Rift #2) is told from Merin’s POV and picks up almost immediately after the first book has ended, with Rin pregnant with their children.  This is a far more difficult book emotionally as it starts off immediately with an attack on Rin and the death of the children he was carrying.  This is not a spoiler as it is mentioned in the blurb for the book.  Even while I was expecting it, the descriptions are still heartrending as both Rin and Merin feel their children die under their hands and they are unable to save them.  Indeed, Rin almost dies himself in the process.  In the aftermath of their loss, Rin withdraws from Merin in his pain even as they must press forward to have heirs, something Merin is loathe to do as he has come to love Rin.  Heart handles this with delicacy even as our hearts break along with the couples.  Well done in every way although some will find this almost too vivid in the descriptions of what the couple and the children go through before all is lost.

In this book, there is some stilted dialog as Merin talks about “the males, the females” in a manner that did not occur in the first book and that threw me off somewhat. But outside of that example, each character has a clear and distinct voice that I appreciated.  The use of magic within the Kingdoms brings me to another quibble.  Both races use magic to communicate with, it is employed during battle and to heal.  So why not use it to determine who is trying to kill the Prince? That did not make any sense to me.  I would think that magic users would have across the board applications for it, but here its use is hit or miss, with little consistency.  A more even handed treatment as far as the use of magic would have satisfied my need for a logical implementation of magic throughout their society. Perhaps an explanation is coming in future books.  Owner of My Heart sees a growth in the relationship between Rin and Merin you would expect after some time and shared traumatic experiences would bring. And we are left at the end of 133 pages with a HFN instead of the typical HEA, a far more realistic way to leave this couple.

I am looking forward to the next in the series and hope that Heart continues with the alternating points of view.  Read these books in the order they were written.  I started with the second book to my utmost confusion and the series only made sense once I started over with King’s Conquest where most of the backstory resides.  There are many elements here that will scare people off.  Male pregnancy for one, the  death of unborn babies for another.  Both are handled here with care and a certain inventiveness.  Don’t let either put you off this series.  I can’t wait to see where the next one takes us.

Cover art by Reese Dante.  I think both covers are missed opportunities.  The vivid descriptions of the facial markings combined with blue hair and intricate braiding patterns would have been far more interesting than the torsos featured, however lovely they are (and yes, I did notice that one has the three scars for Ren).