HIS SECRET ILLUMINATIONS by Scarlett Gale (SPFBO 7 Semi-finalist review)
Welcome to the Fantasy-Hive’s SPFBO 7 SEMI-FINALIST WEEK.
Just to remind you our team of five judges, me (Theo), Belle, Peter, Scarlett and Calvin have spent the last five months:
- Sampling our batch of thirty self-published fantasy books to (at least) the 20% mark
- Identifying twelve worthy quarterfinalists
- Running six quarter-finals, a couple of which went to extra-time, to choose our six semi-finalists
- All five of us reading all of the chosen-semi-finalists
- All five of us putting the six semi-finalists in our own personal rank order
- Adding up those rankings to decide which of semi-finalists we will put forward to the next stage of SPFBO competition, joining nine other finalists exposed to the opinions, judgements and scorings of our fellow SPFBO blogs.
So this being Wednesday we are posting the Hive review of the last of the three semi-finalists that did not make our overall top three. It is worth stressing that the posting order for these three days has been randomised. These were all worthy books and no author should feel they came bottom of anything. They all impressed us more than at least twenty-four books to get where they are.
Tomorrow we will reveal our third placed semi-finalist, and on Friday in a double post we will review our top two books and announce which one is our chosen finalist.
A Sheltered Monk
By day, Lucían brews potions and illuminates manuscripts in service to the monastery that took him in as a child, wielding magic based in his faith and his purity. By night, he dreams of the world outside the cloister–a world he knows only in books and scrolls…
A Mysterious Warrior
A mercenary known as the She-Wolf hunts for a shipment of stolen manuscripts. When she needs a mage to track them down, she chooses Lucían for both his adorable blushes and his magic. She purchases his contract, hurling him headfirst into an adventure that will test both his skills and his self-control…
A Sacred Vow
Inexorably drawn to the She-Wolf’s strength, surprising kindness, and heated touches, Lucían fights temptation at every turn. His holy magic is both vital to their mission and dependent upon his purity. How can he serve both her and the Lord if he gives in to his desire? As intrigue and danger forces them closer, how can he possibly resist?
As I noted previously the book has a gentle if pleasantly paced introduction where most of the first 40% or so is Lucian the monk and Glory the She-Wolf getting to know each other and each other’s world and background. Told from Lucian’s point of view it is mostly a three-way wrestle between his faith, his conscience and his feelings (urges?) towards Glory. Since they don’t even begin recovering the first of the seven stolen books until about halfway through, I did wonder how sharply the pace would accelerate in order to bring their story to a satisfying conclusion by the end of the book. While there is certainly an increase in pace and more traditional forms of fantasy action (people do start to die) the short answer to “How will Scarlett Gale tie this up in a single volume?” is that she won’t. This is the first book in what looks like being a well-proportioned duology. The main resolution of the first book is around Lucian and Glory’s feelings for each other which are forged in adversity and consummated in surprisingly thorough detail. The two books structure means that each of the protagonists gets a cover to call their own. I think opening the duology with an image of the fearsome warrior Glory is the right feature setting out the inverted trope that is the book’s main USP. I found the prose smooth and enjoyable throughout the book with lots of highlighted lines.
I really enjoyed this one. The first half is somewhat slow with regards to the main plot, but I enjoyed getting to know the characters so much that I didn’t mind at all – it was a pleasant change of pace. The connection between Lucian and Glory is really sweet, and it was intriguing to watch Lucian attempt to balance his faith and feelings towards Glory, while also trying to navigate being out in the wider world.
My first impressions of the cover were that it was tastefully done, showing a female warrior figure who would be at the center of the novel. The color scheme works well together in green, blue, and purple hues on the glossy cover, and the title and author’s name are of a whimsical font. This style is additionally complemented throughout the novel with beautiful chapter title adorations and an overall pleasing font. The quality feel of the paperback in hand is superb and offers a mix between floppy and firm, just right.
I did enjoy Gale’s prose immediately and her voice grew on me as the plot took shape. It has a patient, lingering quality that works well in context of Lucian’s inexperience in the world outside the monastery. It took me a little while to put it in connection with the She-Wolf, a well-respected warrior, who I wasn’t sure how to take right away. She was way gentler than I had imagined and maybe hoped for. In the end it all made sense though.
I don’t recall noticing any editing issues, though perhaps the pacing was a bit slow. It took on gentle ripples towards the middle and I found the first half read a bit differently from the second, in terms of what I was expecting and what actually happened. I had hoped for a shift away from the friendship/love connection as a central idea to a stronger plot component of ‘hurling him headfirst into an adventure’ as stated on the back cover. The last 10 % of the story took on a completely different tone, and albeit very well done, it wasn’t for me. A hint of adventure awaiting and an ominous feeling in Lucian, foreshadows the parts I am most excited about.
