A blind gambler and a determined princess must save their home in Gross’ (End Bringer, 2016, etc.) novel.
An unnamed city hangs on the edge of chaos as a fatal plague strikes at random, and the corrupt Misson family squeezes money from a desperate populace using blood sports and gambling. Marek, born blind and raised in a brothel, navigates the city using his finely attuned senses and his faithful companion, Bright, a deadly doglike creature. On the opposite end of the social spectrum, Princess Selena is trapped in a bad situation: she’s dreading an impending marriage to the corrupt, drug-addicted Sellard Misson, who’s forced upon her by her mother. An encounter with Sellard lands Marek in the dungeons of the royal palace, where he encounters Selena fleeing her nuptials. The two must evade Sellard’s forces in a city chafing under plague and Misson cruelty. The ferals, an ethnic group living outside the city walls, become their allies, as does the King’s Guard, a military unit torn between loyalty to the queen and love of their princess and people. It becomes increasingly clear that Marek is not an ordinary man, but a being somehow connected to the Bards, a supposedly wiped-out race of magic-wielding beings. Marek, a likable and interesting character, unfortunately recedes halfway through the book after a dramatic transformation. Selena stays more consistently compelling. No mere damsel in distress, she must balance self-preservation with deeply felt responsibility, and she displays an appealing mixture of intelligence, strength, and vulnerability. The book’s first half is better; the personal problems of Marek and Selena mix interestingly with the increasing social turmoil of the city. The second half, which takes place after a time jump, lacks the novel’s initial clarity and tension-filled plotting. More developed secondary characters (such as Marek’s adoptive mother, Fae) would have strengthened Gross’ already strong worldbuilding. The main characters appealingly contain shade and nuance, even among the villains, like the reprehensible Sellard.
The first half outshines the second in this promising fantasy novel.