Destined for a King
Destined for a King is the first book in a new series from Ashyln Macnamara, which, at the time I picked it for review, I thought was a standalone novel. I’ve since seen that it has been labelled book one of the Bastard Brotherhood series, but potential readers need to be aware that this is not a self-contained story and is, I assume, going to be continued in subsequent books.
The story opens in the middle of the battle for Blackbriar Keep, as Calista Thorne, dressed as a boy, watches the fight from the battlements of the castle, frustratingly unable to take part it its defence as she has run out of arrows. They are being overrun by the band of brigands known as the Bastard Brotherhood, under the command of their formidable leader, Torch, a man whose reputation for ruthless cruelty is widely known and feared. Determined not to give up without a fight, Calista grabs an arrow from a quiver belonging to a dead soldier, sights the enemy leader and shoots him in the thigh.
By this time, however, the battle is all but lost, the Keep is taken, and Torch even goes so far as to salute the man that shot him. It’s not until shortly afterwards that he realises who that person really is, and makes known his plan to marry Calista in order to ensure the loyalty of Lord Thorne and his people. But Calista is promised to King Magnus – and it soon becomes clear that there is more at work than a simple desire on Torch’s part to thumb his nose at the king. He has visions which show him Calista at his side and knows she is important to his future – and it doesn’t hurt that by marrying her, he will draw Magnus out so that he can confront him once and for all and reclaim what is rightfully his.
But not long after his victory, Torch collapses, and Calista realises that the arrow she shot him with must have been poisoned. With Torch out of action, his second-in-command, Kestrel, takes charge and imprisons Lord Thorne, threatening to kill him if Calista doesn’t heal Torch. Fearful for her father’s life, Calista cares for her enemy, surprised that he has not ordered a mass slaughter of everyone who fought against him. As their enforced proximity continues, she starts to see that there is more to Torch than his reputation would indicate; he is fair-minded and honourable, and even though Calista doesn’t want to be forced to marry the man that invaded her home, she isn’t completely averse to the seduction he seems intent upon. Because she has noticed that Torch is hot. ;)
The story is basically a somewhat watered down version of the old “good-guy outlaw must defeat baddie usurper and reclaim his rightful place” yarn – which is fine, but the whole thing lacks cohesion and I was left with the impression of a book suffering from not really knowing what it’s supposed to be.
The cover, which looks like the sort of thing you’d find on a medieval romance, is eye-catching and I was intrigued by that, as Ms. Macnamara has made a name for herself so far writing romances set in the nineteenth century. The book blurb, however, quickly told me this wasn’t a medieval, as there were no references to any historical figures or events, so I realised it was a fantasy romance with a faux-medieval setting. Ultimately however, the book doesn’t deliver on any of those things. It’s not very fantastical, the romance is almost non-existent (there is shagging, yes, but not much actual romance) and the setting is extremely nondescript. In fact, I found it hard to anchor myself throughout the book. While I suppose that when an author is setting out to create an imaginary world, the reader is bound to feel that way to begin with, I felt exactly the same when I’d finished. Sure, I can picture a medieval stronghold in my mind’s eye, but other than that, I have no idea what this world looks like, feels like or sounds like. I have no idea about the people who live there, other than that they fight with swords, bows and arrows and trebuchets or that they heal using herbs. There are mentions of Freeholds, ice palaces, some substance called Adamant which is the strongest thing known to man, a race called the Avestari who can talk to horses – but these all felt like they were just cool-sounding words that were thrown out here and there to remind readers that “hey, we’re not in Kansas (or Ye Olde England) any more”. And the fantasy aspect is downright disappointing. There’s an attempt to introduce an element of mysticism – the Sons of the Earth, is some sort of quasi-religious order; Torch possesses a vision-inducing scrying-stone and there are Three Gods – but it’s all very amateurish.
I hesitate to describe the relationship between Callista and Torch as a romance, because it really isn’t. I think it’s supposed to be a kind of enemies-to-lovers thing, but there is hardly any enmity between them, so that doesn’t work. She lusts after him even when he’s wounded, but tells herself those are not appropriate thoughts to be having. He flirts with her a bit once he starts to recover… and then pulls what I suppose is the faux-medieval equivalent of “come up and see my etchings” by telling her that he needs her to sleep with him – just sleep, that is – in order to enhance the power of the visions he is shown by the stone. Which prove to be so traumatic, they just HAVE to have sex. And because this happens around a third of the way into the book, I was left asking myself if there was anywhere left for this relationship to go.
And unfortunately, both Calista and Torch are little more than cardboard cut-outs. He’s on a quest to reclaim his birthright and she’s a warrior maiden of sorts, but they’re bland and rather flat. Torch had the potential to be an interesting hero; we get some of his backstory early on when he remembers fleeing danger with his mother when he was a little boy, but we learn nothing about what happened between then and now, nothing about his formative years or how he survived; and the lack of background made it very hard to get a handle on him.
I’m sorry to say that Destined for a King is a bit of a mess. It’s as though the author wanted to write a medieval romance without the need to do any research into the time period, or a fantasy without giving any real thought to how she was going to bring the world she was creating to life for her readers. As I said at the beginning of this review, this is obviously going to be the sort of series in which books have to be read in order for it all to make sense, and I wish I’d known that at the outset. Perhaps some questions will be answered and gaps filled in in later books, but ultimately, Destined for a King wasn’t strong enough to make me want to stick around to find out.