Alternate Title: All You Need Is One Good Reisen. Er, Feyreisen.
The Chick: Ellysetta "Ellie" Baristani. A strange, carrot-topped foundling adopted by a kindly woodcarver and his wife, Ellie considers herself too weird and plain-looking to attract a good husband - until she inexplicably calls Rain Tairen Soul, King of the Fey, down from the sky to declare her his truemate.
The Rub: Rain represents magic, mystery, and madness - all the things she is trying to flee from or suppress in herself. Also, regardless of the inevitability of truemating, the human aristocracy is less than pleased that the King of the Fey wants to elevate a mere peasant to be his Queen.
Dream Casting: Kirsten Dunst.
The Dude: Rainier vel'En Daris Feyreisen - a.k.a. Rain Tairen Soul. As a "tairen soul," Rain can control all five magics (the four elements and Spirit), and can shapeshift into a tairen (giant flying cat). Tairen Souls are not meant to have truemates, but when he bonds with a young girl from Celieria, all rules change.
The Rub: While a truemate gives Rain a chance at true love, it also puts himself and the Fey in extreme danger. The last time Rain lost a woman he cared about, he nearly destroyed the world in his madness - and the Fey have many enemies who would love to get to Rain through Ellie.
Dream Casting: Eric Bana.
Rain: How am I ever going to save my people?
Eye of Truth Magical Whatchamacallit: *Here! Have this plot device!*
Rain: Ellysetta Baristani! You are my truemate!
Ellie: You gotta be kidding me.
Rain: No, really!
Celieran Aristocracy: Ellysetta? She's an ugly peasant! *snub*
Rain: GRAAH! SHE IS PRETTY AND PERFECTLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY AND I WILL MAGICALLY PISTOLWHIP ANYONE WHO SAYS OTHERWISE! ARRRGH! GROWL!
Ellie: Chill, Rain.
Rain: HOW CAN I CHILL, YOU ARE THE HEART OF MY HEART AND I MUST BLOW EVERY SINGLE ANNOYANCE YOU HAVE COMPLETELY OUT OF PROPORTION ISN'T THAT WHAT LOVE IS ALL ABOUT?
Rain: Gah! I swore to your father we wouldn't make whoopie until we were wed!
Rain: But - I can still make magical whoopie!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Red-headed Heroine with Body Issues
1 UberAlpha Male
1 DESTINY WILLS IT love match
1 Bitchy McBitchface
1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
2 Precocious Children
2 Cups of Caffeinated Aphrodisiac
2 Counts of Magic-Induced Horniness
The Word: This book, I fear, is yet another novel to give me the dreaded Reviewer's Angst. So many people loved this book! It's critically acclaimed! Seen as a classic! Oh, it's so wonderful!
And I was so looking forward to it, too. I love me some high fantasies (try Robin Hobb and Kate Elliot's stuff sometime, hoo boy), and I love me some romance. I was honestly expecting Lord of the Fading Lands to be the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of novels - just the right mixture of fantasy and romance. Sadly, no. Now, Lord of the Fading Lands isn't a terrible novel, but let's just say that the peanut butter is yummy enough but the chocolate is sadly tasteless and bland. What do I mean? Read on.
Rain Tairen Soul is in a rather doozy of a fix. His people, the Fey, are dying out. So are the Fey's companion race, the Tairen - enormous, fire-breathing, venomous, flying cats (no, I'm not kidding). Rain himself is the last Tairen Soul - a special, more powerful type of Fey who possesses superior magic as well as the ability to change into a tairen at will. He's also several thousand years old and rather legendary - mostly for the time he nearly destroyed the world when his wife Sariel was murdered. But, hey, a thousand years heals all wounds, right? When he asks the Eye of Truth for a way to save both races, the sparkling plot device shows him a blurry image of red hair and green eyes and a brief glimpse of a human city, Celieria. Unsure of what he'll find there, he nevertheless gathers some warriors and goes for a visit.
Meanwhile, in Celieria, our heroine Ellie Baristani is being courted by a brute her parents wish her to marry. When the pig assaults her, Rain hears her mental screams for help and realizes the woman he's looking for is his shei'tani, or truemate. This comes as a bit of a shock, as Tairen Souls aren't supposed to have truemates, but he figures the fates believe in "desperate times call for desperate measures." The next day, during a parade, he recognizes Ellie and quickly claims her as his truemate, setting a horde of plotlines big and small into motion.
Let me say right off that the magical and political elements of this novel were quite interesting. Rain's choice of Ellie complicates the Fey's shaky alliance with Celieria and its nobles. Thanks to some shady doings in the North perpetrated by dahl'reisen, or banished Fey, public opinion on Fey in general isn't very high and Rain's meddling only stirs things up further. The aristocracy resent being forced to kowtow to a peasant-girl-turned-Queen, and the general public resent Rain's meddling in Celierian laws (such as when he gets the king to release Ellie from her former engagement).
As well, news that the leader of the Fey has chosen a truemate brings all sorts of evil crawling out of the woodwork, including the Fey's bitterest enemies, the Mages of Eld. Mages use magic to brainwash and control people and incited the wars that destroyed many of Rain's dearest friends and relations a thousand years ago. The Eld have a very ritualistic sort of magic which the novel details quite intriguingly - a mage can't simply up and mind-control anyone he pleases, but instead must maintain contact with a certain person to obtain increasing levels of control over them before the bond is complete, and reading about how the villains manage this was quite exciting. The magic and the world-building are both clever and consistent.
