Darest is a country in decline. When it still had Rathens and Rathen Champions, it was powerful, but it's been two hundred years since the death of the last Rathen. It's a shock to everyone when the Rathen Rose reacts to Soren, a nobody in the court, and proclaims her the newest Rathen Champion. Soren does her duty and begins her search for a baby Rathen who couldn't possibly exist, knowing that, once she finds the child, they'll both be in danger. While Darest may need its Rathens, Darien politics has moved on. The Regent and her son would not be happy to be displaced.
Strake, the Rathen Soren finally finds, is a grown man rather than the child Soren expected, and is filled with anger and bitterness. The Rose unfortunately makes things worse. Despite their strained relationship, Strake and Soren will have to work together if they want to survive Darien politics, the machinations of the Rose, and the being intent on killing the last Rathen.
This is one of those times when pretty cover art led to me reading something I probably should have passed by. This book ended up taking me about four months to get through, because the strained relationship between Soren and Strake was so unpleasant that just about any other book appealed to me more. If e-books were a thing you could sell or donate, I'd probably just have given up and offloaded this one.
I knew from reviews that, fairly early on, the Rose would force Soren to rape Strake. I though I could deal with that, since the scene wasn't the least bit graphic, but the aftermath wore on me. Strake was completely repulsed by Soren. Even though he knew that she'd had no choice, that the Rose had briefly taken her over and used her like a puppet, she was the one that he'd seen and felt. He'd been taken away from everyone and everything that he knew, and by his perception of time his lover had recently been killed right in front of him. This was the last straw.
Soren hated the part she'd played in the rape, but she'd essentially been raped too. She was more under the Rose's control than it was under hers. It could take her will at any moment and force her to do whatever it wished. Forcing her to rape Strake had been its way of continuing the Rathen line. Not only did she have to face all the anger and revulsion Strake turned towards her because she made a better target than the Rose, she also had to deal with being unwillingly pregnant with Strake's child.
I couldn't bring myself to like either one of these characters. I understood why Strake directed his hatred almost entirely towards Soren, but I hated how often he seemed to forget that this was terrible for her too. At one point, he almost raped Soren to pay her back for what she'd done to him, and I found myself wishing Soren had used the Rose to tear him to pieces. Soren understood why Strake hated her so much and was bitter about being nothing more than the Rose's Champion Brood Mare – but she also found herself attracted to Strake. I wasn't sure if her interest in Strake was due to the Rose's influence or not, but it mixed so terribly with all the other emotions between Soren and Strake that it made my skin crawl.
And, unfortunately, it did blossom into love. If I have the timeline right, Strake and Soren hadn't even known each other much more than a month. It didn't feel like enough time for them to have gotten over all the ugliness between them. I'd have been far more comfortable with a blossoming relationship between one of them and Aristide. There were some indications that he might end up as their third, but the primary romance was between Soren and Strake, and it absolutely didn't work for me.
I'll wrap this up by going over some of the things that did work for me. Aristide intrigued me a lot, and I wish Höst had included a glimpse at his thoughts. In public, he was slick, sharp, and sparkling, the perfect courtier. In private, he was completely closed off – all his emotions locked inside himself, and no friends, lovers, or anyone in his life that he seemed to care about. I'm crossing my fingers that he plays a significant part in the next book, because I want to know more about what's going on inside his head.
I also liked the world of this book. If it hadn't been for Soren and Strake's strained relationship, I think I'd have enjoyed the dangerous politics. Crumbling, once powerful Darest was an interesting place, and I liked getting to learn what part the Rose, Rathen, and Champion played in everything. Although Soren was largely useless – far less politically adept than Aristide, magic-less, and unable to wield the sword she'd inherited as the new Champion – the Rose did give her a few abilities. She could see everywhere in the palace, at any time, and she eventually figured out how to use the Rose to defend herself and Strake.
This was also one of the few books I've read where bisexuality and polyamorous relationships are so common and so much a part of the world that none of the characters even bat an eyelash about it all. Those in same-sex relationships who wanted children would either come to an agreement with someone of the opposite sex in order to have a child, or they'd find someone with whom they could have a more lasting relationship. If there was any angst, it was entirely due to the way personalities meshed or didn't mesh.
All in all, Champion of the Rose didn't work for me. The rape colored everything and made this a largely unpleasant read, and Strake's progression from anger and revulsion to acceptance and love happened too soon in his and Soren's relationship to be believable. That said, I'm willing to give Höst's books another shot, and it's quite possible that I could even enjoy the next book in this duology, especially since reviews only mention Aspen, Soren's friend, and Aristide. (Which is good, since I already own the next book, as well as several others by Höst. That's what I get for buying a bunch of books by a new-to-me author.)
- Chalice (book) by Robin McKinley - This book's setup is very similar to Champion of the Rose, even though their worlds are pretty different. Mirasol, like Soren, is an ordinary woman who suddenly becomes a politically important person and must learn, all on her own, how to do her job. Thankfully, Mirasol has a better relationship with the Master than Soren does with Strake. I've written about this book.
- Winds of Fate (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Another fantasy kingdom with a deep history and old magic that few people still know much about. In this book, magical defenses that everyone had forgotten about and didn't even realize were there are starting to fail. It's been a while since I last read this, since it's not my favorite Valdemar subseries, but I'm pretty sure it's possible to start here if you'd like.
- Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - Another fantasy book in which the heroine is unwillingly transformed into a politically important person, even though she knows next to nothing about how to use her abilities or what she's supposed to do. Here's my most recent review of this book. Sea of Wind, the second book, continues that theme and stars a different set of characters, if Sea of Shadow isn't to your taste.