I loved Leith. Born under a curse which causes misfortune to follow him like a huge and malevolent shadow, he absolutely can’t catch a break. The ill luck is his – he is constantly bumped and bruised and broken, and is living proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But the ill luck is also that of those around him: wherever he goes, calamity follows. Cattle plagues, fishing hauls dropping from bumper crop to empty nets … earthquakes … Whatever he does, wherever he goes, terrible things happen. Finally, his father the king sends him off to marry a distant princess. Unfortunately Leith+ ship = shipwreck, and he – possibly the only survivor – is washed onto an unknown shore, and has to decide whether to seek out people, and thereby endanger them, or figure out some lonely alternative. In his wanderings, he comes upon a horse, also wandering loose: a beautiful black stallion, small but perfect. (Valadan, the horse somehow communicates to him.) Leith– eventually – captures him, not only for the simple reason that riding will be easier than walking but also because the money from selling the horse might make the difference his life needs. When he arrives on a certain beach, however, he decides to try something different with the amazing little horse: there is a competition going on, young men attempting to take their horses up a hill of glass to claim a gold ring at the top. A gold ring is worth money – maybe, he thinks, he can take advantage of the weird communication he has with Valadan, and the stallion’s extraordinary agility, to claim the ring – and sell it instead of the horse, which he is more and more reluctant to do.
And it works.
The fly in the ointment is that the ring isn’t the real prize; it is only the immediate proof that the task has been accomplished. The real prize for accomplishing the task is the hand of the Lady Kessalia in marriage. Leithis dismayed – this is not what he had planned – but not nearly as dismayed as Kess: she has no intention of marrying. The whole competition was meant as a distraction, as works out her plans to go off in search of her mother, who disappeared years before; her father went to look for her, and has not been seen since. And now she just can’t shake offLeith. He is a man of honor – he will not let a young (very young) woman go off into the unknown by herself … and, too (mostly), once he learns that Kess’s mother is a witch, he wants to meet her. Maybe she can alleviate, or even remove, the curse.
And here’s where the book lost a lot of love. Valadan, of course, is as always wonderful. The story is grand, or begins so. Leith is steadfast and cheerful in the face of the most abysmal happenings, but not to a degree where I wanted to drown him myself. He has had a horrible life from the moment of his birth, and has managed to reach adulthood scarred (internally and externally) but generous, devout, and surprisingly optimistic. As I said, I love Leith. Kess, though … She’s shockingly awful. She’s spoiled, is part of it, but she goes well beyond simple brat. She is self-centered, self-absorbed: anyone else in her vicinity only exists insofar as they can serve and obey her. Otherwise they need to just shut up and get out of her way. Or else. When Leith comes into her vicinity and refuses to leave it even when ordered, even when shrieked at, even when she tries stealth to escape him, she takes to abusing him. He is a gullible sort, so desperate for a way to turn his luck and spare not only himself but those around him that he will do anything she suggests, not suspecting for a good long while how evil she is. When finally he realizes that she is telling him to do painful and humiliating and ridiculous things just to inflict pain and humiliation and ridicule on him, he stops listening, finally – but he still refuses to leave … why, then she simply resorts to poison. I hate Kessalia. Her behavior is extreme, inexcusable, and unredeemable, she quickly became one of my most-hated characters in all of fiction, and not very far into the book I made a note that this would be a wallbanger if Leith and Kess ended the book married. (Wallbanger: book which makes a bang when flung against the wall.) I won’t spoil the ending, but it was not what I would have chosen.
The writing is excellent. The characters, even the hateful Kess, are well-drawn; I couldn’t hate Kess with such a passion if she hadn’t been given life by the writing. The plot never does just what is expected, which is good, and the story as a whole is lovely, weaving fairy tale elements into a realistic and heart-felt tale. If only the female lead wasn’t a sadist.