When I read and reviewed Foz Meadows’ A Strange and Stubborn Endurance last summer (2022), I was under the impression it was a standalone – the main plotline was concluded and the romance ended on a firm HFN - but now it has a sequel and it seems the author may be writing more books set in this world. I liked but didn’t love ASaSE; the romance was great, I liked the characters and the worldbuilding was fantastic, but the pacing lagged in places so the book ultimately felt overlong and the mystery plot was weak, which dragged it down somewhat. So I was really pleased to discover that All the Hidden Paths not only contains the things I loved about book one, but also fixes a lot of the problems – it’s fast-paced, the plot hangs together well, and I really liked that the central relationship develops in a way that is consistent with the characterisation and events of the previous book.
Note: I’d recommend reading the books in order, because the romance is ongoing and book one contains a lot of important worldbuilding. There are spoilers for book one in this review.
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance introduced readers to Caethari Xai Aeduria, son of the Tiern (Lord) of Tithenia, and Velasin vin Aaro, a young nobleman of the neighbouring land of Ralia. A combination of difficult and unpleasant circumstances saw Cae and Velasin entering into an arranged marriage, something that was not greeted with a great deal of enthusiam by either Tithenai or Ralia. In highly conservative Ralia, which is rigid in its espousal of traditional gender roles and sexuality, Velasin marrying a man caused a huge scandal and widespread disgust; many in Tithenia did not want closer ties with Ralia and were suspicious of the marriage and of Velasin, who very quickly became a target for that discontent. The story culminated in the deaths of Cae’s father and sister, the latter of whom had been behind the plot to foment unrest in the city of Qi-Katai and to murder Velasin.
All the Hidden Paths opens around three weeks after those tumultous events. Velasin is still struggling to work out how to be in Tithenia – how to be a husband and how to be a man who no longer has to hide his sexuality or be ashamed of it – and Cae is full of conflicted feelings as he grieves his father and sister who, despite her nefarious plotting, was, nonetheless, his sister. The couple are still newlyweds, and while Cae has fallen deeply in love with his husband and has confessed his feelings, Velasin isn’t there yet; he and Cae have slept together, have agreed to be friends and to be honest with each other, but Vel’s insecurities and his tendency to self doubt and overthinking are leading him to feel responsible for bringing tragedy and death into Cae’s life and to worry that his lack of knowledge about Tithenian life and customs will reflect badly on him.
Into an already awkward situation is thrown an unexpected complication when Cae is informed that this grandmother (a high-ranking noblewoman) has made him her heir. Knowing himself to be far more suited to swordplay on the battlefield than he is to court intrigue and politicking, he has no wish to inherit her lands and title, but it’s not something he can refuse. Neither is the summons to the capital city, Qi-Xihan, from Tithenia’s monarch, Asa Ivadi. Reluctantly, Cae and Velasin prepare to leave Cae’s country estate for the city, but with so much weighing on their minds, a distance is starting to grow between them that neither wants, but which neither is sure how to bridge.
A couple who struggles to communicate isn’t one of my favourite things in romance, but I didn’t find it too frustrating here because the reasons for it are so well woven into who these two people are and the emotional baggage they bring to the relationship – Cae’s insecurities over his un-suitability to be his formidable grandmother’s heir; the trauma that continues to linger following Vel’s assault and his fears that Cae will want to be rid of him once he realises just how much trouble he has brought to his door. And then there’s the fact that with everything going on – multiple assassination attempts, court intrigue, murder, betrayal – they have enough on their plates simply trying to survive it all while trying to work out who they can trust and who might be behind it all. But I did like the way their relationship progresses – it’s more fragile and prone to misunderstandings and arguments, but even so, the author never lets us lose sight of the fact that Cae and Vel really do care deeply for each other through the little things Cae does to try to make his husband’s life easier, and Velasin’s snarling threats of bodily harm to anyone who hints at harm to Cae.
I enjoyed the change of setting and the accompanying focus on court politics, although I can’t deny that the plotline and motivations behind it are very similar to those of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance. But that didn’t really bother me - the action moves swiftly, the tension builds steadily, and I quickly became completely invested in the romance and in Cae and Velasin working out how to be a couple and what they need and want from each other. We don’t often get to see ‘what happens after the leads get together’ in romances, and although we left Cae and Velasin in a good place at the end of the previous book, the short length of time they’ve known each other left plenty of room for further development, and I loved watching the pair reaching a new closeness and understanding. I also appreciated the exploration of what happens after someone comes out, as Velasin has to work out how to navigate the world as an openly queer person while the customs and mores ingrained in him almost from birth prove difficult to shake off.
As before, the chapters that relate events from Velasin’s PoV are written in first person, while Cae’s are in third – I didn’t find the switch jarring and the sections are fairly substantial so it’s not as though we’re bouncing back between first and third person perspectives the whole time. There are a handful of new secondary characters introduced, one of whom is a third PoV character, a Ralian man named Asrien whose chapters are used sparsely and effectively to provide useful insight into events the main characters aren’t privy to. I was also pleased to see the return of Markel, Velasin’s faithful servant and dear friend, who acts as part-time information gatherer and part-time voice of reason when Cae and Velasin are being, well, them.
Despite my reservations about the repetitive nature of the plot, All the Hidden Paths is a much stronger book than its predecessor and I really enjoyed being back in the world Foz Meadows has created. If there are going to be more Tithenai Chronicles, I’ll certainly be checking them out.
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