My initial impressions upon beginning this one were about how unique it seemed. We have a male monk besotted with a female warrior who sort of sweeps into his cloistered monastic world. My second impression was, “Oh no. It’s written in present tense.” Present tense almost never works for me, and that was certainly the case here. Almost immediately I found myself being jarred out of the story time and time again by the tense. That’s just a personal preference thing–it didn’t bother my fellow judges nearly as much as it did me! To be clear, Gale’s prose is concise and flowing. My issues with it stem entirely from the present tense narrative.
I also have to say that the two main characters are easily likeable and the romantic tension between them works well and feels like it makes sense. My only critique on that front would be that Lucian feels quite young at times…but more on that below.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Of course, it revolves around Glory and Lucian who are both credible and intriguing characters. There were lots of aspects of this book that got me thinking, particularly around the gender reversal. I know that Mark Lawrence once contended that Red Sister could equally as well have been Red Brother with ninja monks just as much as ninja nuns and so – in that case – the story was genderless. I’m not sure I’m convinced by that argument about Red Sister, but certainly His Secret Illuminations would not work remotely so well if written as Her Secret Illuminations. Lucian’s adolescent male obsession with Glory (he is 27 but seems to play 15 in a lot of scenes) and Glory’s slow but respectful seduction of him would at best feel cliched, at worst jar horribly if it was a grizzled warrior knight and a besotted faith-conflicted nun.
Gale gives us a diverse cast of supporting characters, including Shannon the non-binary assistant to Helena the high-class courtesan, and Glory’s other friends in the adventurers’ guild, including Knife a former girlfriend of Glory’s, along with the husband and husband pairing of Black Bear and Apollo. Attention is only drawn to their diversity as part of Lucian’s education in the new circles in which he moves, their gender and sexuality make no difference to the role they play in the story – which is as it should be.
The diverse cast was one of the highlights for me, especially as it was clear that everyone is exactly who they are, no fuss about it.
The absolute biggest draw for me though, is Lucian and Glory’s relationship. There is SO MUCH pining and it is wonderful. Unlike Scarlett, I loved it whenever Glory picked up Lucian and plopped him on a horse. To me, it was reflective of not only her physical strength, but also her desire to look after him, in her own no-nonsense way. Would it have hit the mark as well if their genders were reversed? Perhaps not, but I think it’s likely that Gale would have pulled that off too.
The main characters were both well fittingly portrayed for their roles, I thought. I connected a bit easier with Lucian’s endearing, honest nature though. His inner struggles were very well laid open and his inexperience in the world almost made him child-like. Glory was a little harder to figure out. I wasn’t always sure of her earnestness, but that’s because her feelings were only shown by way of her actions/reactions, vs what was going on in her head. Some moments were very patient of her, at other times, I felt she was maybe belittling Lucian just a bit. I did not like it that much when she picked Lucian up to set him on her lap due to her size or put him on a horse. That was not my cup of tea. Towards the later parts of the novel, Glory took on a truer form for me, as the roles shifted and she afforded Lucian to step up and be who he needed to be, which was her redeeming strength for me.
As Theo had mentioned the characters of Black Bear and Knife, who I adored, as well as most of the scenes when traveling from Inn to Inn. There was something homey in all of them and the camaraderie of Glory’s adventure guild was great. I loved that Lucian found someone to confide in in Knife, who also challenged him and ultimately helped shape him to become a stronger version of himself.
Gale’s inversion of the typical male warrior rescuing female damsel in this story works on a number of different levels. It was fun watching the typical gender roles being reversed. I also thought that Gale did an excellent job of writing believable characters, particularly Glory. The veteran warrior doesn’t come off as a male character written as female, but as a unique individual with unique feelings, experiences, and personality. Glory was definitely my favorite character in the book, though Shannon, the non-binary assistant to an important courtesan was also a lot of fun.
I liked Lucian as well, though I did find him to feel younger than his stated age. There is a certain endearing quality to him as a character. His life in the monastery has been sheltered, and so he enters the outside world quite naive and relies on Glory as his guide. Naivete is certainly believable, as is an unfamiliarity with romance. But at certain points Lucian comes off as an adolescent, and a young one at that, rather than as an adult. That makes the relationship between him and Glory feel a little odd at times. This isn’t a major criticism, as it didn’t distract me from the story overmuch. It was just something I noticed in a couple situations.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
While you could summarise the plot as “two adventurers on a quest fall in love” there is more to His Secret Illuminations than that. Gale uses that simple backdrop to explore themes of equality, diversity, consent, guilt and the place of religion in society and people’s personal lives. Essentially it opens with Lucian in an abusive relationship with his faith – or rather what he thinks his faith demands, and over the course of sundry chapters he comes to realise the lies he has been told. Gale does this without denigrating religion per se but by pointing out how religion and its texts are open to misinterpretation, mis-translation and outright exploitation by those seeking to control the minds and bodies of others. It is a lesson that has a lot of contemporary relevance. Similarly Gale has her characters emphasise some key axioms to live by
When healing a family and yet not charging them the exorbitant fees the Abbot would expect
“No one should die of a curable disease, Eileen.”
