** This review is word-for-word as that contained within the Blessed Epoch, Vol. 1 review **
Book 4: Cairn and Covenant
POV: Octavian, Myrddin, Karl
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
So, apparently, this is a prequel to the entire series and I'm really not sure why it's included in the bundle, when it is so out of place within the timeline. I get that it's exploring events after the Johmatra war, within the timeline of the ten years of Octavian's life it travels through, but I really don't see why it couldn't have been a companion novel, while the parts with Yarrow were shown in Sasha's POV, since he's the most capable and likely to be able to spy on people enough to overhear whatever Octavian and his new lover spoke about.
It's an ambitious story, that's for sure, but it tries to fit far too much – ten years of a man's life and achievements, as well as linking to Yarrow's story – within 445 pages. And it feels even longer.
I also feel a little frustrated by the “non-labelled” beginning, which I presume is the original 0.5 story “A Lesson and a Favor”. The short blurb in this volume describes Cairn and Covenant as “Octavian Rose was given a second chance thanks to an assassin’s unexpected mercy.” except that it's not true. Sasha wasn't sent to kill Octavian, but the people holding him captive, so there was no need for mercy. I was expecting Octavian to be some target or part of a group target, to fulfil the 'mercy' part, but it never happened, which is annoying because it completely set me up for the wrong thing. It's also kind of weird to read about Sasha having sex with Octavian, eight years ago, when you know how deeply in love he is with Yarrow. That's part of the reason it really doesn't belong where it's been placed; it's disorientating to try to forget what's happened until now to move into a past timeline that means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
The story is told in Octavian's POV primarily, while adding in Myrddin's POV (though, for me, he's too like Duncan as an expendable, not necessary character for me to care much). There's even a point where Karl, a random minor character, gets his POV just so that we can see one singular event that we're already set up to know happens. A simple addition of dialogue or explanation somewhere else would have made his POV obsolete. However, it gets confusing when we switch from 3rd person to 1st, during Octavian's journal entries. It takes some getting used to, as I'm not a fan of shifting tenses within a story.
There's something very familiar about all of this → it's a carbon copy of book 1! The characters are the same – Duncan/Myrddin, Yarrow/Octavian, Sasha/Sylvain – and the dangerous beginning with the plot arc of a character needing to prove themselves is so reminiscent of Yarrow that it's hard to tell the two apart. They even have the whole “sometimes illusions have their place”, “stronger than he thinks” and “people want to be led” conversations repeated throughout dialogue and the main text, exactly as Sasha and Duncan have repeatedly gone on and on about both, during the previous three books.
Octavian is an interesting character, but it's hard to tell if that's because of who he is or because he's so like Yarrow, who I already love. His brief and fortuitous meeting with Sasha was intriguing, but there really was just too much story. It all linked together, as the entire book was about following Octavian from boyhood to warrior, but once again there was a lack of consistency when it came to detail. It could have easily been a hundred pages shorter if you removed the copious sex (which I, again, skimmed) as well as the scenes we really didn't need to see directly. That would have made way for some of the more interesting scenes to get more attention than they were given.
There is no explanation in timeline or dialogue given for how or when Octavian learned to read sign language, sign it and understand it so well as to have a rant with Dirk. At one point on the page, he says he's barely able to follow, that he knows some words etc, then at a later point, he's ranting away with a long flowery speech that would be impossible for a novice. Sure, he's been around Dirk for a few weeks/months, as far as we know, but there's no explanation for how quickly it happens.
Fabrezio – Breeze – is in this story quite a bit, beginning at around late teenage years and progressing over the next ten years. However, the side story “Wine and Roses” of the new Other Paths series, is meant to be about him. But, we know all we need to know about him and his journey in this book. It tells us everything we need to know about where he went, why, what happened and whether or not he goes back or not, and what reception he's likely to receive, so I really don't understand why he needs his own novel when we see everything we need to know about him here. It confuses me, because I feel a little duped. I went and bought Wine and Roses only to feel like I know everything I need to know about that book from this story. Fabrezio is such a minor character, though interesting, that it really doesn't feel necessary for him to have an entire 224 page book about him.
