Whispers of Shadow & Flame

by L. Penelope
October 1, 2019 · St. Martin’s Griffin
Contemporary RomanceLGBTQIARomance

Oh, this book made me so happy. I had DNFed ten books within the first chapter before starting Whispers of Shadow & Flame, and I’m so grateful for this read for pulling me out of every book lover’s worst nightmare. You know that sensation when you’re reading something and you can just feel the joy bubbling within because it’s so freaking good? That’s what reading Whispers of Shadow & Flame felt like. Issues with the POV shifts aside, it’s an exquisite fantasy with a central romantic element, unparalleled world-building, gorgeous prose, and thought-provoking political commentary.

Two essential things to know: 1) Whispers of Shadow & Flame is #2 in a series, but can be read without reading Song of Blood & Stone. It is set in the same time frame but follows different characters; and 2) I’ve seen some people classify this book as a fantasy romance; while I agree that the romantic element is essential, this book ends in a cliffhanger. I’m fairly confident that the characters’ fates will wrap up happily in the next book, but I’m not sure. All I know is that it doesn’t happen within this book. You have been warned, romance readers (but still read this because the romance is very good).

My brief accounting of the premise isn’t going to do the story justice. It’s the bare bones of a wonderfully detailed and engrossing world, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Generations ago, the True Father deposed the Queen and seized power. At the advent of betrayal, the Queen became the Queen Who Sleeps — not dead, but not alive either. The event caused the creation of a magical barrier between two kingdoms, Elsira and Lagrimar, and the True Father rules over Lagrimar.

Fast forward to now: the Mantle (the magical barrier) is breaking and the True Father is the Immortal King, a cruel ruler who oversees unspeakable acts against his subjects.

TW/CW sexual violence

He has what he terms harems filled with kidnapped girls and he fathers children who fight in his armies.

All Lagrimari children are shipped to the city to be stripped of their Earthsong (life energy, or magic that everyone is born with). Citizens are rewarded if they report any sign of traitors among the community, and those accused are executed without a trial. The list of atrocities goes on and on. It’s a kingdom of terror and subservience, and it seems hopeless to even attempt to rebel as the Keepers are doing.

Kyara is the daughter of the True Father and his prized assassin. Unlike those who can wield Earthsong (unless their magic was stripped away as children), Kyara controls blood magic and wields it to kill.

Her warped Song prowled inside her, restless. It wanted to launch itself into the maelstrom of source energy, to ride the brutal currents of the force like a kite in a violent wind. She shuddered and reined in her power. Instead of giving in to the despised urge, she opened her mind’s eye. The world fell away, leaving only a field of black. She spread her senses, shutting out the energies of the overcrowded city and focused on this home, this room. Moving arcs of white light burst across her vision, like the undulating waves of brightness produced by a fire dancer swinging a torch.

This was Nethersong. Her gift and her curse.

Just as all life carried energy—Earthsong—so did death. And while an Earthsinger may grow crops from seeds or feel the pulse of life moving in the plants and animals around them, Kyara did the opposite.

Ordered to go undercover and bring back the mysterious Shadowfox (a rebel Keeper who serves the Queen Who Sleeps and still retains his Earthsong), Kyara is resigned to her new assignment. She doesn’t particularly want to do it, but she doesn’t have a choice either. And when she encounters Darvyn and his band of Keepers trying to save and smuggle out kidnapped children, her mission becomes even harder. Still, it’s difficult to not grow attached and her loyalties are torn, especially as she’s looking for the Shadowfox within the Keeper ranks (I think you must all realize who the Shadowfox is by this point!).

Okay, premise done. Now I can scream: I LOVE THIS BOOK. The magic! The heart-wrenching prose! The angst (she was sent to kill him BUT SHE LOVES HIM)! They’re just so tortured. And if I sound gleeful about that when I shouldn’t… well, I can guiltily admit that I love it when the protagonists are suffering at first. It makes the mutual heart eyes and the falling in love parts so much better.

I am super critical of romantic elements in fantasy novels, mostly because I read so many romance novels that I usually find that element unsatisfactory and improperly crafted outside the genre. This is not the case here. And honestly, if it wasn’t for the cliffhanger ending, I would’ve happily labeled this a fantasy romance. So if you’re someone who doesn’t mind a cliffhanger ending, I think you’d really enjoy this book.

