All Magic is Beautiful, even the magic that Makes You Tremble with Fear
Reign & Ruin by J.D. Evan surprised me and restored my faith in romantic fantasy, a reader really can have it all.
Not every book is for every person. We know this all too well as reviewers and readers. In the past, I have read a substantial number of romantic fantasy books, some great, some… not so good. The majority of them have a set of set fantasy romance motifs, topes if you will, that snuggly put them into one category or another: Enemies to lovers, friends to lovers, protect or savior, revenge, insta-love, or forced marriage. I am not in the hating tropes camp; I think any trope is acceptable if done well.
I don’t need every book to reinvent the wheel; that in itself would become exhausting. What I do need is sympathetic characters, a consistent plot, engaging scenes, and a movement of the story that carries me from one page to the next. So when I say that Reign and Ruin might be one of the best romance fantasy novels I have ever read, take that in the spirit of someone who has been around the block a few hundred times.
Let me explain to you a bit about Reign & Ruin. The story stars two characters; one is the princess and heir to the throne of Tamar, Naime. She is the daughter of a sultan who is slowly losing his faculties and a woman holding the kingdom together with the fierceness of her will and the strength of magic. She is bold and calm because that is what is required of her to ensure the safety and well-being of her people.
Naime never strays too far into one way or another. She doesn’t become a parody of the “girlboss” stereotype; she is herself, wholly, honestly, and unequivocally. Evans could have made a lot of mistakes with Naime. Throwing over her kingdom and goals for a love interest, being false to herself, or just being a bitch as if that was the only way to get ahead. Evans does none of these things. Naime is not fragile; quite the opposite. But she is not all strength; there is a fragility inside her as there would be for anyone under immense pressure. I found her character refreshing and surprising. She also doesn’t need Markham to show her the errs in her strength, that only if she let her guard down, she would be so much better. Screw that.
“You will never find a battleground more relentless and exhausting than a royal court in transition.”
Markam is the younger brother of Sarkum, Tamar’s neighboring country. He is the leader of the military and has come to Tamar to speak with Naime about a possible alliance, one that will benefit both of their lands. Tamar is rich in mage blood but weak in military might. Sarkum is the opposite. Again his characterization could have gone very poorly. He has a type of magic loathed and feared across the lands and is too powerful, so he has been put down, shamed, and shunned for his entire life. This could have led to him being broken, and Naime is the only person who can fix him. It would have cheapened the story if it had been. Instead, Markam is loyal but blind to some things. He is strong, respected, and intelligent. If he had not met Naime, he still would be all of these things and more.
Both of these characters desperately want to save their homelands from The Republic – A land set on anyone with mage blood’s destruction.
These two characters are at the center of deep political intrigue, mental sparing, and culture clashing. I think that even without the romantic elements, this story can very quickly stand on its own with the strength of its fascinating magic system and world-building. All of which are shown and not told. I felt immersed in the courts of beautiful fabrics, baked dusty sands, and frigid frozen landscapes. A plum is not just a plum but a fruit that explodes in the mouth of the reader and drips down their chin.
“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.”
My only quibble with this story and why I did not give it a perfect score is that it was a touch slow in the beginning. I say quibble, as it truly was compared to how the rest of the book sailed by. This is understandable as it is a complicated and richly cultured world, and the setting explains how the characters relate to each other and their respective courts.
Reign & Ruin is a romantic fantasy story that appeals to die-hard lovers of romance and fantasy. Something that is not easy to do, as one usually takes a back seat to the other. I am so glad that SPFBO introduced me to this book, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the books in the series.