Umbertouched by Livia Blackburne
On Sale: November 2018

Zivah and Dineas have done the impossible: they’ve successfully infiltrated the Amparan Empire’s center of power, gathered powerful intelligence about the cause of the Rosemarked plague and its weaponization, and have escaped with their lives. Under the cover of darkness and subterfuge, the pair flees from central Ampara and makes their way to Zivah’s mountain village, where both of their people—Zivah’s Dara village and Dineas’s Shidadi warrior tribe—await.

Getting home is just the first part of the journey. The real trick will be convincing the Dara and Shidadi of the truth, and getting everyone to abandon their homes before the onslaught of Amparan Imperial soldiers reach their shores.

For Zivah, returning home is bittersweet—she misses her family, but as she is Rosemarked she must remain apart from her friends and sisters, lest she infect them with the incurable plague. Worse, she fears she has lost her Dineas—the version of him with all of his restored memories isn’t the sweet, earnest man she came to care for when they were undercover. Though she cares deeply—perhaps even more deeply than she wants to admit—and he keeps pushing her away.

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For Dineas, being reunited with his fellow Shidadi is painful—as a spy, Dineas did his job a little too well, and other warriors doubt his true allegiances. That Dineas’s memory was wiped by Zivah’s potions and draughts means nothing to many of the Shidadi, and his actions as a Amparan soldier resulted in the deaths (and torture) of good friends. That Dineas himself is tortured by the duality of his memories and the beliefs his other self held, the actions his other self took, means something only to a scant few—his own warlord, his closest friends, and Zivah are the only ones who can comprehend his pain. At the heart of it all, Dineas’s pain around Zivah is heartbreaking. He loves her, you see, and fears that she only cares for the version of him that is false—not to mention he’s terrified of losing her to the plague that will kill her, sooner rather than later.

And then Ampara comes with warships and weapons, unlike anything either Zivah or Dineas could have imagined. To save their people, they will risk everything, and expose the empire’s darkest secret.

Livia Blackburne’s Rosemarked and Umbertouched form a rare, precious thing: a self-contained young adult fantasy duology. A good YA fantasy duology is hard to find—more often than not, books span trilogies and beyond, spawning spin-off series following fan favorite characters. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good sprawling series as much as the next SFF junkie. But a self-contained, true duology? That’s a precious thing (and often seems to be a hallmark of old school YA SFF, a la Patricia C Wrede or Sherwood Smith). The Rosemarked books are perfect for this format, though—with the spy intrigue of the first novel, and the heart-pounding resolution and bittersweet sadness of the second.

Part of the reason Umbertouched (and by extension, the duology) is so successful is because of its sense of scope with regards to worldbuilding, and subsequently, its focused plotting. The central external conflict here is simple and well-defined: there is an empire with corrupt leaders who have weaponized an incurable plague, and are using it both to keep its citizens in line, and to expand its borders and military might. Not everyone in the Empire is evil or even complicit; the crux of Zivah’s personal arc is making this discovery and finding a way to expose the two men at the heart of the conspiracy in order to save her own people, Dineas’s people, but also the Amparan people. While Umbertouched doesn’t quite pull off the battle strategy and invasion scenes successfully, and while its central plotting machinations and resolution are shaky, the fact that the conflict is well-defined and doesn’t have grandiose ambitions works to the duology’s credit.

Plotting aside, the main reason Umbertouched works so well is because of its dual protagonists. If Rosemarked were a book about identity and memory, Umbertouched is a novel of choices and consequences. In the first novel, I was impressed with the different weight Blackburne put on Zivah and Dineas—Zivah, bending her healers vows to take and give back Dineas’s memories at great cost to both of them; Dineas, struggling with the horror of realizing what his other self had done and felt each time his own memories returned. None of that goes away in Umbertouched—but Zivah and Dineas have tried to make peace with their selves.

In this second novel, their respective character arcs are more concerned with the choices they made in Ampara and now make in Dara, and the consequences of those decisions. For Zivah, this means making amends with her healers vows in heart and practice: finding the women at the heart of the first Rosemarked outbreak and weaponization, healing soldiers regardless of the banner they fight under, and fulfilling her promise to do no harm. For Dineas, it means tackling the warring emotions of pride and anger he feels when he sees his former Amparan friends in battle, and the ever-growing pressure he feels when confronting his own people.

There are no easy answers or magical cures in this particular duology—but there is hope for a future that is less violent, and hope that Dineas and Zivah can enjoy what time they have left together. And that’s kind of all you can ask for, right?

In Book Smugglerish, 8 potentially life-saving yellow petals out of 10.