Princess Oona Talomir enjoys the little things that come with her station: a handmaiden, her lavish bedchamber, and scores of fancy dresses―the duty to win a decades’ long war, not so much.
Oh, did I mention assassins?
Seers foretold the conflict would end by her hand. From the moment she drew her first breath, the neighboring kingdom has been trying to kill her so she could not grow powerful enough to destroy them. Fearing for his daughter’s life, the king has kept her confined to the castle grounds for most of her sixteen years. With the tide of war turning against them, the burden of her crown becomes too much to bear, yet one thing lifts her spirits amid the gloom.
Her servant girl, Kitlyn.
Alas, in a kingdom obsessed with the god of purity, she is terrified to confess her forbidden love. When her father makes a demand she cannot abide―marry a prince to forge a military alliance―Oona panics. He is handsome and honorable, but he’s not Kitlyn. Unable to admit why she cannot obey, Oona does the only thing she can think of, and runs away.
Alone and unprepared in the wilderness, she prays the gods will let Kitlyn find her—before the assassins do.
Goodreads Link: The Eldritch Heart (Eldritch Heart #1)
Author: Matthew S. Cox
Genre: YA Fantasy
Rating: 3/5 stars
The first question I had when I saw this book: what’s an eldritch heart? It’s in the name (twice, because it’s also the name of the series) but there are no clues in the synopsis that mention it at all. The word eldritch makes me expect ghosts, or elves, or something else weirder than this kingdom’s typical magic. The story starts very slowly and doesn’t get around to answering this question, or starting any of the real action, for quite some time. (Over thirty percent through the length, which is longer than normal.)
Second question: how well will a male author be able to write a lesbian couple? There are some male authors who can write from the female perspective and some who fail miserably. (You can find prime examples on r/menwritingwomen.) But lesbian characters, in particular, are often treated in a gratuitous manner to fulfill male fantasies instead of treating them like real three-dimensional people. This question was answered more quickly, but not in a very satisfying way.
From the start, we know exactly how much Oona and Kitlyn are attracted to each other. They spend all their time staring at each other when they’re together and obsessing over the other when they’re apart. They’re constantly touching each other and inches away from kissing almost every time they interact. Now, I get that lots of teens are anxious at this age and flirting is difficult when you’re constantly being watched by the servants, guards, nobles, etc., but how have these two not already ended up in bed together? At one point, Oona has Kit give her a bath and deliberately prances around naked. Yet Kit is still wondering days later, “Does Oona realize what she’s doing?” Especially in a society that insists on such restrictive clothing to look “properly dressed,” someone stretching and posing while fully nude is not an accident!
And oh, my gosh, the boobs. Breasts are mentioned at least once per scene. It doesn’t help that the most popular swears in the culture seem to invoke one or another goddess’s breasts. (Another one involves a goddess’s genitals. I didn’t find similar epithets about any of the male gods’ physical attributes.) Women, even lesbians, are not thinking about their own breasts or another woman’s twenty-four hours a day. This is a common mistake for male writers. Readers don’t need to be constantly told that characters have breasts to remember that they’re female.
Anyway, most of this issue, and other issues like repetitive scenes, goes away once the plot starts. In fact, if you’re reading this book, I’d say you could skip most of the first third and not miss anything important. The very flowery descriptions made some parts drag a little, but otherwise, the pacing was fine after the one-third mark.
Once the plot starts, the story is more interesting and there are twists to keep things from getting too predictable. It’s a fairly standard fantasy plot with a Prophecy and a Chosen One, but of course the Prophecy has a Twist! (Is there such a thing as a straight-forward prophecy that tells you exactly what to expect and comes true with no twists? I don’t think they exist.) The best part of the story is still the affection between Kitlyn and Oona. Even when they’re separated, their love for each other and wishing to make the other one happy is the charming part that kept me reading.
LGBTQ characters: the lead characters are both lesbians who are in love with each other. They face scorn from one culture but there are still characters who accept them. Lesbian fantasy romance is still rare, so it was nice to have this representation. But if you’re a queer reader looking for characters that you can relate to, you may struggle with this one because of the cliched way that the young women are portrayed.
Trigger warnings: spiders and bugs are icky in a few scenes. Later, the violence ramps up to rather graphic yet casual descriptions of heads rolling and entrails spilling. Violent death, homophobia, and maybe a trigger warning for female readers who just can’t stand to see so many mentions of breasts again.
Overall, it was an entertaining read. I’m not jumping to read the next book in the series but I’ll put it on my list for the future because again, these kinds of books are rare. I’d recommend it to fans of lighter, romantic fantasy like Tamora Pierce and H. L. Burke, but with the caveat that it’s written by a male author who doesn’t quite grasp female characters.