When discussing the preservation of Lucian’s purity Glory pronounces
“…and secondly virginity isn’t real, so who cares anyway other than some shitty old men who ought to mind their own business.”
On what genders Glory is attracted to.
“I don’t care much about what a person is, I care about who they are.”
On realising the emptiness of one of the Abbott’s threats
“He was lying,” Lucian says, tipping over into sudden anger. “It was just one more thing to control us with.”
On some of Lucian’s less conventional imaginings of Glory – a wiser priest than the Abbott tells him
“As long as it’s something you both choose and it doesn’t cause either of you harm, there is nothing sinful about desire or acting on it.”
And finally advice from Helena should matters progress with Glory
“The most important thing is to pay attention to your partner and ask questions about what they like. Everything else is just practice… also, pee afterward. It cuts down the risk of infection.”
You may get the feeling that the Lucian, and indeed the book, is a little sex obsessed, which would not be fair, although, there is a strong element of fable in Gale’s story-telling, where a fantastic world setting is used to interrogate some contemporary real world issues.
However, His Secret Illuminations also offers some alternative solutions to fantasy problems when the story does get around to retrieving the first of the missing books. There is an enjoyable, tense and well described bloody and burny conflict over a couple of them. However, the property retrieval strategy for the other two they found is refreshingly different. Much as Glory is a formidable warrior, she and Lucian find ways to get what they need without always splitting heads.
Despite being more character driven then plot driven, there is a surprising amount packed into this book, without it ever feeling bogged down. The exploration of how religion is used to control and manipulate is well-handled, as was the commentary on social equality.
As for their actual mission, while that aspect doesn’t really pick up until the second half of the book, I appreciated that both Lucian and Glory were given the opportunity to resolve conflicts based on their strengths, rather than solving everything with only brute strength or cleverness. As mismatched as their partnership may appear to be, they complement each other well, and it keeps everything interesting.
Not exactly a coming-of-age story but somewhat so, for the monk Lucian as he has been taught a few fallacies during his life in the monastery and is on the path to discover the real world outside the monastery walls. Stifled by the beliefs that sin is connected to his service and his gift, he struggles to do his best in a world that functions completely different from his. In Glory, he makes a caring friend who offers him a freedom of choice but ultimately hopes to have gained his trust and for him to choose her, as they adventure to retrieve stolen books from the monastery. At the 50% mark, the novel begins to be interesting in terms of the mission ahead. Gale uses different situational moments to cast a light on unjust societal norms and offers food for thought that the reader can sort along the way with Lucian. The choice was made to resolve some conflicts, as the one at the bookstore, in an unexpectedly kinder way in contrast to say battle scene after another, which I’m partial to in a novel, though in fantasy I favor action more. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the opened floodgates by the 90% mark. It was entirely too long for me, which overshadowed the mission of the plot to be fulfilled and was followed by a wrap up entirely too swift for me.
I think Scarlett is right when she compares His Secret Illuminations to a coming of age story. It definitely shares plenty with what we might expect to find in a coming of age story. It’s different than that, though. Perhaps a coming-of-age romance? In any case, the story ends up dealing with a vast array of questions, from the ethics of magic and healing and raising orphans to consent and the choices one makes in life. There’s actually a lot that is packed into this story, and yet it never feels like the plot is overfilled or unwieldy.
Actually, the plot is quite tightly focused around Lucian and Glory and their relationship, perhaps to the detriment of other mysterious and potentially sinister elements. In fact, after the initial incident which sees Lucian accompanying Glory out of the monastery, the book does very little with the “main plot” until after the halfway point. That works because the main plot is really Lucian and Glory–this is a romance after all!–but there were moments when I wished the non-romance side of the plot was moving along a bit more, because there are hints that it could become very interesting!
