Desert Isle Keeper
A Heart of Blood and Ashes
A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsathe and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil—until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.
Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.
Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surprising is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own…
Em: I’m just going to put it out there: I loved A Heart of Blood and Ashes. Full stop. It isn’t perfect, but for someone looking for pure escapist romantic fantasy (me), it checks all the boxes. Maddek is the classic badass barbarian – fierce, capable, confident, sexy, strong – but he more than meets his match when he finally meets Yvenne, the woman he’s sworn to kill. But Yvenne, Maddek’s physical opposite – small and weak – quickly and cleverly convinces him she’s more than she appears. And she is. Her mind and his physical strength make for a formidable partnership as this saga unfolds, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to see how it would conclude. I enjoyed both the fantasy and romance – did you?
Caroline: Oh. My. Gods and goddesses. Absolutely agree. Could not put this book down. I balanced my reader on my leg so I could read while I was folding laundry. I took not-totally-necessary bathroom breaks at work to squeeze in another chapter. If loving a big, brawny, sword-swinging barbarian and his little powerhouse queen is wrong, then I don’t have a prayer of being right.
Dabney: I too loved it–it feels genuinely original in a startling way. The world Vane (who is also Meljean Brooks) has created is off the charts unique and dense. (The last time I was so struck by a world was probably in R. Lee Smith’s The Land of the Beautiful Dead.) How would you describe it?
Em: I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but after reading AHoBaA, I feel like I should read a whole lot more! Honestly, I had a bit of a challenge getting into the story and seeing it in my imagination. It’s a bit jarring to go from historical romance to fantasy romance, and I was lost at first. I’m still trying to decide what I thought about the animals that populate the story. Are we supposed to think that the ‘reptiles’ are dinosaur-esque? That’s how I imagined them in my mind – but perhaps more vicious and intelligent?
Dabney: I am still wondering about the creatures, both animals and savages. I felt as it perhaps this was a world in which dinos and humans lived side by side. And that maybe the savages were Neanderthal-esque.
Caroline: I saw the biggest animals as more of monstrous dragons, and the Farians almost as little green men, but with extremely sharp teeth.
Dabney: Whatever they are, they are so believable–this is world-building at its best.
Em: I thought Vane’s descriptions of the landscapes – especially Maddek’s home on the Burning Plain – are particularly well rendered. Seeing everything new through Yvenne’s eyes (since she’s been imprisoned since her birth) was such a smart writing decision! I was fully immersed in each new landscape she discovered, and I saw everything she did in my mind’s eye. The fantastical elements – the settings, the animals, the people, the magic, the gods and goddesses – felt vivid and real. I escaped to this imaginary world, and I hated when I finally had to exit it.
Caroline: Gods and goddesses are tricky to write, because they are so powerful they can make the actions of the protagonists seem pointless. Vane managed to steer clear of this here – the gods and goddesses are clearly real and clearly powerful, and can bless or curse characters, but humans need to play out their own destiny.
Dabney: It’s such a joy to find a book with the big three: a thrilling context, a storyline you can’t stop thinking about, and characters you adore. Let’s talk about our leads Maddek and Yvenne. He’s as alpha a male as I’ve read in some time. She’s more nuanced. They both, on so many levels, need what the other brings into their lives.
Em: I love that reference to the big three! And so true here.
Caroline: Here’s a setting where an alpha makes sense – brutally violent. But the author does something rare, which is to challenge the idealization of the alpha archetype. An alpha isn’t male perfection – Yvenne shows us and Maddek that there are other things to value than physical strength. She teaches Maddek that he may be a warrior, but he hasn’t learned how to be a king.
Em: How could Yvenne resist Maddek? HE’S IRRESISTIBLE. Smart, honest, loyal, brave, talented, handsome, tough…just a super badass who you can’t help but also fall in love with. His emotional and intellectual growth as the novel progresses is also well done; I liked that Ms. Vane framed his emotional and intellectual growth in the context of his relationship with Yvenne. By opening his heart to Yvenne, he became a better man, partner, and leader. She unlocks the best parts of Maddek – his generous and loving heart, his passion for his people and their needs, his willingness to see shades of gray when before he could only see right and wrong.
Dabney: AND yet there was a surprising and successful way in which Yvenne was able to wait for Maddek to become the man she is sure he can be. I liked that he was a bit of a dick in the first half of the book–it made their connection so much more powerful once he grew into the king–and the partner–she knew he could be.
Em: I’m not sure what to say about Yvenne. Her willingness to sacrifice herself for the greater good and to be the architect of her own destiny…I loved it. She’s smart and clever and wise, and a survivor who never quits. While Maddek is so narrowly focused on vengeance, Yvenne – who has more reason than anyone else to seek it – takes every experience as an opportunity for a greater good. She’s hopeful even in her darkest moments, always looking for a way forward.
Caroline: And obviously we should talk about the sex. Not just because it’s a big part of romances, but because here, it’s important to the plot – it will seal their marriage, but the moon goddess requires that people have their first sexual experience at the full moon or risk her wrath. So we have a lot of tension building up.
Em: The chemistry between these two is off the charts hot! I liked the raw, crude sex scenes very much, although I’m not sure they will appeal to everyone. And that scene at the inn when Yvenne watches two of Maddek’s guard having sex? Damn.
Dabney: It’s kinda amazing that Vane was able to write a sexual progression that starts iffy–their first sexual interaction took me aback–and ended up feeling perfect and pure.
Caroline: Was there anything you didn’t like?
Dabney: I thought the late middle was a bit slow. But that’s a small flaw in a great book.
Em: Not really! Well, if I had to name one thing it would be the (lack of) backstory for the Destroyer. I get that he (?) was mighty and powerful, and after the war to defeat him (?), Parsathe and the kingdoms of the south allied to prevent his return. But is the Destroyer a sorcerer? A God? Did I miss that? And why is the Destroyer so all powerful? Where did all that power come from? And where is the Destroyer now? The location is a real place? I think perhaps these questions are answered – but I still felt vague about the enemy at the door. I missed the answers! Did you “get it?”
Caroline: Yeah, the “Big baddie returns” is a fantasy staple, from Voldemort to Sauron. This wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t handled in a groundbreaking way, either.
Dabney: I believe this series will explain and explore the Destroyer–I am willing to accept his lack of explication because I think he’s coming our way–terrifyingly–in the next book(s).
Em: AHoBoA was a wonderful return to romance from Milla Vane. I highly recommend it, and think it will probably make my short list of favorite books in 2020. It’s an A from me.
Dabney: I loved the romance and the nuanced way the leads resolved their burning needs for revenge. I did feel that parts of the story were a teeny tiny bit draggy but, other than that, it’s a fabulous read. An A- from me.
Caroline: I’ve been waiting for Milla Vane to return to this world since I DIK’d the novella The Beast of Blackmoor in the anthology Night Shift. It was worth every moment of waiting, and more. An absolute A from me.