Desert Isle Keeper
A Touch of Stone and Snow
Danger lurks in the western realms. The Destroyer’s imminent return has sent the realms into turmoil as desperate citizens seek refuge—but there’s no safety to be found when demons and wraiths crawl out from the shadows. Even Koth, a northern island kingdom left untouched by the Destroyer a generation past, is besieged by terrors spawned from corrupt magics.
When Lizzan leads the Kothan army against these terrors, only to see her soldiers massacred and to emerge as the only survivor, she is called a coward and a deserter. Shunned from her home, Lizzan now wanders in solitude as a mercenary for hire, until she encounters a group of warriors seeking new alliances with the northern kingdoms—a group that includes Aerax, the bastard prince of Koth, and the man who sent her into exile.
Though they were childhood friends, Aerax cannot allow himself to be close to the only woman who might thwart his treacherous plan to save their island realm. But when a goddess’s demand binds them together, Lizzan and Aerax must find a way to overcome their painful pasts. Or there will be no future for the western realms…
AAR reviewers Caroline Russomanno and Em Wittmann read A Touch of Stone and Snow, and got together to discuss their thoughts on book two in Milla Vane’s A Gathering of Dragons series.
A Touch of Stone and Snow can be read as a standalone, but we recommend you read the series in order. There may be spoilers in this review.
Em: Before I tell you just how much I loved this novel, I want to reiterate to readers the importance of starting the series at the beginning! The beginning, although I didn’t realize it when we reviewed A Heart of Blood and Ashes, is the prequel novella The Beast of Blackmoor.
Caroline: Both of those have DIKs here. Currently, Blackmoor is only available in the Night Shift anthology, but Vane is releasing it as a stand-alone on July 7.
Em: I loved the exposition leading up to the first meeting between Lizzan – Lizzan frantic to get away – and Aerax – frantic to catch up – and I loved A Touch of Stone and Snow. From Lizzan’s sad backstory to Aerax’s reasons for exiling her, I was wholly invested in the overarching plot and their romance. I have a soft spot for second chance romances, and I was completely caught off guard by this one.
Caroline: I didn’t love it as much as I loved the other two books in this series, but I really, really liked it.
Em: Were you surprised by Aerax? Maddek was such a badass alpha; Aerax is a badass, too… but he’s no alpha! After the intense enemies-to-lovers premise of A Heart of Blood and Ashes, I wasn’t expecting longing and sweetness, or Aerax, our feral cinnamon roll badass hero! Caroline, I liked him. A LOT. What did you think?
Caroline: I thought Aerax was great. He’s not excessively embittered by his experience, and he’s dedicated to a moral purpose that he knows many won’t understand or forgive. He’s utterly loyal to Lizzan. My only quibble with him was that he didn’t tell her more of what he knew about Koth earlier – both because he should have trusted her at that point, and because we readers knew what was happening, so I just felt impatient waiting for him to reveal it.
Em: Yes, I totally agree with you! IF he trusted Lizzan, why did he wait FOREVER to be honest with her? The Koth plot was the weakest part of the story. I also thought the ‘mystery’ (or lack thereof) about what was happening on the island dragged on much too long, and the explanation was a complicated, unbelievable mess. Even the resolution of that plotline was poorly executed. I actually read the last few chapters (in Koth) a couple of times. I was convinced I missed something! It’s all wrapped up so quickly! Did you have a similar experience?
Caroline: Yeah, that last fight sequence was confusing, and a combination of too easy and weirdly lucky? And beyond the finale, I had a larger issue with pacing. Road romance authors have to balance the physical road journey with the emotional character journey, and sometimes that felt out of whack. We would get pages describing one hour and one conversation that dramatically moved Lizzan and Aerax’s relationship, and then weeks would disappear in a blink.
Em: I did question the timeline of the story – big chunks of days seemed to melt away – but I enjoyed the intense, small focus scenes between Aerax and Lizzan. It’s a departure from the first novel. Vane seemed to focus more on emotional intimacy vs. action in this novel.
Caroline: Aerax and Lizzan come to an emotional equilibrium very early in the book by romance standards, with outside obstacles between them instead of internal ones. But I much prefer that to easily-resolved hang ups or lightning-bolt realizations of love.
Em: I wasn’t crazy about the ending, but I also didn’t like their blindness to finding a way forward TOGETHER; I just couldn’t understand why they were both so willing to go it alone when it was made clear he wants to save her and she wants to save him. I mean, martyr complex anyone?
Were there parts of the story that frustrated you?
Caroline: There was one writing tic that drove me up the wall: ending the sentence with a verb. Clearly, it’s meant to give a medievally-old fashioned vibe to the prose, but when we get to the sentence, “forever did she seem to piss,” well, so hard did I laugh, because out of the story me did it pull.
Em: HA! You made me laugh. It didn’t bother me.
I tend to fall in love with Vane’s heroes, but I do love the emphasis – so far – on strong heroines in this series, and the disparate characterization of both male/female principal characters. In the previous book, Yvenne is mentally tough, but physically weak. Here, Lizzan is physically fierce, but the ghosts of her past have tested her mental fortitude, and led her to drink to escape her thoughts. Both women eventually overcome these handicaps – Yvenne with the bow; Lizzan by opening up about her feelings and experiences (and sobering up!) – and it makes them stronger, and more formidable. Much like Yvenne, I had to warm up to Lizzan. How did you feel about her?
Caroline: I am so glad to see a heroine like her. How many times have we seen the scarred, traumatized soldier who lost all their comrades and wanders the world in exile – and it’s a man? I also enjoyed that she was a strong, competent warrior without having to be practically a superhero.
Em: Once again, I love the heat level in this series. Vane is not messing around; the language is explicit, the love making is explicit, and it is sexy as hell. This relationship has a totally different dynamic than Yvenne and Maddek, but it’s just as hot. How did you feel about the chemistry between the couple?
Caroline: I liked it, too. The device of the “moon night,” that characters can only lose their virginity on the full moon or risk the wrath of the goddess Vela, effectively keeps the characters apart and gives us the only believable reason I’ve ever read for a mid-action sequence boink. :)
I have to sing some praises here for world building. It is so hard to write stories about gods and goddesses because usually I just end up wondering what’s the point of anything if the deities could have fixed it? Vane is very, very good at establishing parameters of what her deities can and can’t do, and the costs of asking them to do it. The cultures and kingdoms are interesting, diverse, and thoroughly grounded in their own cultures and histories. What do you think of her world?
Em: It’s marvelous. I can totally envision this world, and was happy to spend time in it. I also felt like I had a better grasp of Vela, the primary goddess figure, and why she’s important to this story. Vela was raped by her brother Enam (closely linked to the Destroyer), and gave birth to Law and Justice. The alliance is closely linked to her, while their enemies are allied with Enam. In the last book, Vela felt more abstract to me – now I see the conflicts between the gods and good vs. evil – and how both are reflected in the characters and events of this epic story.
Caroline: This book is still an A for me despite the fact that it wasn’t quite as good as the other stories. I’ll put my teacher hat on and say they were high As, maybe 97, but this was closer to a 93? If you love epic fantasy romance, you need to be reading this series right now.
Em: It’s another solid A grade for me. I liked everything about it except the rushed ending. Highly recommended!