His Wicked Love
His Wicked Love, the début fantasy title from Mila Benson, is not my usual fare. I read very little fantasy and have never played Dungeons and Dragons (let’s be honest, I’ve never played any role-play video game), so I worried His Wicked Love , with its cast of warlocks, paladins and archmages was a bit ambitious for this fantasy novice.
Well, I may not know a lot about fantasy, but I can recognize a well-crafted romance, and I was swept up in this entertaining and addictive fantasy from the first page. Featuring two of my favorite tropes – enemies to lovers and opposites (delightfully so!) – and two appealing principals, I binge read this slow burn love story in one sitting – and immediately downloaded a delicious bonus scene. That said, my grade is a compromise of sorts. Although I enjoyed His Wicked Love, the story screamed for more world-building and a fuller backstory for both principals, and I might have awarded it a DIK had it been just a wee bit longer.
After recent wars left Sithia as the dominant kingdom, warlocks have been systematically terrorized and demonized. After his father was murdered, Corbin learned to manage his magical powers under the tutelage of Nereza, who, before the story opens is captured and killed. On the hunt for her killer, Corbin is hiding in Tarrin on the edge of the kingdom of Sithia, and is staring at a stone tower sheltering a small group of mages. Inside he hopes to find the key to locating the man who took his master from him.
Leonid, a paladin of Sithia, has spent the last three nights awake stalking and killing a hag who preyed on wealthy merchants asleep in their beds. Exhausted, he’s looking forward to a brief furlough from his work as a paladin of the Order of the White Circle when an urgent summons from the Archmage arrives. Leonid must ride to the remote mage outpost at Tarrin – yet on arrival at the tower, he discovers the mages are unaware of any emergency that would require the presence of a paladin. Leonid isn’t convinced his arrival is a mistake, and stations himself on the observation balcony to keep watch. He’s fighting off sleep when he spots a young man clinging to the tower wall.
Leonid recognizes Corbin as a warlock and moves to arrest him; Corbin quickly uses his magic to freeze the paladin in his armor and the two are at a standstill when the warlock spots trouble on the horizon. Imps are converging on the field adjacent to the tower. Corbin releases Leonid, and the warlock and the paladin are forced to fight together to save themselves, the tower and the mages within.
The battlefield partnership abruptly changes the dynamic between Corbin and Leonid. However, unbeknownst to the paladin, Corbin has a secret agenda – vengeance for his master’s death – and allowing Leonid to capture him brings him closer to the man he suspects was her killer. Leonid is forced to reconsider his wickedly handsome and clever prisoner – and long held beliefs about warlocks, and Corbin, who mistrusts everyone, can’t help but be drawn to his beautiful, guileless captor. Leonid binds Corbin’s hands for the journey to Triskela (and the Archmage), but suspects the warlock could easily free himself. Traveling together, the men form a tentative friendship and bond. Corbin is overwhelmed by the kind and generous heart of his captor; he can’t resist falling for him. He doesn’t disguise his attraction to Leonid, teasing and tempting the beautiful paladin, and struggles to stay focused on his mission of revenge. Leonid is captivated by the witty and wicked Corbin, and would like nothing more than to give into the lust he feels for the warlock, but he’s determined to deliver him to justice and resist his tempting captive. It’s a lovely slow burn as both try – and fail – not to fall for each other.
Along the journey, the pair is forced to face additional demons and dark magic, and it becomes clear to them that a powerfully evil magician is at work and Sithia is in danger. But the line between protector and protected becomes blurred with every battle they fight, and before long they cease pretending Corbin is prisoner to Leonid. Leonid continues to resist his attractive companion, but his kind heart is his eventual undoing. A night of passion gives way to a shared sense of mission – until Leonid inadvertently discovers a secret Corbin has been keeping. The secret – and the betrayal Leonid feels at its revelation – forces them apart. Leonid severs their relationship and entrusts him to fellow paladins.
Leonid and Corbin are opposites and Ms. Benson does a masterful job magnifying the contrasts between them whilst moving the narrative forward. Where Leonid is light, Corbin is dark – and the author maintains a rigid dichotomy between the two. But as the story – and the relationship – progresses, even that line begins to blur and it’s never quite clear who is saving whom. Each is appealing in his own way, and I liked both of them a lot. The evolution of their relationship – from not quite enemies to reluctant partners to lovers, to enemies and finally, to happily ever after – is well paced and moving. They have wonderful chemistry and a nice symmetry to their partnership – dark and light, naughty and sweet, raven black and golden hued – they’re well matched. The author deftly develops the relationship whilst moving the story forward and I enjoyed every bit of it.
I couldn’t quite see how Ms. Benson would reunite the pair after Corbin’s secrets are revealed, but the separation gives both men time to reflect and realize what they’ve lost. I can’t and won’t spoil how they find themselves reunited, but it’s a bit of clever storytelling and I loved it.
As I mentioned in my opening, my only real quibble with this story is its length. The author offers intriguing glimpses of the men Leonid and Corbin were before they met, and I wish she had spent more time developing their backstories. I would have liked to know Corbin when he was with Nereza, and to know Leonid before he became a paladin. Also, the demonization of warlocks is a significant theme throughout the novel, and I didn’t feel the resolution fully addressed all the reasons for it.
Those complaints aside, I very much enjoyed this début from Mila Benson. I hope future Spells and Steel novels will provide glimpses of Leonid and Corbin – and that we revisit them soon and often!