I wanted to read this book because it has a gorgeous cover, and because it’s billed as a romantic fantasy. I didn’t realize that it’s the third of a trilogy. When Desperate Alliances opens, the uninitiated reader must deal not only with an unfamiliar universe, but a well-established love-triangle.
Imoshen is the last surviving member of the royal house of Fair Isle. Even though the island was conquered by outside forces two years ago, the people look to her for leadership. She is also a sorceress, a throwback to her people’s powerful ancestors, the T’En.
Fair Isle’s conqueror is a warrior named Tulkhan. Earlier in the series, in a desperate bid to get him to be merciful to her people, Imoshen became his consort and bore him a child. Tulkhan is a chauvinist pig, and has committed acts that, in our world, would get him hauled before the War Crimes Tribunal. I believe he is responsible for the slaughter of Imoshen’s entire family. Imoshen loves him.
Reothe is Imoshen’s ex-fiancé and a T’En sorcerer like herself. He is the leader of the rebels who want to overthrow Tulkhan, and he (not unreasonably) regards Imoshen as a traitor to Fair Isle. Earlier in the series, he magically disguised himself as Tulkhan and came to her bed, which in my opinion is an act of rape. Imoshen is now pregnant with his child. Imoshen just can’t kill Reothe, so she cripples him with her magic, and now he is a mere shell of his former self. She dares not heal him because he might kill her, Tulkhan, and/or her baby, and take over as Emperor of Fair Isle. Imoshen loves him, too.
Though Imoshen adores Tulkhan, he denies her the intimacy that she craves. He’ll have sex with her, but he won’t do this mind-meld thing that she wants, because he’s afraid she’ll take over his mind and use him like a puppet. (Their relationship is a beautiful thing, I tell you.) Longing for the mind-meld, she naturally turns to Reothe, who would be happy to meld anything she likes. But she would have to heal him to do that, and she doesn’t trust him.
Early in the book, Tulkhan leaves Fair Isle to make war on his brother, I’m not sure why. Many, many pages are entirely devoted to the progress of this war, which, if you are not familiar with the series, you should find as boring as I did. The point is that he’s away while Imoshen is back home with Reothe. Reothe drugs Imoshen, tricks her, manipulates her, threatens her, and (worst of all) repeatedly whines about how cruel she is. Imoshen’s response to this is to gaze at him like a dog under the dinner table, and to let him take care of her baby son.
If all this sounds interesting to you, I strongly recommend you start with the first book, as this installment does not stand on its own well at all. The love triangle takes place against a backdrop of political intrigue that is bewildering. I skimmed whole chapters of stuff that didn’t make sense to me. Imoshen must handle the Seculate, the Tractarians, Vaygharians, the Amiregent of the Amirate, the Low-Landers, the Beatific, and the Cadre. What and who these things are I have only the vaguest idea.
Then there’s the “romance.” Here are some direct quotes, describing the way Imoshen feels about Reothe: “To deny him was to deny an intrinsic part of herself.” “She wanted to lie naked in the moonlight with him.” “Treacherously, she longed for his touch.” Romantic, right? It might be, if Reothe was the hero of this novel. He’s not. She’s married to the other guy.
The other guy is no prize either. Tulkhan has slaughtered hundreds of civilian women and children in the course of his soldiering. Early in the novel he threatens to stab a four-year-old boy with his sword in order to exact the obedience of the child’s father. He also fully intends to secretly murder the child Imoshen is now carrying, since she refuses to abort it in spite of his demands. Nice!
So what do we have here? An exciting adventure? Not particularly.
An interesting fantasy? The magic seems to have no rules to it beyond what the plot demands at the time. It is also pretty nasty. For instance, Imoshen can replenish her powers by psychically eavesdropping on acts of violence. There’s one scene in which Imoshen, injured and depleted, “tunes in” to a servant being raped by, and then killing, a soldier. Imoshen drinks the energy of this horrible encounter in order to heal herself. I found that revolting.
A passionate love story? Nope – there can be no romance where there are no sympathetic characters. Both male protagonists are hateful, and Imoshen’s unending vacillation between them made my head ache. The resolution to the triangle seemed contrary to all the protagonists’ personalities, not to mention messing with one of romance’s most sacred conventions – the happily-ever-after ending. I read the last several pages twice, because I couldn’t believe it was saying what I thought it was saying. Romance lovers will likely be very displeased with the way this thing winds up.
Is it entertaining on any level? No.
There aren’t really all that many books that do a great job of melding romance and fantasy. Almost all of them do it better than this one. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful cover: Desperate Alliances is not a romantic fantasy. It’s an infuriating jumble of bad characterization that feels four hundred pages longer than it really is. I’m going to go read something good now, to get Desperate Alliances out of my mind.