Lord of the Last Heartbeat
May Peterson’s début novel, Lord of the Last Heartbeat, is an intricately constructed gothic fantasy with an intriguing storyline, set in a world that reminded me somewhat of eighteenth century Italy where dark secrets lurk behind the scenes, political backstabbing is rife and influential families jostle for power. Adding to that particular vibe is the fact that one of the main characters is an opera singer, and I loved the way his vocal talent is incorporated into the fabric of the world the author has created. In fact, I liked almost all the different elements that went to make up the novel – the worldbuilding, the characters, the plot – but ‘almost’ is the key word there, because there are two fairly major problems I couldn’t overlook. Firstly, Ms. Peterson’s writing style just didn’t work for me – which I recognise is entirely subjective – and secondly, the romance isn’t well-developed; it springs almost fully formed out of nowhere and there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between the leads.
Mio is the son of Serafina Gianbellici, a powerful witch whose ambition is to control the government of the city of Vermagna, which she does by learning the secrets of its members and using that knowledge to keep them in line. In this world, a mage’s magical power lies in a specific part of the body, and Mio’s lies in his beautiful voice, which he can use to enter someone’s mind and soul to uncover their deepest, darkest secrets – which his mother then uses against them. Mio hates doing what amounts to mind-rape, and hates himself for helping Serafina, but he does it nonetheless, partly because he fears her power and partly because, well… she’s his mother. On the night the story opens, Mio is pretending to be a footman at the house of Pater Donatelli, Serafina’s latest target, waiting until she calls him inside to sing, when he is accosted by a drunken guest (who mistakes him for a pretty girl) who tries to drag him away. Mio has barely begun to try to free himself when the man is pulled off him and dunked into a nearby fountain by a large, dark gentleman Mio quickly realises must be a moon-soul, someone brought back from the dead and invested with the spirit of a noble beast (in this case a bear). Once upon a time, these shape-changing elite had been numerous but now, they are very small in number and coming across one is rare. Feeling unexpectedly comfortable in the man’s presence, Mio decides to take a chance to escape his mother’s machinations once and for all. Before he is summoned inside, he presses a note into the man’s hand which says just three words: Stop me. Please.
From that intriguing beginning unfolds a story of mystery and magic that builds slowly and kept me guessing as it moved towards a shattering climax. When Mio finally breaks free of his mother’s control, he runs to the one person ever to make him feel safe – Rhodry, the moon-soul, who bears a terrible curse he can never escape. Twists and turns abound as Mio and Rhodry gradually begin to understand the nature of the curse and the dark forces at work in Rhodry’s home; it’s an engrossing story and unlike anything else I’ve read recently. I liked Mio’s strength and determination – even in the face of his greatest fears – and Rhodry’s dry (sometimes naughty) sense of humour. I even liked (well, liked to hate!) Mio’s mother, a complex character intent on dominating a world set against her kind who is prepared to use her children while also loving them quite fiercely.
As I said at the beginning of this review, the book has a lot going for it. The worldbuilding, (even though it’s a bit shaky in some areas) the plot, the characters, and the inclusion of a non-binary, femme character in a main role and Rhodry’s unconditional acceptance of Mio for the person he is. But I had problems with the prose, which was overly flowery for my taste; so much so that it often got in the way of the story and the storytelling. And…er… then there was this:
He fondled my chest, as if feeling the shape of my muscles. Maybe it was good to be so firm. Speaking of firm—he jumped slightly as I took a liberty. Heavens, did he have a bouncy little plum. Sweet cleft, muscle tensing under my grasp—damn, I could hold on to that forever.
A bouncy little plum?! (I’m sorry, but once an author has made me laugh (and not in the good way), during a love scene, they’ve lost me.) Not only is it ridiculous, it’s so out of character for Rhodry; he’s a big, dark, brooding presence who knocks back whisky like it’s water and swears like a trooper… and he takes “a liberty” and thinks “Heavens!” ? But it’s also an illustration of the point I was making about language getting in the way and obscuring meaning. What exactly is Rhodry grasping? Is the bouncy little plum in question Mio’s arse? Mio’s cock? A nearby fruit bowl?
And then there’s the underdeveloped romance. There’s no doubt that by the time Mio and Rhodry are on the same page romantically they care for each other deeply and that they’re both prepared to make extreme sacrifices – their lives if need be – in order to keep the other safe. But the movement from initial attraction to full-blown love was weak; it’s pretty much insta-lust/love and there was no real build-up of romantic and sexual tension.
Writing this review and grading this novel has been difficult. Lord of the Last Heartbeat has a lot to offer, and I fully admit that the problem I had with the prose is very subjective. Ultimately, however, I can’t quite bring myself to wholeheartedly and honestly recommend a book in which the writing so often gets in the way of the story – although I’m sure there are many readers for whom Ms. Peterson’s writing style will work better than it did for me.