This was all yummy peanut butter, but what prevented me from wholly liking this novel was the fact that the other half of this combination - the chocolate, the romance - is incredibly flimsy. At first I feared this might just be a matter of my personal taste but as I continued to read I also found the hero and heroine to be the worst-drawn characters in the novel.
I'm going to come right out and say it - I do not like the idea of Soul Mate romances. Not the kind where people meet and have a great connection and believe that life somehow arranged for them to meet their perfect half. I like those. I don't mind stories where fate intervenes subtly for the hero and heroine to get together (like Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me). What I don't like are stories where Fate reaches out and plonks the hero and heroine together in a magically ham-handed fashion and says "You're romantically stuck together thanks to *Magical MacGuffin Bond*, deal with it" from the very beginning of the novel.
The main reason I don't like it is because I believe the best romances are where the hero and heroine develop romantically on their own - they gain feelings for the other by getting to know them, growing more intimate with them, discovering how well they fit. The Soul Mate romance decrees that the hero and heroine are in love immediately because DESTINY/THE AUTHOR WILLS IT, not thanks to the consequences of the characters' interactions or how they deal with each other - like, uh, in real life. I get really itchy over the idea that the hero and heroine immediately lust for each other because of magic - how does their love have meaning if they're not responsible for it?
Anyway, that's how I reacted at first to the development of Rain and Ellie's romance, and I tried very hard to see beyond my personal taste to the storytelling itself, but in my opinion, the novel fails there, too. I liked neither character and pretty soon didn't much care how their romance developed.
What the author told me about Rain never really matched up with what his actions and thoughts showed me. The story tells us that Rain is more than a thousand years old, a king and a legend, but his inability to see the bigger picture, his black-and-white worldview, and his overaggressive reactions to the slightest of insults indicate a much younger character. I find it hard to believe that a man with more than a millenium under his belt wouldn't have learned about shades of grey, that there are no easy solutions, and that yelling and throwing temper tantrums because people don't immediately agree with you doesn't inspire the confidence and respect you feel you deserve.
That being said, Ellie's no prize either - she's a martyr, a doormat, and a Mary Sue all in one. Irritatingly passive, yet superhumanly patient and kind, she eases the pain of Rain (heh) and other Fey simply by existing. How - convenient. She spends most of the novel either fawning over Rain's macho manliness or whimpering in terror either at Rain's overmacho manliness (he walks a fine line, believe me) or at her own secret magic. But of course, she's just so good and pure, she's the perfect balm for macho macho Rain. Oh! And let's not forget how convinced she is that she's completely ugly and undesirable. Gag me.
I've said this before and I'll say this again - the best romances occur between protagonists who are equally matched, and this is not the case here. Rain essentially takes over Ellie's life and controls everything about her because because DESTINY WILLS IT. He treats her like a possession - he orders her about ("for her own good," natch), dictates who she can be friends with, and forbids any male not related to her to touch her (because, and I'm not kidding here - it would just make Rain too crazy). And Ellie of course allows all this, even though the increased public scrutiny and threats upon her life put a severe strain on her.
And as for romantic development - what development? Rain feels OVERPOWERINGLY HYPERBOLIC EXPLOSIONS OF LUST AND UNCONTROLLABLE EMOTION right from the start, before he even knows who she is, so it's never really explained what he sees in her later. And - readers, let's be honest - who here loves the Hero Defense Scene? You know what I'm talking about. It's the scene in a novel where the heroine is snubbed or insulted by someone - a cold family member, a rival, an ex - and the hero just swoops in and PUTS THE SMACKDOWN on whomever was stupid enough to mess with his lady. Don't you love those types of scenes?
You won't after reading Lord of the Fading Lands. Why? Because they occur every two pages. Ellie has a remarkably large cast of people who wish her ill - from snobby aristocrats to arrogant craftsmen to pushy tutors to the neighbourhood's Bitchy McBitchface Kelissande - and Rain makes it his personal goal to personally and violently threaten each and every one of them every time they speak to Ellie without breathless awe in their voices. It soon becomes something of an unintentional joke, and then eventually an annoyance that Rain can't get a grip and teach his truemate to take care of herself. But no, if she wasn't a doormat who let everyone walk all over her, she wouldn't be the kind and gentle and patient and shining perfect angel who was a balm to Rain's tortured soul, now would she?
It's because the romance is given equal importance in the novel with the fantasy that this novel fails. If the romance was a minor plotline I would have been able to tolerate it, but since Lord of the Fading Lands is a romance-fantasy, the novel has to give equal time to the intriguing fantasy-political plot and to the repetitive-annoying romance plot. What's even worse, is that even though the truemate bond does everything except state outright "RAIN + ELLIE = 4EVAH," the romance isn't even concluded by the end of the novel.
I guess I kinda had the idea that the series would have a continuing high fantasy story arc, but that each novel would be a different romance (I was kinda hoping Rain's BFF Bel would get a story). Apparently not. It doesn't bode well then that there are two more novels in the series (and another forthcoming). Am I to believe that Rain and Ellie really need three more books to establish their love? Really?
When writing a crossgenre romance, both aspects of the novel have to be consistent and well-written. That means if the romance is intended to be a significant part of the plot and one of the main factors in how the characters develop and change - then it has to hold up its end and provide just as much material as the fantasy aspect. The romance failed in this - there just wasn't enough development to justify its place at the forefront of the plot, and as a result it became repetitive and ludicrously exaggerated. The fact that most of the main characters' development depended on the romantic plot (rather than the fantasy one), hampered the novel still more, since by novel's end I still felt they were inconsistent and underdeveloped. I'm still going to read Lady of Light and Shadows and King of Sword and Sky because they are both still on my TBR pile, but my expectations have been considerably lowered.