Brash, cocky, and unbeatable with a sword (well, almost), Sam of Haywood is the most promising Paladin trainee in the kingdom of Thule… and knows it. The only problem is that Sam is really Lady Samantha, daughter of the seventeenth Duke of Haywood, and if her father has his way, she’ll be marrying a Paladin, not becoming one.
But Sam has never held much interest in playing damsel-in-distress, and so she rescues herself from a lifetime of boredom and matrimonial drudgery. Disguised as a boy, Sam leaves home behind to fight demons-—the most dangerous monsters in Thule—-alongside the kingdom’s elite warriors. Pity that Tristan Lyons, the Paladin assigned to train her, is none other than the hero of her childhood. He hasn’t recognized her–yet–but if he does, he’ll take away her sword and send her packing.
Sam is not the only trainee hiding secrets: Braeden is a half-demon with a dark past that might be unforgivable. Whether he can be trusted is anyone’s guess, including his.
As demons wreak havoc across the land, rebellion stirs in the West, led by a rival faction of warriors.
A war between men is coming, and Sam must pick a side. Will saving the kingdom cost her life–or just her heart?
Source: Review copy from Perfect Analogy Publishing via NetGalley
This is a fun, character-driven fantasy in an old school style, with a girl pretending to be a boy in order to train for combat. I loved stories like this as a teenager (I wrote one that bears a few similarities to this one, minus the demons) and I still enjoy them now, though I’m a little more sceptical about the likelihood of pulling off such a ruse. For the most part, though, this one works, thanks largely to Tristan’s convenient dimness and Braeden’s sheer awesomeness.
Before I talk about the boys, first I’ll deal with Sam. While she makes for a compelling lead character, getting out there, living her dreams and excelling, I’m still not sure I actually like her. She’s brash and impulsive, judgemental and rude and often pretty childish for an eighteen-year-old. A lot of her behaviour smacks of brattishness, and though she is brave and trains hard I could have done with less whining. Yet it didn’t matter how I felt about her personally, because I still wanted to know what would happen to her next. So even if she wasn’t likeable she was always interesting, which is not something to be sniffed at.
Her interestingness is definitely aided by her two travelling companions. I didn’t always like Tristan either, though. He’s the perfect paladin – a master swordsman, has a personal vendetta against demons and is a glowing example of doing as he’s told. He’s also arrogant, light on praise and a bit of a jerk at times. He’s also prone to big-dumb-brute syndrome, but only when it’s convenient. I did find it a little odd that he’d be sent on such a trip right after he was handed two trainees, but hey, it helped the plot so let’s not quibble on details.
Especially when one of those trainees was Braeden! I loved him. Not just because his half-demon status made him an even odder duck than Sam. He’s funny and quiet and smart and definitely my favourite character in this book. I loved the snarky banter between him and Sam at the start of their relationship, and the half-demon aspect of his character made him both different and fascinating. Sure, he has that noble streak that makes things a bit annoying at times, but I liked how he balanced out both Sam and Tristan.
The characters are definitely the strongest part of this book. They’re well developed, interesting and have plenty of facets – unlike the plot, which is mostly trekking around the country on a bit of wild goose chase, while political and geographical details are revealed. It’s great for world building, but if the characters had been any less interesting it would have made the book itself a bit dull. Luckily that doesn’t happen, but if you like a well laid out plot, you won’t find it here. Which isn’t to say the plot isn’t interesting – because it definitely is – it just takes a good long while to get to the point, any point, before rushing through a few conclusions at the end.
Overall this is a highly readable and enjoyable debut with some great characters, set in a well developed world. It’s not particularly original or massively different, instead it’s a good start to a new fantasy series that I definitely want to read more of. If you love fantasy, particularly in the classic style, then you’ll probably like this too.
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