I bought this for several reasons. One, I read a review of it on Dear Author and was intrigued by the idea of a fantasy romance in which the protagonists were repulsed by each other's appearances. Two, I really liked the excerpt. And three, the cover. The colors are lovely, and the pose screams “romance.”
On to the story. Brishen is the third son of the Kai king, and Ildiko is a niece of the Gauri king. They know that their impending marriage will forge an important alliance between their kingdoms, but they're both sick with horror and nervousness. The Gauri are terrified of Kai fangs, claws, and glowing eyes (I pictured them as being a bit like anthropomorphized anglerfish), and to the Kai, Gauri eyes look sickeningly like parasites.
Brishen and Ildiko accidentally meet before their marriage. Horrifying appearances aside, they get along remarkably well, and they begin to hope that maybe their marriage won't be so bad after all. They privately arrange to postpone sex indefinitely (they aren't expected to produce an heir and, besides, it sounds like Kai and Gauri can't interbreed) and help each other through difficult moments as best as possible. Unfortunately, the countries of Gaur and Belawat have been at odds for some time, and the alliance between the Gauri and the formerly neutral Kai has put a target on both Brishen and Ildiko's backs.
I'll start off by saying that this book worked really, really well for me. Something about it hit all the right buttons. I flew through it, and now I want to read everything Draven has ever published. Which is not to say Radiance didn't have flaws. It's just that I noticed the flaws and they had little-to-no effect on my love for the book.
Radiance is definitely a fantasy romance, rather than a fantasy with strong romantic aspects, and I think it would work best for readers who gravitate more towards the romance aspects. I highly recommend trying the excerpt. If you find yourself charmed by Brishen and Ildiko's first meeting, go for it. If you're put off by how quickly and easily the two of them get along, this book may not be for you.
When Ildiko and Brishen first met each other, neither one had any idea who the other was. This anonymity was supposed to explain why they were so candid with each other right from the start. However, they could both still see that they were Kai and Gauri and, considering how tense things were between their peoples, not knowing each other's identities should have made them more careful about what they said, not less. Even so, I loved how direct and honest they were with each other. This honesty continued through the entire book and was a vital part of what made their relationship work, since they had trouble reading each other's expressions.
Radiance featured a lot of fantasy politics, but the part of me that loves vicious, underhanded, ruthless fantasy politics was disappointed at how direct everyone was. Belawat made no effort to hide that they were trying to kill or kidnap Brishen and Ildiko. Serovek, a Beladine nobleman and friend of Brishen's, recognized that openly aiding Brishen could cause problems for himself, and yet he didn't do much to hide his support. Secmis, Brishen's mother, was supposed to be a deadly viper of a woman, but she was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. I'd have at least expected her to slip a spy into Brishen's household, but neither she nor anyone else did anything of the sort. I'm still shaking my head over that last one.
I was baffled that Kai cuisine mostly appealed to Ildiko, while Gauri cuisine was uniformly disgusting to the Kai. At first, I thought maybe it was just potatoes that the Kai hated, but, looking back at Brishen's first Gauri dinner, it's clear that he and his fellow Kai hated every bit of it. It was weird and seemed inconsistent to me.
Despite all these issues, I still adored this book. I think it's because Ildiko and Brishen's relationship was so prominent that, for me at least, it overshadowed everything else. Everything they did further cemented their affection for each other, and I loved how that affection slowly transformed into attraction. I'm very much looking forward to the next book in the series (and crossing my fingers that Draven doesn't make them magically fertile with each other). I hope that, at some point, we get to find out more about Ildiko's life prior to marrying Brishen.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Mindtouch (e-book) by M.C.A. Hogarth - Not a romance, although it features a friendship so warm and close that it at times feels similar. I'd recommend it to those who loved how Brishen and Ildiko's relationship was built on a foundation of honesty and affection. I've written about this book.
- Archangel (book) by Sharon Shinn - A fantasy (well, sci-fi that reads like fantasy) romance. This one also features an arranged marriage, but it's a much rockier one. It takes a while for it to blossom into love.
- Herb-Witch (e-book) by Elizabeth McCoy - The marriage doesn't actually happen until the second book, Herb-Wife, but this might still appeal to those looking for another slow burn romance that starts off with at least one person finding the other to be physically repellent. I've written about this book.
- Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (live action movie) - Not exactly an arranged marriage, because the couple weren't originally supposed to get married, but close: the woman's father's deathbed request is that the two of them get married. For Surinder, it's love at first sight. Taani is willing to make the best of their marriage, but it takes her a while to fall in love with Surinder. I've reviewed this movie.
- Hawksong (book) by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes - Those looking for something else featuring a political marriage between people from two different fantasy races may want to try this YA novel. I've written about it.