This epic fantasy with a touch of romance fulfilled at least 90 percent of my expectations, and I’m pretty sure that the only reason it didn’t max out is that it’s a debut novel. This is not an insult—Barrie may still have room to grow, but she avoids so many of the issues that I often see with first-time authors and has established herself as a go-to writer for me. It takes a lot for the fantasy genre to interest me these days, but Barrie effortlessly twists multiple tropes in a way that creates a fresh take on so many established norms. This starts with highlighting a fantasy race that is often pigeonholed as “evil” at best and used as thinly veiled racism at worst but certainly doesn’t end with making humans the mysterious and exotic element of this unique world, a trope inversion I especially enjoyed.
Though I first learned about this book and author via online groups dedicated to MM romance, the love story here is more of a secondary plot. As we’re introduced to the titular twins, Shi’chen and A’bbni, we’re also immediately immersed in their world of intense political intrigue. Of course, like all the best heroes, neither brother wants anything to do with this, but they are close enough to what their country has for royalty that they put the needs of their people over their personal desires. To do that, they have to survive long enough, and the tension only increases further when the brothers are split up for their safety. Their differing circumstances during this separation contribute to both their character development and a lot of the worldbuilding that other authors might have resorted to “info-dumping” to depict.
It is during this separation that Lai first comes into the twins’ lives. I hesitate to give too much detail, because a significant element of this book that I enjoyed was not necessarily the game of “which twin will Lai end up with?” but instead discovering how Lai would find his place in the twins’ close relationship. (Don’t worry, it’s not that type of close.) If you consider the connection between any two characters a relationship, with or without romance, one of my favorite aspects of this book was the developing relationship arcs between not only Shi’chen and Lai and A’bbni and Lai, but also the evolution of the dynamic between the twins themselves as the events of this book force them beyond their comfort zones.
Even though the twins and their allies are firmly on the side of good, the external plot in this book is not necessarily a fight between good and evil as the political issues in their homeland come to an exciting finale. Even some of the players on the side of “good” are not all that good, as Barrie excellently plays with issues of motivation with surprising results. The pieces of the long game fall into place neatly, but not always predictably. This book can easily be read as a stand-alone, but Barrie teases more to come, and I look forward to following along on the journey.