A complex narrative and strong characters are a big draw for me as a reader. I didn’t think this story had characters I could connect with at first (I was wrong), but the complexity is there from the moment story begins. The novella is about ties made in danger, love, and by blood as well as bonds of loyalty, history, and ancestors.
Initially, I didn’t like the main character Thanh, Binh Hải princess and lead diplomat, for several reasons, her choices being the biggest one. Every time I thought she would regain my faith, she failed. But that’s not the whole story, nor will you hear it from me. I’ll say only she turned out to have more to her than I saw, nor were the circumstances around her actions straightforward.
Eldris, a princess from the dominant country and Thanh’s former lover, is more straightforward in desire at least. She wants Thanh back and joined this diplomatic mission to negotiate trade concessions for that purpose. Thanh desperately wants Eldris’ love, but the complications it brings on every level make her fear losing control of the fire that sometimes creeps from her dreams to reality.
Speaking of characters, I loved how secondary characters formed a critical part of the cast rather than acting as wallpaper. Thanh’s relationship with her mother, the respect due along with a lifetime of dismissal as the spare, inadequate princess, for example, is a factor in almost every decision Thanh makes. Her growth process occurs in opposition to her mother’s will. And yet, the queen doesn’t stand unchanged by events, a simple wall for Thanh to bounce off, but has the opportunity to grow as well.
Nor were the characters the only strength in this story. The description helped bring each scene to life in a way I appreciate. It neither felt overdone nor sat on the side without relevance to the events unfolding before us. I had some difficulty with the choice of a third person present tense narration. It startled me several times, but I adjusted.
The story is set in a world reminiscent of Vietnam split into countries with long histories and large vulnerabilities Eldris’ country seeks to exploit. The fire that burned down Eldris’ palace when Thanh was a diplomatic hostage there provides an element of magic because it has reappeared around Thanh since returning home, first in nightmares and then in unexplainable flames. Diplomacy is also a big part of the story, with Thanh as the tool of her mother’s will. She’s sent away, brought back, and commanded to use what she learned and connections she made to strengthen their negotiating position.
Both the sense of what stretches behind this moment and Thanh’s unhappy position torn between the woman she loves and the mother she must respect bring a depth to this tale. These elements are interwoven so the romance impacts the diplomacy in multiple ways, while the threat of discovery weighs down both magic and relationships.
With all this in the works, is there any question why the story pulled me in and kept me reading through to the end? I had doubts about motivations from the start, some of which proved warranted, and even when not, the story kept me guessing. I often hoped for one outcome but was unsurprised by another. There are many mysteries playing out, some of which add to the depth, while others are critical and therefore resolved by the end.
The story becomes a game of manipulation. Of characters, but of the reader as well. I wasn’t always sure who to support. Every character did some wrong in my eyes, though a few more than others, making committing to anyone difficult. Each moment is a negotiation, whether part of the overt diplomacy or not. This is not a simple, “good vs. evil” type story, and as such, it speaks to the complexity of real life. Every decision has consequences, and the right choices are not always clear. Only this tale wraps that truth in a beautiful robe with magic, passion, and power as the fine embroidery.
P.S. I received this Advanced Reader’s Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.