Disclaimer: The author sent me a copy of the book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Evonne and Vrawg were my two favorite characters from Hayes’ Stonewood series, so when he offered me this book in exchange for a review, I said yes. This book reveals the back story of both characters and forms a prequel of sorts for the second Stonewood book.
The story alternates between Evonne and Vrawg, at least until the point where they join forces. While Evonne’s story is somewhat familiar as it follows the standard strong girl in bad circumstances trope, Vrawg’s transcends the simple cross species not given a home in either culture story that abounds in some fantasy. There are shades of Shelley’s Frankenstein in Vrawg’s story, that of a monster who isn’t quite monster enough to some.
Hayes strength is his ability to connect his stories to gaming, but at the same time expanding the gaming world. The weakest point of the writing is a tendency to tell and not show. At some points, this comes across almost like reading an encyclopedia entry. The tendency stands out more with Hayes than with some other authors because Hayes writes natural dialogue extremely well. The juxtaposition or shift is slightly jarring because of that.
The book has another thing going for it in addition to Hayes natural dialogue and sense of humor: the slight variation on Evonne’s story. Like many fantasy and science fiction heroines today, Evonne is disadvantaged doubly because she is a female and poor. This is pretty much becoming standard in fantasy, if it hasn’t become so already. Instead of having Evonne be a super girl who changes the sexism of her culture simply by being who she is, Hayes gives you a real world situation that makes sense in terms of reality, character, and plot. It is perhaps impossible to read that sequence of Evonne and not to think about certain aspects of the current American presidential race.
Additionally, Hayes makes good use of appearance versus reality, and not just in terms of Vrawg. There is the Dark Mistress who isn’t quite what she presents to the rest of the world. Evonne and the Dark Mistress actually talk as equals, a shocking thing in some books with a female lead. Usually there seems to be a desire to show the lead girl/woman/female has the only girl/woman/female who can actually do anything. Not so here. I cannot stress how nice it is to read that. It might sound like something that occurs often in books. This, sadly, is hardly the case. While you could make the case that book fails the Bechtel test, I should note that while the Dark Mistress and Evonne do discuss men, it is not a romance and men conversation. It actually resembles one that some women in various workplaces have no doubt had.
Evonne and the Dark Mistress are not the only strong women in the book, and like most good writers Hayes’ shows that strong can mean different things while sticking to a central core truth. Vrawg too isn’t the only strong male. When he and Evonne join forces, it is a true partnership, that has some realistic bumps (i.e. a slight misjudgment by each), yet the bumps are those that one sees in any true friendship and partnership.
Hayes’ novel is a good enjoyable fantasy read.