REIGN AND RUIN by J.D.Evans (SPFBO 7 FINALIST REVIEW)
And so we enter the final week of SPFBO 7 with the Hive Judges’ third favourite book of this final month.
“All magic is beautiful,” she said, “and terrible. Do you not see the beauty in yours, or the terror in mine? You can stop a heart, and I can stop your breath.”
She is heir to a Sultanate that once ruled the world. He is an unwanted prince with the power to destroy.
She is order and intellect, a woman fit to rule in a man’s place. He is chaos and violence and will stop at nothing to protect his people.
His magic answers hers with shadow for light. They need each other, but the cost of balance may be too high a price. Magic is dying and the only way to save it is to enlist mages who wield the forbidden power of death, mages cast out centuries ago in a brutal and bloody war.
Now, a new war is coming. Science and machines to replace magic and old religion.
They must find a way to save their people from annihilation and balance the sacred Wheel—but first, they will have to balance their own forbidden passion. His peace for her tempest, his restlessness for her calm…
Night and day, dusk and dawn, the end, and the beginning.
The cover is different and striking in its way, but doesn’t really appeal to me. It is skilful artwork, but the positioning of the title and the text and the white space around the central images of the protagonists make it feel like something that would fit better in a frame on a wall than as a book cover. The prose is smooth and peppered with nice lines, but it does at times descend into a languid description or patches of purpleness that I found myself skimming. Pretty much from the off it’s clear that this is “a kissing book” – although the protagonists’ lips (and other bits) don’t meet until some way in.
I like the cover art, the detail is really nice. I’m not sure it would catch my eye on a shelf, but it is still very lovely.
Overall, I really enjoyed Reign & Ruin. It did take me a little bit to get into, but once it had me hooked, I was well and truly caught. The romance and political intrigue are well balanced, and kept me interested the whole way through.
The cover of Reign & Ruin is of simple elegance. The white background with the beautifully drawn characters in black to grey and the two-tone nuances in writing and accents make it simply beautiful. I love the expression and idea of how the characters are portrayed, but the cover might be missing that something-something to add a bit more vibrancy. On the inside, however, there is nothing spared in terms of adorning the pages with backgrounds, fonts, map, symbols and large letterheads.
Initially, I had some trouble finding my way with his book in terms of the flow and terminology. I haven’t read many novels with sultans etc. and I just felt like either I or the story was hovering on stilts till it eased up about 25% into the novel.
As Theo mentioned skipping some patches in reading, I found myself doing the same thing in moments of languid romance scenes, though admittingly, I am not one for romance in novels at all.
Above, Theo mentions that the cover art seems more like something that should go in a frame on the wall rather than as a book cover. I just want to point out that this is exactly the kind of cover art I love. Give me something that I could hang on my wall! That’s what I find interesting and striking in terms of book covers…and that’s what we get with the cover of Reign & Ruin. I think it’s a wonderful cover, and it definitely intrigued me when I first saw it. As Scarlett mentions, there’s also some wonderful interior designs. The production values on this one are top notch!
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
The story is a two-hander focussing on Naime – the Sultan’s daughter and Makram – the Mizra’s brother. Both feel like complete characters with their own conflicts and issues. Naime forced to tread a subtle path of political intrigue in order to retain control of her destiny and her father’s kingdom. Makram, shunned by a brother he loves in a country suspicious of the power of his magic. So events throw them together when they bend the rules in different ways to try and secure their positions. Makram makes a good warrior mage, though he is perhaps a little over-powered – once the reader knows what he can do, it seems strange that he allows himself to be constrained by convention or by others. I found Naime a bit more intriguing because she has to resort to mind rather than muscle to secure her goals. Besides who wouldn’t like a character who spends a lot of time in a library!
Their respective side-kicks, handmaiden Samira and warrior Tadek play their parts well, loyally supporting their principals, but also challenging them.
I found Ishan, Naime’s enigmatic scarred cousin, the character I wanted to know more of. The absence of detail left me with an impression of still waters running deep, but possibly I read more between the lines than was there and he serves merely as a pawn in the plot.
I quite liked all of the characters. Naime and Makram’s storylines were equally compelling (although perhaps Makram’s internal struggles were a smidge more interesting than Naime’s), and I enjoyed learning more about them and the countries/societies that they live in. I liked their relationship a lot. It was interesting and well-paced, and they worked really well together.
I would have liked to see a bit more of secondary characters, especially Ishan. I hope he plays more of a role in the rest of the series because I would love to know more about what’s going on in his mind.