The whole “assassin falls in love with the rebel leader trying to bring down empire” reminds me of the Luke Skywalker/Mara Jade vibe from the Star Wars books, an obscure pairing that literally no one but me cares about. The “Assassin/Rebel Leader” is an excellent relationship archetype because 1) it’s enemies-to-lovers, but without the cruel animosity. The assassin doesn’t have anything personal against her target; she’s just doing her duty to the empire, an organization she may not necessarily love (and might be brainwashed into obeying). So there’s always a ton of epic (and sexy) physical violence, but it’s not like they actively hate each other; and 2) the rebel hero is always like “why am I falling in love with someone who is going to hurt my people? I have RESPONSIBILITIES. She is the last person in the world that I should care about.” Yeah, right. Because of course she’s going to end up the most important person in your world, everyone catches feelings that they pretend not to have, and I end up a sobbing mess and curled into a ball.

Kyara isn’t brainwashed. She’s perfectly aware of how terrible and vicious the True Father is, but she doesn’t see a way out of her situation either. It’s just easier to keep obeying orders and not raise a fuss because the alternative is so much worse. And she’s pragmatic about her options and skeptical about the Keepers. Why should she trust some sleeping queen that she’s never seen or has reason to believe in? How does she know that their reign will be much better?

She shook her head. “Do you really think you can win against the immortal king? His power is limitless.”

“Everything has limits. If he were omnipotent he would be able to leave Lagrimar. The Mantle would be nothing but an inconvenience. But it keeps him in check. Even he has weaknesses.”

“Well, good luck finding them.” Her fingers worried a stone at her feet. She dug a small hole, creating a tiny hill of soil.

“Chip away at a mountain little by little and you’ll dig a tunnel,” he said.

“So that’s what saving the children is? A chip of rock from a mountain?”

“We save who we can. Not nearly enough, but you can’t save everyone.”

Outrage snaked through her. She destroyed her little pile, flattening it with the palm of her hand. “And what happens when you die and the sum of your life is a pile of dust at your feet? The mountain won’t even have felt it.”

He leaned forward, forcing their gazes to collide. “Chip away enough and he’ll feel it. When I’m gone, someone else will grab my pick.”

I said earlier that Kyara isn’t brainwashed into believing that the acts of atrocity are good. But she lacks hope and refuses to believe that there’s a way out, choosing not to rebel or fight. She’s exhausted from being an assassin for the past decade. One of my favorite parts of the novel was watching Kyara realize that there is still some faith within her, that she hasn’t given up entirely yet. Like Darvyn, she eventually chooses to chip away at the mountain, little by little. Her transformation filled me with hope in a novel filled with despair and uncertainty. Things are bad, but I have faith that everything will be okay because Kyara learns to have faith in herself. Gahhhh, I just love her so much. She’s definitely entered my pantheon of Favorite Heroines Ever.

I haven’t talked about the world-building much, but there’s not much that I can say that isn’t incoherent squealing. Every passing reference to an unimportant character’s backstory made me wish that there was an entire book about that person. If I counted all the tangential stories I wanted, it would be in the hundreds. Early on in the book, a storyteller narrates a folktale about the Mistress of Spiders and the Master of Scorpions, two of the original nine Earthsingers that everyone is descended from. When the storyteller finished, all I could think was, “I wish there was an entire book of these fables because I would devour them.” There is so much care and detail put into every aspect of creating this fantasy world, and it is so satisfying for readers to immerse themselves into the story.

While I (obviously) loved this book a whole lot, I found the POV shifts from the Kyara/Darvyn storyline to the unrelated Zeli storyline to be jarring. I kept expecting the storylines to intersect and that never happened. Every time the POV changed, my brain had to recalibrate and remind myself what was happening in this part of the story. I still enjoyed the different plots; it was just difficult to get used to the constant transitions.

Despite my minor complaint, I enthusiastically recommend Whispers of Shadow & Flame to any fantasy reader (and romance readers who don’t mind a cliffhanger). I’m on tenterhooks waiting for the next book (damn you, cliffhanger!) and I may just reread to hunt for clues on what’s coming next. I love stories where I just know that a reread will enhance my reading experience. Whispers of Shadow & Flame is a book to be savored, and it’s so worth it.

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