“But only my father held every thread in the warp and woof of the carefully woven alliances. Everyone else saw only parts of the fabric of his plans. Everyone else except me. I was both heir to Ésparias, and heir to my father’s sedition.”
You can’t get much better than opening a blurb with this line: “Some games are played for mortal stakes.” Just that one line pulls you into the story in an instant. The games of life, the games people play, one against another, and the actual ‘xache’ played between players, all woven together to create this story.
This book is a stand-alone, but also a continuation of the saga of the Empire’s Legacy series. Having never read the first books in the story, I thought I needed to catch up to the story in order to enjoy what was happening but that ended up not being the case. Ms Thorpe did a great job in providing just enough details of the previous books to allow a reader to read this and enjoy the story without feeling lost.
“You are a symbol, my father had said, a reminder that Ésparias is more than a province of Casil; that we have a history of our own.”
Gwenna, the beautiful and spirited heir to the Ésparias throne, is summoned before the Empress of Casil. Her son needs a wife and Gwenna is just one of many women paraded in front of him while negotiations wrangle back and forth, and lives and nations are kept in the balance while choices are made. This is how marriage alliances are made in this era, they are not one of love but of land and power – political maneuvering – and Gwenna is forced to decide between her own heart and an alliance which might save her own father, Cillian.
“...if no is your answer, then say it. Marriage is not easy, and when politics and intrigue are part of it, which they would be, married to the Emperor of the East, it is all the much harder. Without a true connection, without complete trust, it would be unthinkable.”
Each chapter is skillfully presented as a back and forth between daughter and father, a window into their feelings and soul, and you come to understand their relationship plus how past dealings shadow over the present. The Empress is winning the game, outplaying Cillian nineteen years earlier (in the previous books) in diplomacy and intrigue; but Cillian teaches his daughter the moves to make to counter her when he accompanies her to Casil.
An accusation of treason is played as stakes in this game of politics – all against Cillian, who must then convince Gwenna that her future is more important that his life. Yet, Gwenna proves herself a power in her own right, a skilled game-player, as she moves to protect him while playing a very dangerous game which includes the Empress’s own son, Alekos.
There is a sense of atmospheric authenticity to the way Ms Thorpe writes and her world-building skills are incredible and vivid. While you understand this story hovers somewhere between the history of Britain and Rome, you emerge from the story believing in the history told of this alternate world of Thorpe’s imagination.
This book is the passing of the torch, the past folding into the future, and the relationships which mold a child into the strong, resilient, and brave young woman destined to be a powerful ruler. While she clings to the person she truly loves, Lynthe, she is willing to sacrifice everything for her father... but in a clever move she finds a way to have both... but only if she is not discovered in the process.
Cillian, this intelligent diplomat suffering from physical and emotional pains, has difficulty in expressing himself to those he loves, especially his wife, Lena, but his reliance on others in his life comes forth throughout the story. The grief Lena and Cillian share over the death of their youngest child, Liane, resonates like a thread throughout the storyline; and you come to understand on a very deep and personal level the underlying reasons for his distance, as well as his relationship with the Empress.
“My own scars-both sets-were only outward manifestations of inner wounds. We all had them, visible and invisible. Lena’s only deepened my love for her. … I thought about how scarred we both were by life, and how one night could not repair that. Or even many. How life was not that simple.”
While not terribly action-filled, the battles raging are not on the battlefields but are played out in the hearts and within the walls of the Empress’s palace, and I sometimes felt as if I was reading a side story to “Game of Thrones”. Trust, intrigue, lust, betrayal, power, sacrifice, grief, family, friends, and lovers – all wrapped up in this beautifully written story where the ending will come as a surprise and a twist – and where thoughts and passions are unveiled while submerged within the waters of the Roman-like baths.
Ms Thorpe takes you by the hand and leads you through this game with terrific skill, although at times, I must say, I felt a little uncomfortable, which I guess is a good thing for a writer to invoke in a reader. I’m sure plenty of people felt uncomfortable at times with George R. R. Martin’s story, so this one is no different in that level of storytelling. All in all, I enjoyed the ebb and flow of the writing, and completely sucked in by Ms Thorpe’s world-building skill which, by that alone, engenders a five-star rating.
This book is given a five-star rating and a “Highly Recommended” award from The Historical Fiction Company.
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