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
This is probably the weakest aspect of the story. Notwithstanding the clever magic system that Lucian uses and starts learning to deploy in combat situations, this is a very recognisable kind of world with 21st century conventions imposed on a pseudo-medieval D&D type setting. The Inns have separate rooms, the adventurers’ guilds have offices in major towns where Glory can keep a room of her own with an en-suite bathroom. Guild business conveniently involves Glory being drawn into many “meetings” so that Lucian can roam on his own. Having worked in secondary schools I’m sure I wasn’t in as many meetings as Glory ends up in – I mean, surely a few of them could have been handled by email (or its fantasy equivalent – pigeon post?). And one pair of characters first got together by going on a dinner date.
That isn’t necessarily a criticism, the world works well as a setting for the story, but it seems clear that Gale really wants to tell us about her characters and their interactions and development, more than the world they inhabit.
I would have liked to see more of the larger world than we get glimpses of in the book – it’s one area where the narrow focus of Lucian’s POV and experience lets the story down. I would expect that might change in sequels, and it’s certainly not a deal breaker, but I was left feeling very curious about the rest of the world. That said, considering the main focus is the characters, it was nice to not be distracted by worldbuilding rabbit holes.
I have to agree with Theo on the worldbuilding part, though I am a sucker for this kind of setting. I actually wanted to read more of Lucian’s gifts and see them develop or diminish further. Much attention has been given to the relationship of the main characters and the worldbuilding became secondary it seems. Though I’m left with some intriguing questions in terms of Lucian’s gained information about the politics at the monastery and the land as well as, if he can impose some of his ways to Glory as a gift, as she has given him so much to draw from.
I agree with what others have already said, above. The worldbuilding is there. It’s not bad, but it isn’t the focus of the story. To me, it could feel a little generic. Nevertheless, it works because the focus is really on Lucian and Glory. The setting is just a backdrop.
Quotations that resonated with you
The book is full of nice lines for example.
When Lucian is anxiously over-thinking their mission
“She squeezes his hand. “Don’t borrow trouble. We’ll get through this together.”
“…the slant of the sunlight tells him he’s slept through breakfast.”
And finally – well it is too much of a spoiler to quote the whole line but certainly the prize for use of the best portmanteau word in spfbo 7 “fuck-soluble”
I am definitely seconding best portmanteau, that definitely had me laughing aloud!
As did this line, the first time Glory and Lucian come properly face to face:
“I know you!” she says in delight as she releases the basket handle. Lucían panics some more, because how could she possibly , when she continues, “You’re the blusher!”
“I did it because you were so kind and caged, and I wanted to see you kind and free.”
“Looks like your magic wasn’t fuck-soluble after all,” is how Glory decides to break the silence…
(Sorry, Scarlett – I just had to redact that quote to prevent spoilers 🙂 Theo)
There were instances where things maybe felt a little too modern, but I didn’t find myself minding that, in fact, this one in particular stuck with me:
“They wake in the pre-dawn light the next day and Lucian’s legs only feel like warm garbage instead of hot garbage, so that seems like a win.”
There were also moments where a character’s internal struggles are well described, for instance,
“Lucian nods and scrubs a hand over his face. He leaves it there, over his eyes, and tries to do what she says, feel his own panic and fear over his brush with death without fighting it.”
Despite its conventional setting this is a very different kind of fantasy – and I use that word advisedly. Gale’s story inevitably progresses from euphemisms for Lucian’s inadvertent arousals “The incredibly enthusiastic response his body is having” or “enough blankets on the bed to camouflage the state of his groin” to a level of tasteful but detailed description more often seen in erotica (so I’m told!). The book is about more than the sex, and more than the growing love story between Lucian and Glory, but it is about “people” and sex and love are part of what people are.
I know we’ve all been talking about the romance a lot, but friends, there is pining and angst and picking up and putting down, and there is definitely only one bed.
The fantasy elements are also great, with an interesting magic system and adventure.
But did I mention the pining?
His Secret Illuminations is a fantasy love story that pairs a shy monk with a buff-bi She-Wolf on an adventure to retrieve books stolen from a monastery. What can go wrong, right? Anyone enjoying a real sizzle, a slow burn plot and erotica, will eat these pages up. Mainly focused on characters, it’s a lovely journey on horseback experiencing friendship and love in this different kind of fantasy.
This is a romance first and foremost, and while the present tense constantly threw me out of the flow of the story, I think readers of romance will find a lot to like here. The relationship between the two main characters is delightfully slow burn. If you love romance, don’t mind the present tense and a bit of erotica, you’ll likely enjoy this.
Now we appreciate that fantasy romance isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but “As long as it’s something you and the author both choose and it doesn’t cause either of you harm, there is nothing sinful about the desire to read it.” But that perhaps, is why His Secret Illuminations got the greatest range of rankings with one of our judges placing it as high as first. So this beautifully written and multi-layered fantasy may also appeal to many of you.