A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is an enjoyable fantasy romance novel in which an arranged marriage provides the spark for murder, intrigue and political shenanigans. The worldbuilding is solid, with well-developed and detailed societal customs and hierarchies, the protagonists are likeable and the central romance is tender and drips with lots of lovely UST. On the downside, the book is at least a hundred and fifty pages too long, the pacing is stodgy in places, and the mystery is too drawn out and easily resolved.
When the story begins, Velasin vin Aaro, a nobleman of Ralia, is on his way home in response to a summons from his father. He has no idea what it’s about, and hopes word has not reached home of his more… disreputable exploits; namely that he beds men rather than women, something Ralian society considers a degenerate perversion. Travelling with him is his best friend and valet Markel (who is mute); left behind is his former lover, Lord Killic vin Lato, whom Velasin dumped after discovering him cheating – again.
Not long after his arrival, Velasin discovers why he’s been brought home. His father has arranged a marriage for him with the daughter of the Tiern (Lord) of Qi-Katai in Tithenia - and Velasin knows he has no alternative but to agree to the match. The Tithenai envoy is to arrive the next day, but before Velasin can think much about what’s to come, he’s stunned and angry to hear that Killic has followed him and is asking to see him. He tries wheedling his way back into Vel’s good graces with pretty words – and when those don’t work, he resorts to sex, and won’t take no for an answer. Be warned, the assault happens on the page (it’s hard to read, but so much of what follows is built around it, it would be impossible to remove it) – and stops only when they’re seen by Velasin’s father and the Tithenian envoy, who has arrived early. Wretched, humiliated, sick to his stomach Velasin watches as Killic is run off while he is left alone in utter disgrace.
The following morning, Velasin is summoned to his father’s presence and informed that the marriage is still to go ahead. He’s surprised to see that the envoy is “one of Tithena’s third-gender souls, called kemi…” whose existence “scandalised the Ralian court”, which is rigidly traditional about everything including gender roles and women’s rights (or lack thereof). Equally surprising is the envoy’s suggestion that instead of marrying the Tiern’s daughter, Velasin might marry his son without changing the terms of the contract. Velasin’s father is aghast at the idea of his son marrying a man, but agrees – then tells Vel he can never return home again.
Caethari Xai Aeduria is surprised to discover that he, rather than his sister, is to be married, but at least has a little time to get used to the idea while the Ralian convoy is en route to Qi-Katai. He’s curious about his future husband, but has been able to find out little about him, and really isn’t sure what he ought to feel or how he should act when they meet. That becomes of secondary importance once Velasin arrives, however; watching from the rooftop, Cae sees the convoy enter through the city gate, and then watches helplessly as someone in the crowd rushes at Velasin with a knife – which is deflected by Markel, who bears the brunt of the strike. Hurrying to the scene, Cae almost collides with a very dishevelled and worried Velasin, who is desperate to get to Markel’s side. It’s not exactly the way Cae had envisaged meeting his betrothed.
Even before Velasin arrived in Qi-Katai, there were signs of trouble when the caravan travelling from Ralia was attacked, leaving one guard dead and others injured. The attack at the city gate is followed by one on Cae’s father – all of them pointing to there being a deep-seated anti-Ralian sentiment at large and to someone intending to destabilise the already fragile relations between Ralia and Tithena.
I was looking forward to getting my teeth into a plot filled with conspiracies and court intrigue, but the mystery plot is fairly weak, little more than a series of events, one after the other, with no real escalation or building on what has gone before, and no real investigation. Vel and Cae ask questions, but are never given the time or opportunity to act on the answers as it seems that every time they come close to doing so, another character interrupts them and sends things off in a different direction or just continues the earlier conversation without reaching any conclusions. It’s too drawn out with little happening, and then, to add insult to injury, the reveal happens literally by accident when Velasin and Cae overhear the bad guys arguing and blaming each other for not doing things properly!
The romance is easily the best thing in the book, as Cae gently tries to help Velasin work through his trauma, offering friendship and understanding and not pushing for anything more. The way they move from being strangers to forging a tentative friendship, then from friendship to absolute trust and more is really well done, with great chemistry and lots of lingering touches and longing looks that build the romantic and sexual tension.
Grading A Strange and Stubborn Endurance was tough because while the plot leaves much to be desired, the romance is lovely, and there are many other things about the book that should be celebrated. I’ve mentioned the worldbuilding already – and within that, there’s excellent queer rep that includes prominent non-binary and trans characters and a welcoming society for all. Velasin’s bewilderment at becoming part of this society is well portrayed, too; having been brought up within the strict conventions of Ralia, he finds it hard to adjust to the fact that he no longer has to hide his sexuality or be surprised at the fact that people like him are treated with respect. He has no idea what is expected of him as Cae’s husband, and is struggling to un-learn many of the things he’s been brought up to believe. He’s a more well-developed character than Cae, who thinks of himself as a bluff soldier, good in combat, not so good when it comes to reading people and politicking. Fortunately, Cae proves to be very insightful and sensitive to the needs of others, intuiting almost at once that all is not well with Velasin and determining to help him however he can. I also liked watching him get turned on by his husband’s mind on those occasions where Velasin is able to cast off his self-doubt and desire for self-effacement, and reveal his true self – inquisitive, clever, observant, a charmer who is skilled at playing the courtier and navigating his way through layers of malice and misdirection. In fact, I wish we’d seen much more of that side of him, especially as part of his journey in this book is finding his way back to being the person he was before the assault and realising he doesn’t have to let it define him.
I really wish I could give A Strange and Stubborn Endurance a strong recommendation because of all the things it gets right, but the weakness of the plot really does drag it down and the slow pacing makes it difficult to invest in the outcome – especially when it seems that sometimes, even the characters themselves have forgotten about it! The final ten percent or so is terrific, and had the rest of the book been able to sustain that level of nail-biting tension, I’d be extolling its virtues. In the end, I’m going with a low B and qualified recommendation overall – a low C for the mystery and a high B for the romance, worldbuilding, characters and representation. I’d definitely read another fantasy romance from this author – here’s hoping for something tighter next time.
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