Considering how disappointing Herb-Witch turned out to be, I was a little worried about reading this. I ended up liking it a lot more, but it hurts to think how much better Herb-Wife and the duology as a whole could have been, had McCoy had an excellent editor. I'm not talking about typos – although I noticed a few (mostly, missing words), there really weren't that many. My problem is with the story, which would have been much better if it had been tightened up.
Herb-Wife continues right where Herb-Witch left off. Kessa is at Iathor's house, recovering from being attacked and almost raped. Her shop has been burned down. She knows that Iasen was probably the one who ordered the attack and that he had probably done it out of a hatred for her barbarian blood and a desire to continue to be Iathor's heir. She knows there is nothing she can do to him directly, but marrying Iathor and giving him a son would provide her with some form of revenge. Because she's an immune, there's a good chance she won't survive childbirth, but there's comfort in knowing that her child would be well taken care of.
Plot-wise, the whole book is basically just about Kessa's goals and Iathor's efforts to find out what's really going on. Kessa begins to fall for Iathor but figures he'd hate her if he knew the truth about why she agreed to marry him. Iathor knows Kessa is hiding things and is determined to keep her safe and make their marriage a happy one, despite society's prejudices against half-barbarians and his own brother's hatred of Kessa.
I really think Herb-Witch and Herb-Wife would have been better as a single book. There just wasn't enough story, and I felt like McCoy loved her characters so much that she couldn't bring herself to do the kind of ruthless editing that would have been necessary to tighten everything up. I appreciated the slow-developing affection between Iathor and Kessa and came to understand Kessa much better in this book, but the story's pacing was, overall, pretty terrible. Did we really need to see Iathor and Kessa's entire trip to Cym? And did we need to hear so much about Kessa's bleeding? It seemed like she spent half the book either menstruating (from the effects of Purgatorie) or bleeding from her and Iathor's cringe-worthy wedding night.
Even so, McCoy is really, really good at writing compelling characters and interesting worlds, and those things were what kept me reading, even when nothing much new seemed to be happening. Iathor was my favorite character in the book, and it wasn't long before I developed a literary crush on him. He carried his power as Lord Alchemist well. I loved how he tried to balance his strong sense of duty and his growing feelings for Kessa.
Kessa was more subdued this time around, due both to her feelings of guilt about the things she was hiding from Iathor and her belief that she would soon die in childbirth. I appreciated that she no longer tried to bite Iathor's head off at every opportunity, even as the reason for the shift in her behavior hurt. I hated that it took her so long (almost the whole book!) to truly trust Iathor, and I desperately wanted her to have a greater sense of her own self-worth.
I spent half of Herb-Witch trying to get a handle on the characters and the world, so it was a relief that this was no longer an issue for me in Herb-Wife. I was fascinated by Kessa and Iathor's world, even as some aspects repelled me. For example, the reliance of dry tea and men's tea (contraceptives) on maiden's blood bugged me. In this world, the menstrual blood of a maiden (very strict definition of maiden – no kissing, no sex, no sexual behavior of any kind) was somehow different from other blood. I had so many questions about that. The glossary mentioned that it doesn't just have to be menstrual blood, but I still wondered, why maidens? What about virginal men? And why would kissing interfere with the blood's properties?
The dramsmen were another thing that both fascinated and repelled me. Herb-Witch just talked about them, whereas Herb-Wife actually showed the dramsman's draught in action. Nobles like Iathor were very conscious of their responsibilities towards their dramsmen, but it was still hard to imagine anyone who had a choice about it willingly agreeing to take the draught.
Because it badly needed to be tightened up, I hesitate to recommend this duology, but I became so attached to the characters and this world that I plan to read the related works that McCoy has written.
A combined cast list and glossary is included at the end of the book.
- The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Aspects of Herb-Wife - the slight romance and scientific approach to what is basically magic - reminded me of The Fire Rose. I've written about this book.
- A College of Magics (book) by Caroline Stevermer - I read this over 10 years ago and can barely remember anything about it, but for some reason it popped into my head as being a possible read-alike for Herb-Wife. I remember there being a bit of magic and politics, a heroine who wasn't very pretty, and a little bit of romance.
- Earthrise (e-book) by M.C.A. Hogarth - I'm adding this to the list primarily because of its prickly heroine - those who liked Kessa may enjoy Reese. Although this science fiction book is fairly different from Herb-Wife, Hogarth, like McCoy, creates very vivid characters and worlds and may appeal to fans of Herb-Wife. I've written about this book.
- Dragonflight (book) by Anne McCaffrey - As I read about Kessa and Iathor's marriage, I was reminded a little of Lessa and F'lar, although their personalities are a bit different and have different areas of emphasis. For example, it's been a while since I last read the book, but I don't recall F'lar being anywhere near as patient and understanding as Iathor.
- "The Blushing Bounder" (short story) by Meljean Brook - This story can be found in the anthology Wild & Steamy (oddly, Brook's site says this anthology is no longer available, even though I found it on both All Romance Ebooks and Smashwords). It stars Constable Newbury, who moved himself and his new wife to London specifically in the hope of improving his wife's health. Unfortunately, his wife hates him because he essentially forced her to marry him. I never got around to reviewing this anthology, but I remember this being a very sweet story. It might appeal to those who'd like another romantic tale in which a husband hopes to convince his prickly wife to trust and maybe even love him.