This is a hard book to rate and review. While it grew on me from my initial impressions (which almost resulted in a DNF), it has some deep flaws that stopped me from really connecting with the story, characters, and romance.
I liked the premise; that’s what got me to pre-order the book in the first place. The idea of a forced marriage that becomes loving is an interesting one, but one that has to be pulled off carefully. I’ve never read an F/F book about such an arrangement, and was hopeful for this one. I also love F/F fantasy novels and can’t seem to find enough of them!
Sadly, it fell a bit flat for me. I struggled to like Emmaline at the outset, but at least understood the difficulty of her situation as she was ferried away as a gift against her will, and why she tried to do her best to curry favor to obtain a better life. When she was taken away to become Rowena’s bride, I had a fear that nobody in this book was going to charm me, but Rowena at least seemed nice enough and I hoped the romance aspect of this book would flourish thereafter.
The problem was, I didn’t really feel it. Part of this was the writing itself: it seemed to keep me at a distance, instead of drawing me into the world and characters. Some awkward phrasing and typos didn’t help with this. The second was the frantic pace: while I like a book to keep things moving and not bore me, I felt like important events that could have drawn me better into the characters’ lives were skimmed over in a few sentences. The romance itself lacked passion and drive: the two leads seemed like good enough friends and parents, but I never got the sense that they were ever really “in love”, even at the end. The plot also lacked nuance: the ruling House Sterling are evil slavemasters, rapists and all-around horrible human beings, and Emmeline’s reaction and eventual response to this makes her seem little better than they are (but it was all okay because they deserved it).
I understood what the author was trying to do: write a story about a woman in a world where the odds are stacked against her and where she makes the best out of her situation.There are times when Emmeline is very resourceful and cunning in order to protect her family, and these were the best moments in the book. However, I felt the overbearing cruelty of the villains undermined the author’s point instead of underscoring it. The lack of subtlety employed by both the Sterlings and Emmeline make for a story where the characters never seem all that true to life. The most human moments in this story are delivered by Rowena and the other side characters with their day-to-day interactions, and by Emmeline’s clear love of horses, which shines through.
This book really was a mixed bag, but did slowly grow on me as I got further into it. I would say that, contrary to my usual opinion, I would have liked to have seen a little more time spent on developing the romance.