Title: In Pain and Blood
Series: Spellster Series Book 1
Author: Aldrea Alien
Genre: epic fantasy
LGBTQ+ Category: m/m, cis
Publisher: Thardrandian Publications
Pages/Word Count: 740 pages/309000 words
It’s a standalone story and first in a series of standalones.
It wasn’t meant to be like this.
Dylan’s life in the spellster tower has everything he should want: magical knowledge, safety from the King’s Hounds and frequent clandestine affairs with women. All at the cost of his freedom. So when the chance to leave the tower—even as a leashed weapon for the King’s Army—arises, he seizes it.
When his first scouting mission goes awry, Dylan is left alone in a hostile world with the tower a distant beacon of safety. Only the flirtatious Tracker, an elven man whose very presence awakens Dylan’s long-repressed desire, can help him return to his old life before the crown discovers his unleashed status.
But the risk of being branded a deserter may be the least of his concerns as whispers of an armed presence in the North threatens his home. Dylan must rely on Tracker to protect him even as everything he thought he knew begins to unravel around them.
Review by Dan
Although I initially was a little wary of the book’s set up since the spellsters (those who can wield magic) locked away in their tower reminding me heavily of BioWare’s Dragon Age. In the end, though, I didn’t mind the passing similarity and overall, it wasn’t enough of a resemblance that I felt I was reading a work of unabashed fanfiction.
The writing had me hooked by the second chapter. I found the main character’s narration to be interesting and well-woven. He had a unique voice that made me want to keep reading. The plot was put together and interesting and even though it had some predictable elements, it had just as many that took me by surprise, giving the novel a sense of comfortable familiarity without lending itself to being boring.
That being said, there were a few elements that simply didn’t work for me personally. The dialogue, especially the hammy flirting, fell flat and I don’t know if that’s my lack of sentimentality or the writing itself. I suspect it might be me, as it’s a style of dialogue that a lot of books use and one that a lot of other people seem to enjoy. Also, the way Tracker spoke grated at me after just a few chapters, especially his habit of addressing everyone as ‘my dear spellster/warrior/woman/etc.’ It had me replacing the phrase mentally with ‘old sport’ to keep myself from getting annoyed. I also didn’t anticipate the length or detail of the book’s numerous sex scenes. They weren’t poorly written by any mean, although the plot did sometimes stumble into them without warning and a few times the implausibility of the acts themselves took me out of the story a little. My final complaint really comes from Dylan’s denial of his attraction to men, as same-gender relationships come without any kind of religious or social stigma and Dylan himself has no issue with them. He eventually names a few reasons, including a fear of rejection, but all them left me a little unmoved.
Those aside, I don’t have many complaints with the book and the issues I did have weren’t enough to dull my entertainment or the warm fuzzies I got while reading the interactions between Tracker and Dylan. I enjoyed watching Dylan learn about the world outside the tower, the casual representation of other LGBTQIA identities, and Tracker’s tragic past, guarded exterior belying a desperately soft interior, and his single-minded determination to keep Dylan safe. I definitely enjoyed the side quests into dwarven runes and the show-don’t-tell approach to worldbuilding. Any moments of exposition tended to work into the plot, considering that one character came from another country and another had lived his life segregated from the world’s general populace. At times, some of the characters tended into unadulterated archetypes, but the writing style and plot were enough that I didn’t mind and, given that these tropes usually only have cishet representation, I feel that the queer community is entitled to their share of non-tragic predictability. In the end, I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good epic fantasy and I’m definitely interested in the sequel.
Dan Ackerman is a writer and educator who has lived in Connecticut for their entire life. They received their BSED from CCSU in 2013 and wrote their Master’s thesis on representations of women in same-sex relationships in contemporary Spanish literature and cinema. Currently, Dan is studying for a second MA in ABA and works in a center school for students with variety of intellectual, developmental, or multiple disabilities. In their spare time, Dan continues to read and write, supplemented with a healthy amount of movie marathons and gaming.