Overall, I thought this was a very imaginative and fun fantasy adventure romance that’s set in this alternative world with magic and flying ships where an assassin stumbles upon a mysterious farm boy, and together they get caught up in each other and a coming war.
What I liked: I LOVE fantasy, and I really love m/m fantasy, and Shepherd’s story is filled to the brim with creative word-building, fantastic settings, and LOADS of adventure. One thing I liked was that I didn’t remember the blurb much outside of “airships, yay!” so I was nicely surprised as the story twists and turns around how assassin Balin’s meets with gentle, sheltered Damir and their building life and relationship, and what happens when the more violent outside world comes crashing down on Damir’s idyllic farm and forces both of them to make some tough choices.
For the most part, I could not guess at all where the story was going. Shepherd has imagination to burn, and this book is most reminiscent of a big fantasy journey story as our heroes embark on their quest.
I really liked the characters, both main and secondary. The main MCs of Balin and Damir were sympathetic and readable, and I enjoyed watching loner Balin get attached to someone just as I enjoyed watching Damir open up to new experiences (and unfortunately, also to some tragedies that change him.) But fortunately, he is not facing them alone, and he and Balin make a fiercely strong couple (and have a lot of hot romantic times along their journey.)
The secondary characters were also interesting, and I particularly liked the secondary couple of Zephyr, an airship pirate captain and his right hand man/lover Israel. (My suspicion is that they may be a lead couple in a future book, which I wouldn’t mind. They’re interesting, and have yet to have their backstory explained.)
What was harder: The three things that brought down my reading a little are--
1) I’d recommend another round of proofing. There were quite a few editing errors, including misused names a few times. Also, a few anachronisms that seemed odd in this fantasy AU world, like when a character says, “Let’s get the fuck out of Dodge.” (Which refers to the old Kansas boomtown of Dodge.) Some of those threw me out.
2) The book is chock full of awesome adventures, and I did really enjoy that it spooled out in this great fantasy epic adventure way. I knew it was part of a series, but I didn’t know how much of series it was going to be. (Is it a series of one-shot stories in the same land? Will it have a cliffhanger? Etc.) Around the 60-70% mark, when the characters were going on a new side-quest that I could tell wasn’t going to resolve the main arc, I had the sinking feeling that I was in the long-term fantasy trilogy land, and from there, I stopped thinking that things would get resolved too much by the end of this one. (And they weren’t.)
BUT for those who hate cliffhangers (like me. I HATE them.), please note that this book does not have a cliffhanger ending. It’s very much in the middle of the journey—our heroes have much to do going forward, but it’s HFN and safe enough of an ending for now, that you won’t be gnashing your teeth too much about what will happen next.
3) Balin and Damir have some awesome sexy times in the book as they explore each other and their relationship. I did think some of the sex could have been culled out. Sometimes it slowed the pacing down, and at times felt like, “big action” -> “chill out after” --> “sexy times” --> back on the road --> “Mmm, a hotel bed. Sexy times!” --> “Action!” --> “healing and comfort” --> “Consoling sexy times!” etc. Probably 2-3 scenes could have been cut without losing the story’s (and the characters’) steaminess.
Will I read the next book? Yes, definitely. Even with my caveats, it was still a really fun read, and definitely hit my fantasy-romance buttons, so I’m on board for the next book, no matter if the author sticks with this book’s main couple or gives Israel and Zephyr the spotlight. Either would work for me.
Do I recommend this book? Yes, especially to other big fans of m/m fantasy. It wasn’t a perfect read for me, but I did enjoy it. Just know that it doesn’t end the journey in this volume, so it’s better to have that expectation of the “long view” for fantasy epics going in. (My assumption is that this will be a trilogy, but am not certain.)
This is the first pro book that I’ve read by Shepherd. (The other work I read by her is one of her earlier pre-pro fictionpress stories Kingdom Come.) This novel is definitely an improvement over her pre-pro writing. I did sometimes find the story almost…over-stuffed, either with action or sex or extra plot or characters, but I think it’s partly a sign of a bursting and vibrant imagination. A little restraint might not be bad, but overall, she has a fun style. (I do think it’s cool that she keeps up her pre-professional work on FP. Not every writer does that.)
A fun read. I recommend some more proofing, but I definitely look forward to the next book, and for big high fantasy romance fans, it may hit many of your buttons.