I picked up Lord of the Last Heartbeat because I’ve been searching for high fantasy romance books featuring transfeminine heroines, and the third book in the series, The Calyx Charm, is such a book. I’m rarely a series reader, but I am desperate to find this particular unicorn, so I decided to dive into this universe and see what it’s all about. I’m now halfway into the sequel, The Immortal City, and I’m surely glad I decided to visit May Peterson’s ethereal version of queer fantasy.
Lord of the Last Heartbeat is a dark fantasy romance with elements of horror and mystery. There’s a LOT going on in this book, and not all of it was my cup of tea, but I’ll start with what was: the romance, the prose, and the deep-rooted sense of queerness that imbues every page of the book with a radiance, even in the darkest moments.
The romance between Mio and Rhodry is nothing short of sublime. Mio is nonbinary, a singer with the range of a castrato and a magical voice that can get people to reveal their secrets, under the overbearing magical control of his mother. To say he’s got mommy issues would be a laughable understatement. Rhodry is a moon-soul, an immortal bear shifter who’s cursed to—apparently—commit mass murder and hide the bodies. This is no spoiler, as that’s what he’s doing the first time we meet him. The reality is a bit more complicated, as it always is—he lives with his also-cursed ghost ex-wife and some ghost servants in a spooky manor that may or may not contain a nexus to some kind of hell dimension. But that’s not the point! The point is that he’s big and tough and gruff and brooding—but also cursed! To apparently murder over and over! Despite being a big tough grump, he’s so, so soft for Mio, who in turn is the softest person you ever ran across in a book. You see where this is going, romance-wise? It’s delightful.
The romance is pushed to the next level by the prose, which had me highlighting the book in huge swaths of pink (my color of choice for prose that really sparkles). It’s by turns funny, lyrical, painful, deeply moving, and sexy as hell. Let me just show you what I mean.
Funny: “Slowly, I found my feet, grumbling at the sudden lack of whiskey.”
Lyrical: “Life took place in the gaps of the arpeggio, centered always on its scale.”
Painful: “How could I explain that I no longer trusted myself in his presence? My thoughts, my heartbeat, all spoke of disease. I wondered if I disgusted him, both in my immoral desires and my queer body.” Side note: this passage haunted me for days. DAYS.
Moving: “But the most exquisite, simplistic guilt was that of those who merely survived. They avoided death, and forgiveness had slipped away with it.”
Sexy: “I tried to control my motions—a slow drip toward pleasure was also worthwhile. In minutes, I had unwrapped him like a piece of candy.”
I could go on all day. My Kindle is full of notes but let me just say that the prose is great, and you should read it just for that. But it’s not just the wordsmithing of the prose that impressed me. It’s how the prose supports what I believe to be a larger creative purpose: the expression of queerness in a very expansive way that illuminates large swaths of the story.
Let’s start with the main characters. Mio is nonbinary and intersex but uses he/him pronouns. When he was younger, his mother would dress him as a boy or a girl, according to the family’s needs, so he’s accustomed to “passing” as either. His first experience of his magic reads a lot like the first awakening of queerness to me, and it’s beautifully described. He was worried about his voice changing, “…but a different change had already begun. The place that opened in me, like a jeweled window that admitted in strange new lights and colors.”
He’s also accustomed to being mistaken for a castrato, though that custom no longer exists in the current day of the story. When we first see him as a young adult, he’s roughly propositioned by a soldier who takes him for a woman, which apparently happens often, and he’s rather gallantly saved by a mysterious dark figure. This figure is none other than the love interest, Rhodry, who seems to see him in ways Mio doesn’t yet understand. The world is quite queernormative; not that prejudices don’t exist, but there are a variety of identities represented (even more so in the second book).
Rhodry, we come to find out, was married to a woman but has always preferred men, and he handles Mio’s eventual gender reveal with aplomb, asking him openly about his pronouns: “Does it feel wrong to be called ‘he’?” Turns out it’s fine, though Mio doesn’t like the word “man.” It’s lovely to see frank and heartfelt discussions of these topics in a book, and it’s handled exceedingly well. We also discover that Mio first saw transgender people upon coming to this land and was moved by the existence of other people like him. Queer people.
Throughout the book (and on into the second book), we see queer characters—like Mio and Rhodry—moving on from past lives to new ones. Sometimes it means moving from a less accepting family or place to a new, more accepting one. Other times it means dying and being reborn—transcending, becoming a moon-soul or a ghost or something else entirely. There’s a recently ended war in the background, with many survivors facing guilt, many refugees, people seeking new homes and new identities. Sinister forces trying to pull people to dark places, and bright forces trying to break their chains and set them free to live their authentic lives, despite the damage suffered along the way. It’s all about emerging from the old and becoming something new.
I choose to see all of this through the lens of queerness. Perhaps I am over-analyzing it–I have no way of knowing the author’s intentions, but reading this story in a real-world environment when LGBTQ people’s very existence is under attack, it feels like a reasonable interpretation of the text. To me, this book is the story of queer people surviving a diaspora against terrible odds, thriving by clinging together, by fighting together, by pulling each other through hell together. Mio goes through hell—both with his family and in the bizarro world of Rhodry’s haunted mansion—to end up in a relationship with Rhodry his younger self could never have dreamed possible.
Speaking of hell, we get to the parts of the book that worked a bit less well for me. There is a LOT of what you might call supernatural cosmology in this book about the curse, an incubus, something called the Verge, and a kind of underground ghost tree. It was a bit more than my brain could handle. It’s clearly written with passion, and as I said, it does tie into the themes of the book. Some folks will eat it up, but it’s not my jam. And there’s what you might call a mass murder mystery surrounding who’s ultimately responsible for the curse, which takes up a fair amount of page space and didn’t draw me in very much. I would have preferred more time with the romance and less with these two things, but your mileage might vary.
One final note: the smut is very sweet and very hot—I wish there had been more of it, which is almost always true for me. I am quite pleased to report that there is a WHOLE LOT MORE in The Immortal City, for which I will have a review in the next couple of weeks. That should just give you time to grab your copy of Lord of the Last Heartbeat and dig into one of the most intriguing queer fantasy romances I’ve ever read.