Naime is the 24 year old daughter of the Sultan and is now member of the High Council and therefore has seen plenty of times first-hand how some members have a lust for power. As a character I found Naime was portrayed hesitantly at first but quickly learning to navigate the territory of needing to keep a balance of power and protect her people….even if that means to go by it in new, unexpected and unconventional ways. In all during the unfolding of the story, she grows as person while parts of her life fall apart giving rise to the intellect she actually possesses.
Into Naime’s initial storyline, Makram comes crashing in her families’ current strategy to keep the political powers stable. Makram has his own intentions and reasons for seeking Naime’s audience while keeping his powers a guarded secret. I enjoyed that part about his character because he didn’t try to impress only physically but also used restraint to establish himself as a character, which in turn, impressed Naime much later in the story. The struggles of Makram and his brother was both a great addition to the dynamic with much darker motivations and power struggles, yet I found myself not fully invested in his brother’s way of thinking. Perhaps it needed to be a bit more fleshed out, or perhaps it’s just on my part that I personally perceived it that way.
Others have given an excellent summation of the characters already. I’ll add that, while I preferred Naime’s perspective and storyline, I also found Makram’s enjoyable. In fact, I didn’t have any problem switching from one point of view to the other. That is to say, I enjoyed each perspective about equally.
In my opinion, Evans does good job of distinguishing both of the viewpoint characters’ voices. In addition, each of them have realistic struggles both internally as well as externally.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
The plot is relatively simple – two people combating prejudices of their respective courts to try and forge an alliance their nations don’t realise they need. A lot of the conflict is played out in verbal sparring between Naime and the ambitious Grand Vizier. Markam does get his moments of combat action but I found the pace of the story slowed down when it dwelt in their romance. As she set out in her acknowledgments, the author was captivated by her central characters and, in wanting to do justice to their love, does at times veer more towards steamy smouldering romance than fast paced fantasy,
The overall plot follows more of a romance structure than fantasy, and so there are few surprises as the book progresses. This wasn’t an issue for me, as I quite enjoy romances, but I can definitely see it causing problems for people who aren’t used to it. My suggestion would be to sit back and enjoy the ride, even if you know the route!
I really liked the political intrigue side, and how it gave us an insight into the worldbuilding without having to stop and explicitly explain everything all the time.
As I mentioned earlier, it did take me a few chapters to get into the story but once that initial hiccup was out of the way, the structure and pacing were great.
Nations are lead by the High Council via alliances and the need to balance the wheel through equal/complementary powers of mages. The main character Naime is resigned to solving this through an alliance by marriage when other options come her way and another powerful square player stands in the way. The main characters are told in their respective POV’s and have their own backgrounds to deal with. The story of Naime caring for her ill father is especially tender and a romance that shouldn’t flourish, does…there are slow, delicate and sweet moments between the main characters found, while the plot revs up and all factions are on high alert.
This is where the story doesn’t hold up as well for me, honestly. The solution to the presenting problem seems incredibly obvious from basically chapter three onward, although it takes the main characters a great deal of time to actually figure this out. This is ironic because, as it turns out, the solution is what they both want anyway! In fairness, this is a romance novel. I’m not a huge romance reader, so I’m told this is fairly standard for the genre. I’ll add that I found the world building and other plot elements to be extremely engaging and I actually wanted more of those. There is a lot going on in the world from a political and military perspective–to say nothing of magic!–and I really wanted to know more about all of that and perhaps less about the romance.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
This I think is a great strength of the book. The idea of six schools of magic arraigned as spokes on a conceptual wheel is a great way to augment the traditional concepts of Earth, Air, Fire and Water magic with those of Death and of Creation.
The sense of magic as a force within each person that can almost palpable leak out (become untethered) and of levels of magic use all come through the text in a way that is immersive rather than didactic. The contrasting nations, one with strong military and weak magic, the other strong magic and weak military help to frame the struggle the protagonists face. I also felt drawn into the sub-plot of the Sultan’s dementia, triggered perhaps by his use of a kind of memory magic (I do love me a bit of memory magic).
The world is richly described and more middle-eastern in feel than what seems to be traditional fantasy. Food, buildings and clothing are all conveyed with a variety of familiar and unfamiliar terms. I will confess I did not recognise many of the named items of clothing which meant I couldn’t reliably tell how far the steamy romance had progressed based on which items of clothing they had removed, suffice to say though, there were a lot of items to remove.
The worldbuilding was tremendous. The magic system was really cool, and I liked how each house worked in balance with each other – both in how each house had an opposite, as well as each individual person needing to remain in balance to maintain control. I also liked that there were different ways the magic manifested within each house/person, this helped keep it interesting. I hope that future books go more into how the magic works, because I feel like this book is just starting to dip its toes in, and I’d really like to know more.