What I did want to see, read about or explore, was Sylvain returning to his lost love from Elvara. Instead, he enjoyed a lot of sleeping around, including being part of Octavian and Myrddin's open relationship, while never exposing more than a glimmer of what lay underneath.
The way Octavian grieved, forgetting during his drunken nights and then having to remember his loss again, was heartbreaking to read. It was one of the few moments where I was really able to connect with him, as a character. I especially liked the way that he and Yarrow got along so well, when they met at the end of the novel. It's no wonder that they got along, being so similar, but it was nice to see that both Octavian and D'Aurelian feared Yarrow so much as to consider him a threat worth keeping an eye on. They seem to be the only two, bar Sasha, who really understand how devastatingly dangerous Yarrow might be. However, I find it really weird and a little disturbing, that Octavian keeps calling himself old, that he's grey haired and wrinkled, at just age 38. It makes him read like he's eighty, when he's in the prime of his life. It's very off putting.
I'm also, honestly, a little disappointed that Sylvain never returned to offer his condolences to Octavian over his loss or even helped fight at his side. He was so close to Octavian, more than any other person in the Roses, that it felt wrong for him not to even acknowledge it. Either he never heard about it (which seems impossible, since the entire world is shook up over the Johmatra incident and word has spread all throughout Garith's kingdom about Octavian's rule) or he selfishly didn't care, once his life was back on track. Either way, I wanted an explanation. Even a sentence. And I hope I get it in future stories, somewhere.
Overall, I took a star off for the massive similarities to Yarrow's story – characterisation, dialogue, copious sex and a plot that flags frequently – while I took another star off for the fact that it's unnecessarily placed and far too long. It's a good story, but putting it between books 3 and 5 just breaks up the flow of Yarrow's journey, for no reason. It tells us nothing vital to our understanding of what Yarrow is going through, unless we also get Octavian's POV in book 5, which I'm yet to discover.
I don't see why this couldn't have been a nice little story within the Other Paths companion series, just like Breeze's story is, or a 4.5 novella of Yarrow encountering Octavian and learning about him organically, through his reputation, instead of leading us through ten years of history that is only important to Octavian and is likely to have no bearing on what comes next except that those ten years led him to Yarrow. Unless his debt to Julien comes back into play, it really makes no sense. It doesn't feel necessary to rehash the entire Battle of Starlight Bridge when we saw it all already. Sure, a whole two seconds worth of what happened there relates to Breeze ending up with his own story but, again, it's already told directly to Octavian, so it doesn't need to be shown in the battle or in its own novel.
It makes no sense to take us eight years into the past, before any of the events of Yarrow's journey, putting more distance between the reader and the events of book 4 which, at this point, I feel like I have to go back to re-read just to remember what has happened, which is something I'm not willing to do at this juncture.
“Yarrow was dangerous, like a storm, as likely to decimate his allies as his enemies.”
Short: Archer's Regret
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
So, this is the story I wanted of Sylvain going to Elvara to search for his lost love. Except, it's 1% long, which is probably all that was needed to tell Breeze's story as well. I'd rather have enjoyed a nice long 200+ page novel about Sylvain, who was left a complete mystery in Cairn and Covenant, than read about a story where I already know the ending.
However, that's a problem for another day.
I liked this story, but it felt rushed and I'd have liked it to be at least double the length, if not longer, just to properly explore all the nuances of Sylvain and Aeris' problems. I would have liked to have seen a flashback or recollection of their first meeting, or something that shows me they really know each other, something to show us who Sylvain and Aeris are as people on their own, before throwing them together. I felt very little chemistry between them, because everything they have with each other is in the path, so we don't get to see anything bar them having sex and arguing.
This story, however, is simply about Sylvain taking a risk and trying to get Aeris back. Nothing more, nothing less, and with very little detail about the who, how, what or why. I was, in a word, disappointed.