Soren's position at the Darest court is a joke. She was proclaimed Champion of the Rose, the protector of the Rathen kings--but there have been no Rathen kings in Darest for two hundred years. Her status as ignored non-entity abruptly changes when a blooming rose appears in the palace's magical garden, signaling the birth of a Rathen heir. Soren knows that the regents of Darest will do anything to maintain their position, and she needs to get to the heir before their agents do. But when Soren tracks down the heir, she finds not a baby, but a full-grown man. Strake was lost in time in the fae woods during a hunting party hundreds of years ago. Although he was just a minor prince in his own time, now he is the land's last hope.
Because the myths are right--only Rathen rule can avert the terrible doom that afflicts all of Darest.
Soren and Strake have an uneasy relationship, made harder by the Rose that twines through them. The first Rathen ruler created the Rose as a protection for the Rathens that would follow, but over the centuries it has gradually transformed from tool into something almost sentient. To protect the Rathen bloodline, it mind-controls Strake and Soren into sex, leaving her pregnant and each of them deeply traumatized and bitter about the other. The rape is utterly without details (in fact, I didn't realize what had happened until several pages later), but the characters deal with the emotional and physical aftereffects for the rest of the novel.
The Rose has other powers, too. With its magic, Soren is the only human who can sense the physical presence of the doom that stalks Darest. She, Strake, and the former regent's heir Aristide, work to halt Darest's decline and forstall the lethal magic that seeks Strake's death. They are beset with intrigue from neighboring countries and internal jockeying for power.
I liked Soren, although I wished I had a harder handle on her characterization. I think the trouble is that I'm used to characters falling into a category: scholarly, battle-hungry, fascinated by magic, family-oriented. Soren isn't particularly bookish, doesn't have combat training or inclination, can't do magic...mostly she rides her horse, works, and worries about Strake. Her internal workings are clear to the reader, but her outward seeming remained a bit opaque. Strake is pretty straightforward: smart, a bit snarly, dealing with a great deal of shock and trauma. Their romance comes kinda out of no-where, and was the only thing I didn't like about the book. The minor characters have charm and verve of their own--I was an avowed fan of Aspen from the very first. Aristide is the character I was most drawn to. He's so self-contained and perfect that the court calls him the Diamond, and stories of how he deals with those who cross him are legendary. At the start of the story I assumed he would be the villain, but his role is far more interesting.
I really loved the magic in this book. It has a sort of dream-logic to it, and has an understated power, the kind where you only realize how impossible something is when you glance at it a second time. There's one scene, when Soren meets the fairy queen, that was particularly astounding. And I really liked that the story deals with the dark sides to ordained rule and magical tools in a really thoughtful manner.
Oh! And I nearly forgot to mention, because it's so casual and unremarked, that this is a completely queer universe. Everyone has lovers of either sex (although some people seem to have preferences) without it even needing a name, triads are as legal a relationship as couples, and both genders are perfectly equal in status and in roles. Love it!
The first five chapters are available to sample on goodreads or the author's website, but beware: they so intrigued me that I bought this book, and I am so frugal I buy a book once every five years. It is quickly, dangerously, enthralling.