I really appreciated the way we were shown the various cultures, rather than told about them, and how the political histories were woven into the plot. It helped make the world feel really immersive and natural.
Like I had mentioned, it took me a little while to get my reading feet on with this one since there was quite a bit of information and dynamic to take in at the beginning. Just when I had it down, Makram crashed everything in the best possible way though and moved the plot much more swiftly. I enjoyed the magic system of 6 powers that are connected and balanced in a sort of wheel, though in this story the division of the Sultanate by the ancestors during the Sundering War created an unbalance that could be fixed in 3 different ways: by alliance/marriage, diplomacy, or by force. I find this concept of the wheel hugely full of endless possibilities…like an epic undertaking of a story that can go on and on with 6 factions involved. As the story stands, it was only fractionally touched on, so the potential for more is there to follow up. Have there been stories as such? Yes, plenty, but the beauty is in the individual take on it. In this case, I felt a heavy Middle Eastern cultural influence, textured and enriched in the text observing foods, clothing and various settings. There should definitely be more of it in fantasy, I think.
Evans does a phenomenal job of describing a wonderfully varied world. We have different cultures, political systems, and climates all described richly and carefully. There is also a deep history between the two main kingdoms, and that history felt “lived in” and authentic. I loved all of the world building elements of this novel. I think they’re just handled so well. My favorite, however, was the magic. The way certain magics counter other magics, balancing them, and the need for that balance was really interesting. I also enjoyed the way that Evans weaved that magic naturally into both the romance plot and the rest of what was happening in the story. That was really well done and deserves a lot of praise. My only complaint with the world building was that I wanted more of it! I still have many questions about the magic, for instance, and would have liked to have had it explained in a little more detail.
Quotations that resonated with you
As I said, this is clearly “a kissing book” so I found a particular Westley resonance in this line when Naime is telling Makram that she cannot allow him to call her by her name (rather than title).
He dipped his head. “As you wish.”
I also liked this line as Makram reflects on the nature of his death magic as something natural rather than horrific
“Everything dies. Everything decays. Walls are reduced to rubble, bones to dust, experiences to memories.”
Naime’s dilemma as a woman in a man’s world comes through here.
“She owed him thanks, and she didn’t want to thank him or owe him anything.”
There are quite a few beautiful lines throughout this book, but these were some of my favourites.
“That was the danger of names. They were more effective at removing barriers than even destruction magic.”
“I am reckless. You are willing to stand for a belief that goes against lifetimes of hate and prejudice, that caused a brutal and bloody war, to challenge the most powerful men in Tamar with nothing and no one at your back. Not for personal gain, but because you believe it is what is best for all.” He tipped his head back again. “That is the bravest thing I have ever witnessed.”
“It doesn’t feel brave, it feels necessary, as if I sat back and did nothing I might cease to exist.”
“That is why there must be balance. To relieve the terrible with the beautiful, to make the beautiful more precious for the threat of its absence.”
In retrospect, the Poem of the Wheel all makes sense after reading the novel:
I’m balanced for I am broken
Parts that make a whole
Paid to mold my soul
For we are nothing
And we are all
The darkness that is rising
And the light that cannot fall
I loved this line:
The Wheel’s balance sometimes struck like a viper.
The world building and the romance drive this one and at times it settles a little too deeply and perhaps indulgently into its romance aspect. There are parts of the plot – documents that go missing, false messages that outpace the real ones – that feel a little contrived, a means of positioning the characters where the author needs them, rather than where the story ought to take them. Nonetheless it is an exquisitely described world with a compelling central pairing that make for an enjoyable read.
This was a really enjoyable book, and a series I will definitely be continuing with. The characters were great, the magic was great, the writing was great. I do think people that don’t like any romance at all will struggle, but I do think it’s worth trying anyway, because the rest of the plot is just as fantastic.
I had a little difficulty understanding/connecting everything at first in this novel due to my unfamiliarity with certain words and cultural aspects/terminology. However, I liked the prose and care given in writing this novel, it read fluidly once I had a handle on it and I felt invested in the characters. Aside from the romance aspects, I think some of the action and ambitions of the characters could have been a bit more fleshed out, but overall I enjoyed this quite a bit.
My overall thoughts on this one are so unfair to the book. I’m not a huge fan of romance, and this is–at its heart–a romance book. I loved the cultures, the magic, and the political side of the plot. I found the romance side to be much less engaging and, as I mentioned, fairly obvious from the early going. I think romance fans who are looking for something with a fantasy flair are going to adore this book. Fantasy fans who don’t enjoy romance will have a much harder time with it. Those who love both are obviously the intended audience and will likely devour it quickly.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark||7|