I should open this with the disclaimer that I do not normally review romance. I love sci-fi and fantasy novels with romance in them. Sometimes, I’ll read Romance-with-a-capital-R, under the covers, where no one can see. But it’s not something I usually mark as read on Goodreads, much less write a full review.
At this point I must ask myself if I am biased against romance as a genre. A lot of the romance I have read has fallen solidly in the category of badly-written-but-hot. But is that really any reason to dismiss it?
I stumbled upon this book on the “read now” section on Netgalley, and the description seemed so specifically my sort of thing, I really had to grab it. And in fact, I found it both hot and well-written. But since I did indeed get it for free off Netgalley, I am obligated to write a review. And therefore, I’m obligated to admit to the world I read it.
I could, perhaps, cry ignorant, that I thought it was just “normal” fantasy. But alas, here is the cover. I knew what I was getting into.
Unfortunately I am thoroughly inexperienced in reviewing this genre. I shall do the best I can, but understand that I’m reviewing it as a fantasy novel first, and a romance novel second.
This novel involves graphic depictions of sex between two men, in great and loving detail. Someone better-versed than me in erotica can tell you how good those depictions are. I enjoyed them well enough. But I’m here to tell you about the rest of the novel.
This is a portal fantasy featuring Alexander, a nerdy teenage boy living on Earth in a family with unusual magical powers. He feels alienated from his family because he is smaller and wimpier than his brothers and cousins. He comes of age at a time when his family is distracted by other family drama. Furthermore, his magical animal form is considered weaker than the rest of the family’s. He is in equal parts bullied and ignored, and feeling altogether hard done by at the time our story begins.
When his cousins’ bullying goes too far, Alexander is injured and almost dies. Instead, he travels between worlds to a fantasy realm. There, he crosses a great migration with some magic horses, makes friends and rivals amidst a magic tribe, and eventually falls in love with a sexy war general, who’s got a cool long fantasy name, but is mostly referred to as Ben.
Personally, I liked this book a lot, but I also thought there was a lot going on, perhaps too much to fit comfortably into one book.
This reads, on the surface, a lot like many escapist portal fantasies. Awkward nerdy gay boy travels to alternate dimension where he is suddenly neither awkward nor nerdy, and also wins the love of the hottest guy ever.
But what I liked about this book was, every good thing that happens to Alexander, he has to earn. He fights and trains and struggles to earn his place in the new world. I appreciated reading about his character growth.
A major part of the book involves the telepathic magic horses, who bond to their riders. It’s easy to draw the parallel between this book and Last Herald Mage by Mercedes Lackey. I joke that this is the second gayest book about dudes and their magic telepathic horses I’ve read this year. But this book, luckily, is nowhere near so melodramatic.
Alexander strides the line awfully narrowly between being an overpowered Gary Stu and being a compelling character. I personally find him compelling, but it’s awfully close.
Here Be Spoilers
Now I spoil what happens at the end, so if you haven’t read the book and would like to, please scroll on.
At the end of the book, in the last 25% or so, Alexander is “reset” to Earth, and, after decades passing in the magical world, is also reset to 15 years old. This could have been compelling, but it didn’t work for me in several ways.
First of all, the thing that was least okay about the romance was the age difference. Already it was very much striding the line at creepy. Then, Alex gets reset to 15, and although some ten years pass before they are reunited, Ben has been aging all this time as well. Now the age difference is even more. I felt this was gratuitous and very much not necessary.
Second, in the last quarter of the book, many plot threads are introduced and then simply abandoned. It is implied that the bullying cousins from the first section of the book have a much more sinister agenda than merely juvenile taunts. In a short span of time they seem to not only murder the main character’s sister (!) but also intend to cull magic from the human bloodline entirely.
However, none of this is revisited again, as soon as Alexander is reunited with his much-older boyfriend.
I’m also a bit confused about the nature of the magical world Alexander visited and Ben hails from. It is treated as a Narnia-esque alternate world, yet also a form of afterlife. When Alexander’s sister dies near the end of the book, it’s stated that she goes to the magical world, and is in a lesbian relationship with a major female character from earlier in the book. If this is the case, what happens to people who die in THAT world? If people travel between worlds and die in one or the other, what happens to them? I just wish it were explained more.
Some overall good gay erotica, but as “porn with a plot” goes, the plot was intriguing enough to make me demand more.