Marked by Fire
In Marked by Fire, book one in her Sons of Britain series, Mia West has mined Arthurian legends and given them a new slant, so that while the characters are mostly familiar, they don’t always fit the roles we may be used to seeing them in – for instance, Arthur isn’t the son of Uther Pendragon (or Uthyr, the Pen y Ddraig) and Bedwyr, who is often related to the sidelines in the myths, has a central role – and given there are so many legends and so many variations on them, I had no problem with that. This is certainly not the Camelot of chivalric legend and the Lady of the Lake; no, this is the Dark Ages, mere decades since the Romans departed Britain, and life is tough and brutal. The author does an excellent job capturing the feel of the period – it’s dark and gritty and very real – and of setting up the network of relationships that will populate her version of the story.
Eighteen-year-old Arthur ap Matthias is restless, hotheaded and eager to prove himself in battle and impress not only his leader, Uthyr, but also Uthyr’s son Bedwyr, who Arthur has watched and longed for from afar for years. His chance comes when a small band of Saxons is spotted advancing into Cymru, but he fails to heed instructions and his recklessness has dire consequences – and in trying to defend him Bedwyr loses a hand. His survival is in doubt, but Matthias – who is the village healer – is able to save him. (The author doesn’t sugarcoat the treatment he undergoes, so there are some scenes that might not be for the squeamish!). Arthur is distraught and desperate to beg Bedwyr’s forgiveness, but Bedwyr point blank refuses to see him. Of course he’s furious with Arthur for costing him his sword hand, but he’s fearful, too – what use is a warrior who cannot fight? Bedwyr’s worst fears come true when his father banishes him to a small shepherd’s hut outside the village.
Uthyr summons Arthur and makes it clear he expects Arthur to pay a price for causing Bedwyr’s injury. Arthur at first thinks Uthyr is going to take his own right hand, and is shocked when Uthyr tells him to take his and Bedwyr’s armour to the hut and that he’s going to retrain Bedwyr to fight with his left hand – and that he must not, under any circumstances, tell Bedwyr that Uthyr sent him. Relieved and pleased to have a chance to make amends, but worried Bedwyr will refuse to see him, Arthur nonetheless sets out for the hut, determined to do whatever it takes.
Bedwyr has pretty much given up and succumbed to self-pity when Arthur turns up, and he wants nothing to do with him. But Arthur is stubborn and determined, and – begrudgingly – Bedwyr starts to acknowledge him and then to take an interest in what he’s come there to do. A tentative friendship forms, and as the days pass, Bedwyr begins to pull himself out of his funk and to become the man – and warrior – he has always been meant to be, while Arthur’s remorse and desire to do right by Bedwyr engenders a new maturity and self-control. And as Bedwyr comes to know Arthur as a man and not just as his best friend’s foolhardy younger brother, he takes his first step towards accepting the truth of his desires. (Although the fact he has a bit of a crush on Matthias at the beginning of the book made his growing interest in Arthur a bit… ick? I had to blank that out!)
Marked by Fire is a well-paced and enjoyable story with a strong setting and engaging, flawed characters who are both trying to learn from their mistakes and have undergone considerable growth by the end. The romance between Arthur and Bedwyr is a slow-burn, and I enjoyed their progress from awkwardness to dawning friendship, playfulness and trust as their attraction to one another strengthens. They have strong chemistry and the love scenes are nicely steamy, but I’d like there to have been a little more depth to their relationship overall. That said, their story continues in book two (Bound by Blood); this one ends on an HFN (with a final scene that is a bit of a cliffhanger) so there is clearly more to come and I’m intrigued enough to want to know what happens next, so I’ll be reading that at some point.