Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
About The Book
Princess Oona Talomir enjoys the little things that come with her station: a handmaiden, her lavish bedchamber, and scores of fancy dresses―the duty to win a decades’ long war, not so much.
Oh, did I mention assassins?
Seers foretold the conflict would end by her hand. From the moment she drew her first breath, the neighboring kingdom has been trying to kill her so she could not grow powerful enough to destroy them. Fearing for his daughter’s life, the king has kept her confined to the castle grounds for most of her sixteen years. With the tide of war turning against them, the burden of her crown becomes too much to bear, yet one thing lifts her spirits amid the gloom.
Her servant girl, Kitlyn.
Alas, in a kingdom obsessed with the god of purity, she is terrified to confess her forbidden love. When her father makes a demand she cannot abide―marry a prince to forge a military alliance―Oona panics. He is handsome and honorable, but he’s not Kitlyn. Unable to admit why she cannot obey, Oona does the only thing she can think of, and runs away.
Alone and unprepared in the wilderness, she prays the gods will let Kitlyn find her—before the assassins do.
A prophecy, a princess and her serving girl; a kingdom at war, assassins around every corner, and a forbidden romance. The Eldritch Heart is the first book in a YA fantasy series by Matthew S. Cox, following two teenage female protagonists in alternating POVs. Princess Oona, trapped in the castle by her loving-but-overprotective father, is prophesied to end the war, but she fears the reality of the prophecy coming true. Kitlyn, an orphan and Oona’s beloved childhood friend-turned-serving girl, is disrespected and looked down upon by almost everyone in the palace except for the princess, whom she is secretly in love with. All they want is to be with each other, but their positions – and fear of society’s judgement – keep them apart.
The plot is your standard fantasy story about a prophecy and a Chosen One, with its own unique flourish on the expected twists and turns the time-honoured tropes tend to take. Overall, I enjoyed read this light fantasy story, with a few caveats.
For a YA book, it’s just a bit too long, which unfortunately makes the first half of the book suffer with a slow and meandering plot, weighed down by the side characters who are mostly unpleasant plotters and schemers, only there to make Oona’s and Kitlyn’s lives difficult. Oona and Kitlyn, our otherwise engaging and enjoyable heroines we are rooting for, often get trapped in weepy internal monologues about their circumstances and mutual pining. The magic system is obscure and generic and the world and culture is never fully explained, which makes the societal repulsion at same-sex relationships more than a little jarring. It gets uncomfortable reading about characters considering lesbian relationships to be ‘impure’ and ‘abominations’ and ‘disgusting’. In a fantasy novel, where magic and prophecies are real, it’s frustrating to read about blatant homophobia as a conflict and obstacle for our heroines. But the worst offender of the book is that the ‘lower-class’ accents (presumably a variation of a cockney accent) are written out phonetically. It’s ghastly!
Fortunately, the issues I had with the first half of the book, were far less noticeable in the second half. The plot twist at the midway point kicks everything up several notches; our heroines become active in their own narrative; the revelations, while occasionally cliched, are enjoyable and attention-grabbing. There’s not much I can say about it without spoiling the story as a whole, but I’m glad I pushed through the first half of the book because the second half was far more fun than I’d anticipated.
The best aspect of the book is the romance between the main characters, despite the issues around the societal homophobia. Oona’s and Kitlyn’s love for each other is never in doubt. They’ve pined for each other for years. While the pining got tedious in the first half, the scenes where they are alone together and talk, or just seek comfort in the other, are the highlights of the book, especially once they finally admit their feelings and commit to each other in what is an extremely sweet scene.
There were times when the gender presentation of the characters felt a little off. Sometimes it comes through in the big things, like how Oona and Kitlyn are constantly tearing up and weeping, then yelling, then giggling and eyeing each other’s breasts, all within a few paragraphs of each other. Sometimes it comes through in the smaller things, like how at separate points, the girls run into groups of male bandits, and do not immediately feel vulnerable or fearful.
So. Did I like the book? Yes, because there’s something very earnest about it. It gets a lot of stuff wrong for me, as both a woman and a lesbian, in that it largely fails to understand women and lesbians. It struggles with basic worldbuilding and narrative structure, it stumbles at creating enjoyable, believable supporting characters, and the prose is almost entirely infodump with little ever shown. But the author has a story he wants to tell about magic, politics, war, and star-crossed lovers who will fight for their relationship in spite of the obstacles and societal judgement, and it feels like it comes from a deeply earnest, well-meaning place.
The plot, once it finally got to it, was an enjoyable read, and it was nice to be able to read a lesbian-driven fantasy novel that wasn’t ‘grimdark’. So despite the things objectively wrong with the book (augh, the horrible phonetically-written accents!), I did like it. It was entertaining, and at the end of the day I’d consider it a net-positive for lesbian romance representation in the fantasy genre, with the disclaimer that it is written by a male author who doesn’t quite capture female characters.
Stay tuned for my reviews for the sequels, The Cursed Crown and The Sapphire Soul.
H. L. is a Australian writer of LGBT+ fiction. She holds a Master of Arts in International Relations (2015) and a Bachelor of Media in Communications and Journalism (2012), both from the University of New South Wales.
She is a lesbian of Jewish and of Middle Eastern (Egyptian) heritage and is an #OwnVoices writer. She has been writing stories since she was old enough to hold a pen. She is the author of M/M fantasy romance novels Heart Of Dust and Soul Of Ash, Books 1 & 2 of the Death’s Embrace series.
She has had two speculative short stories published: “The Collector” in the 2014 Future Times Award Collection A Tick Tock Heart, and “Entente” in the 2020 Twisted Stories Award Collection Just Alice.