A Brother's Price
A Brother’s Price takes place in a world where men are born far less frequently than women. With males at a premium, one husband serves many wives, and a family’s fortunes can depend on making the most beneficial match for their sons. With this premise, Wen Spencer offers a reversal of traditional gender roles that’s most intriguing. More importantly, she creates a believable alternate world and a strong story, resulting in an entertaining read.
Jerin Whistler is the oldest son in his family. With his sixteenth birthday approaching, he will soon be married off, hopefully not to the horrible Brindles who live nearby. In the meantime, he’s in charge of the Whistler household, fixing the meals and tending to the younger children, his father having died a short time ago.
One day while his mothers and older sisters are away, a solider is attacked in the nearby woods. Jerin brings the injured woman into the Whistler homestead and nurses her back to health. When a group of soldiers arrive to rescue their fallen comrade, he learns that the soldier is none other than Princess Odelia, the Queen’s third eldest daughter.
The news is related by Odelia’s sister, Princess Rennsellaer, the current Eldest daughter. Ren had the role of the eldest princess forced upon her following the murders of her older sisters and their husband in an explosion set by assassins. She still isn’t entirely comfortable with the responsibilities her newfound position, one of which is finding a new husband for her and her younger sisters to continue the royal line. When she meets Jerin, she is immediately attracted to the handsome young man with the shy, retreating way, as is Odelia.
Even after they leave the Whistler farm, Ren can’t stop thinking about him. Of course, she knows he could never be a royal groom, coming from such humble stock. The Whistler women are renowned as soldiers, but they’re far from royalty. Then she hears a rumor that there may be an unknown connection between the Whistlers and the royal family, one which would make Jerin suitable for marriage. While she pursues the possibility of marrying him, she invites his eldest sister to bring him to the capital for the coming out season where he can be presented to noble families, all the while intending for him to be her own husband. Naturally, his sisters jump at the chance to possibly arrange such a good match for him. But bringing Jerin into Ren’s world soon exposes him to the dangers her family still faces.
This isn’t technically a romance novel, but it feels quite a bit like one, albeit one with one heroine and a half dozen heroes (or vice versa). Historical romance readers in particular may find this story an interesting reversal of the form. Jerin is sensitive yet plucky, resourceful when needed, but also prone to tears when things are looking particularly dire. Ren and her four main sisters each represent familiar hero archetypes: the reluctant hero, the charmer, the wounded one leery of marriage, etc. Jerin is ultimately the one playing the damsel in distress, while the princesses must come to his rescue (which is why the cover illustration, though representative of an early scene in the book, doesn’t really fit the spirit of the story). As a love story, it’s often surprisingly romantic, with some touching moments as Jerin gets to know each of his wives in turn.
This is the kind of story that, in lesser hands, could come across like too much of a male fantasy, with one man having several wives. But Spencer creates a world so convincing that the premise never seems exploitative or titillating, especially since the role of men here isn’t much different from the subservient role of women in centuries past. Much of this has to do with how convincing the characters themselves are. What I particularly liked is the way the male and female characters embody traits that stereotypically belong to the other gender, while remaining believable as their own. That’s probably less of a stretch for the female characters; there are so many strong, kickass heroines in fiction these days that it’s not hard buying into this kind of matriarchal society dominated by tough women. More interesting is the way the male characters are stereotypically feminine, while still being somehow believable as men. It’s a tricky balance that Spencer pulls off nicely.
It took me a while to get into this book. I kept picking it up and putting it down for the longest time before it finally clicked, after which I read the rest straight through. I think it’s because it isn’t until the story moves off the farm that this world started to become clear. The early stages are fine, but the worldbuilding takes a while to come together, leaving me with too many questions early on. Once the story opens up, I was able to get more of a sense of how this universe worked and became fully engrossed in it. At the same time, the plot became more interesting. There’s plenty of good action, and the mystery at the heart of the plot is well done. The best part of the book, though, is the characters. Though it took a while, Jerin, Ren and the rest became people I was invested in and cared about, wanting to see them overcome their enemies and find their happy ending as much as any characters grounded in our reality.
There are a few other minor things I could mention, but on the whole, A Brother’s Price turned out to be a very enjoyable read. It does what a good alternate reality book should, fully immersing the reader in a noticably different, yet wholly believable world and using it to deliver an involving story. Readers looking for that kind of tale will find one here.