I came across this book by Sara Wolf when I got an email from one of my local indie book stores alerting me to the fact that she would be at their store answering questions and signing copies. The cover is gorgeous and it’s YA fantasy, so of course I was all over that. It happened to be the same week as my birthday so I managed to drag my mom there and get her to buy a signed copy for me (yes, that’s a loophole in my book-buying ban. I don’t care).
Wolf was smart, funny, charming, and utterly delightful. I had never heard of her before, but there were a couple people there who had clearly read some of her earlier works and were fangirling pretty hard over her. She was awesome and took pictures with them and took time to chat with me about self-publishing. I fell in love with her on the spot and couldn’t wait to read her book.
It’s a superfun YA fantasy about a girl, named Zera, who has no heart. When she was sixteen her parents were killed by raiders. A local witch, named Nightsinger, found her and tore out her heart. Here’s what that means:
- Zera is basically immortal. The only thing that can kill her is if someone destroys her heart or if she gets stabbed with a blade or arrow that has been dipped in mercury. Until that happens or her heart is returned to her, she remains physically sixteen.
- She has to do the witch’s bidding.
- She can’t go more than a mile or so away from her heart, which the witch keeps in a jar that’s locked in a cage in her hut in the woods.
- She has to eat raw meat and if she eats anything else she’ll start shedding tears of blood and eventually vomit it all up.
- She supposedly has no memory of anything before she was made into a Heartless, but she appears to have a few, vague memories of her parents, and she knows her father was a merchant, so Wolf loses a few points there.
- She has violent tendencies and there’s a savage voice inside her that’s constantly telling her she’s worthless and a monster and she should just kill everyone in sight. She’s mostly used as Nightsinger’s assassin. She remembers, when she was first made Heartless, tearing the bandits who killed her parents to pieces. She shudders at the thought and struggles to maintain control over her temper and the nasty voice inside her head.
For the most part, I thought the world building was pretty well done, and that gets a lot of points from me because world building is so hard to do. The only thing that annoyed me was things like the prince’s last name: d’Malvane – the apostrophe should only be used if followed by a vowel. Otherwise it makes no sense. I understand I’m applying grammar rules from our world to a fantasy world, but it still bugged me. How do you even pronounce that?
Anyway, Zera is living in the woods with Nightsinger and two other children Nightsinger has turned Heartless when one day Zera gets an offer she can’t refuse. Prince Lucien d’Malvane of Cavanos will be bringing in young noblewomen from across the country for the third time to hopefully find a bride this time. If one manages to seduce him, he’ll take her on a big hunting trip with him and then he’ll probably announce her as his bride.
Zera’s job is to go in as a noblewoman (they have a noblewoman who’s working with them who will introduce Zera to the court as her long-lost cousin). Zera’s job is to get close enough to the prince to steal his heart, making him a Heartless.
The people of Cavanos fought a long and bloody war against the witches before Zera was born (or at least before she was made Heartless). But it wasn’t all that long ago and the memories are still bitter for a lot of people. The witches let their Heartless do most of the fighting, which has left many people understandably terrified of the Heartless – and you know what awful things people can do when they’re afraid.
Princess Varia was killed by Heartless a few years ago and the kingdom has never been the same. Prince Lucien has gone out on a big hunt every year since then to kill a few witches himself, so Zera doesn’t have any sympathy for what she’s about to do to him.
The witches are afraid the nobles are angling for another war and they think if they can turn the prince into a Heartless, they’ll be able to use him as a kind of hostage to get what they want.
When Zera gets to the capital, Vetris (which she’s able to do by wearing a locket that contains a tiny piece of her heart), she finds that the Vetrisians have set up a kind of alarm system that alerts them to anyone with magical powers entering through the gates. Zera is terrified she’ll be found out, but nothing happens when she enters. Nevertheless, she witnesses the public execution of a supposed witch – a terrified-looking young boy who is most certainly not a witch, but the nobles need the Vetrisians to believe that they’re under attack by the witches and their Heartless, so they make sure to have regular executions for the sake of their fear mongering.
Zera hates these people as much as she knows they hate her, so she really has no problem with this plan, especially since she’ll be freed afterwards. Until she actually meets Prince Lucien and starts falling for him for real. Yes, he’s privileged, but he’s aware of his privilege and at night he secretly works to try to even the scales. He brings food and money to the poor and at one point he and Zera have to fight off the evil Lord Gavik when he orders his men to attack a bunch of poor people he has decided to use as scapegoats in his war-mongering. He labels them witches, regardless of whether they are or not, and has them executed. But Prince Lucien helps Zera protect them, so he can’t be all bad can he?
Zera has to keep reminding herself that he’s a murderer – he goes out into the woods hunting witches for sport… except he doesn’t!
It turns out the “hunt” is just a ruse for him to try to find out more about what happened to his sister. They never found her body and he thinks there was something fishy about her death.
So Zera goes on this “hunt” with Lucien and it’s her last chance to take his heart, but she can’t bring herself to do it. She confesses to him what she really is, but then Lord Gavik shows up with his men to kill Zera and Lucien. His plan is to tell the country that Lucien was killed by a Heartless, thereby bringing the country back to war with the witches. He almost succeeds in killing Zera using a blade that had been dipped in mercury, but when Zera hears his plan to kill Lucien, she pulls herself from the brink of death to kill Gavik and all his men. That required me to suspend my disbelief a bit farther than I was willing to, but the power of love and all that I suppose.
When Zera comes back to her senses, she and Lucien realize that his sister, Varia, has appeared in the clearing with them and that’s the cliffhanger on which Wolf leaves us.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was fun, fast paced, the main character is smart and snarky and I love her and I love the rest of the cast of characters. The tall, dark, handsome, brooding prince who hates his own privilege is a bit of a trope, but I can deal with it, especially when there’s some good old fashioned political intrigues happening within the court. I loved Y’shennria, the noblewoman who takes Zera in, trains her to act like a noblewoman, and grudgingly falls in love with her, despite having lost her husband to the Heartless in the war. I loved Malachite, the Beneather (elf-type creature who generally live underground) who is also Lucien’s bodyguard and best friend. And I loved Fione, Gavik’s niece who helps Zera and Lucien get what they need to take down her uncle, although she mysteriously disappeared right before Gavik showed up in the woods, which makes me suspicious about her true motivations… I can’t wait for the sequel!
What did you guys read this week? Any other new authors you discovered?