Release Date: Out now
Rhianne, mind mage and Imperial Princess of Kjall, cannot openly challenge the emperor. Instead, she acts in secret to aid the victims of his worst excesses. But now the emperor plans to wed her to the cruel Augustan, the man leading Kjall’s attack against the nation of Mosar. Soon she will be torn from her supporters and shipped overseas, where she can help no one.
Mosari crown prince Janto is desperate to save his country from invasion. When one of his most trusted spies disappears while gathering intelligence at the Kjallan palace, Janto takes his place and continues searching for information that could save his people. But falling for the Imperial Princess was not part of his plan. Nor was having his true identity revealed…
Now Rhianne must make a choice—follow the path of tradition or the one of the heart, even if it means betraying her own people.
Marlene: First of all, let me say that the Romans gave great empire! Where would epic historical fiction and epic fantasy be without them? Amy Raby’s Hearts and Thrones isn’t the only epic fantasy series that owes a lot of its inspiration and overall situation to some of the best and worst elements of the Roman Empire. There’s also Crista McHugh’s Deizian Empire series (its awesome too) as well as Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge series and Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. The Romans are as big as they ever were.
Has: I definitely agree with you that I love this element of the world-building in the Hearts and Thrones series. Spy’s Honor is more of a prequel story because it is set before the events from Assassin’s Gambit and I liked that it delved more into the backstory of some of the characters such as Lucien and his autocratic father. In this book, Amy Raby’s world is a rich tapestry of a kingdom who is hungry for resources and it explains much more into that background. I definitely think that Raby’s world-building is very detailed and well thought out and it is definitely cemented that the world of Hearts and Thrones series is one of the best romantic fantasy series out at the moment.
Marlene: Two things that stand out: this is the second book I read this week that is a prequel to the first book in its series, and this is the second series I read recently that starts with a female assassin falling for her target. Those are not the same book, but still make for interesting trends. Ahem. What makes Amy Raby’s world in Hearts and Thrones seem so realistic, or makes her worldbuilding so easy to fall into, is that the condition of the Kjall kingdom that we discover has a basis in history. What her spy Janto learns and takes advantage of is part of what caused the Roman Empire to both rise and eventually fall. This device works because it really did work. Or not work, so to speak. Raby knows her history, and understands how to exploit it for the purpose of a great story.
Has: This is what I found really interesting about the series. She made it feel alive especially with the build up on the ongoing wars and the conflict this has with the kingdom and its neighbours. There were no easy outs and there were repercussions for the characters. And while I am not a huge fan of the spying premise, Janto was a fantastic leading hero. Again, Amy Raby painted another multi-dimensional character and I loved the fact he was a beta hero who was sensitive and understanding towards his heroine as well empathic to her plight because she was being forced to marry the man who decimated his Kingdom.
I also enjoyed the world-building with the magical system. with Janto’s people their use of magical abilities are linked with animal familiars instead of rift stones which the Kjallans use. I liked the different contrast of cultures and philosophy which really made the world vivid and vibrant. I also loved the scenes which Janto shared with his familiar a ferret who produced some humourous moments which helped to balance the tone of the book which was pretty dark in places.
Marlene: There was an interesting switch in the character’s perspectives past the midway point in the book, and Raby did a great job pulling it off. At the start of the story, Janto is definitely a beta hero, not just because he is more sensitive and empathetic than the average, but because he doesn’t believe in himself and his people question his authority. Rhianne appears to be the alpha heroine, not just because she is an Imperial Princess, but because she seems to be doing mostly as she pleases. Then Janto’s kingdom is conquered and his parents are murdered, and they switch.
Janto doesn’t merely become king, he takes his throne from his younger and more popular brother through a trial-by-combat of their familiars. Janto visibly takes on the mantle of leadership, and it changes and isolates him. Rhianne, on the other hand, is forced into a lower status as the fiance of the conqueror of the Mosari, a man who is not just prepared to break her spirit, but who is looking forward to that task.
Has: I definitely agree with you about the switch and the power dynamics between Rhianne and Janto which I think developed an interesting factor with their relationship but without falling into the usual roles. A similar thing happened with the first book, with heroine being more alpha in the relationship as well.
However, I did find the plot and pace especially in the first half wasn’t as fast paced compared to the first book, although I definitely was engaged with the characters and the world-building which felt more fleshed out, which kept me drawn into the world and story. But I think this was more about the premise with Janto being established in his role as a spy and I am not that keen on plots with this premise. I always find it slow going because it is not that action packed and it does affect the pace and tone of the story for me. The second half of the book, picks up in pace and flow and definitely becomes very action packed with the war between the Mosari and the Kjallans in full force. I think Raby has a great voice in painting battles but with a good eye on the small details.
Marlene: I agree that the first half of the book was heavy on the worldbuilding and a bit slower on the action, particularly in comparison to the first book. And again, in comparison to the first book, it felt disappointing to see more and more of Rhianne’s agency get taken away as the story moved into the second half. She starts the story as one of the movers-and-shakers, even if it is from the shadows, and spends too much of the second half being locked up either because she’s being disobedient or for her own good, depending on the perspective of the male doing the locking up. Including among those males the hero.
One of the things I liked most about the first book was that the heroine moved as much of the action of the story along as the hero did. It’s more than not true in this story, Rhianne goes from being active to imprisoned, while even when Janto was locked up, he was able to still use his familiar to be an active participant in the action. This does not mean I didn’t find Janto’s story compelling, because I did, but the “lock her up for her own good” thing bothered me more than a bit.
Has: Yes! I definitely agree about Rhianne’s agency takes a back step in the second half although I can see why because so much was happening with the war and conflict. However I did find Rhianne to be more naive and the people around her used that to hold her back. I wished she could have managed to do more in the end to break out of the box some of the characters placed her in. Although I liked Janto realised and recognised this and gave her the space and the ability to decide about the direction of her life. But like you say I wished she could do it by herself and breakout because I think it hindered her characterisation.
Overall, I enjoyed Spy’s Honor, it does lay out and set up the world of Hearts and Thrones with more details and it did offer some surprises about the fate of certain characters who I hope appear in future books. Nonetheless, I did find the pace and plot was slow in the first half, and even though the rich world-building, setting and characters were vivid and entertaining – it didn’t capture the magic of the first book for me. But it is a very solid installment in the series and I think this is one of the best Fantasy Romance series out right now. Amy Raby has a freaking fantastic imagination and I love how much thought and depth she puts into this world and I am definitely hooked!
I give Spy’s Honor a B-
Marlene: The worldbuilding in this series is stellar. And unlike my friend Has, I find Janto’s spy role every bit as fascinating as the assassin that Vitala played in Assassin’s Gambit. It is also very cool to see Lucien before he becomes the Lucien that we met in Gambit. And speaking of gambits, Janto’s tactical ability to exploit the weaknesses of the Kjallans were very well played. The action in the second half of this story was well done. The weak point for me was the character of Rhianne. There are tremendous story possibilities in her conflict between her family, her established role and her conscience, but she gets sidelined by imprisonment for the second half of the story. She loses her agency and the story is poorer for it.
I give Spy’s Honor a B-