BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: In a fantasy kingdom chafing under the rule of a distant empire, a Prince and a commoner struggle to build a relationship even as war and Draconic meddling threatens their safety.
PROS: Believable, strong romance that defies the clichés of the trope; excellent view into the workings of a royal court; evocative prose; a beautiful artifact of a book; tells a complete story in one volume.
CONS: The world and worldbuilding outside of that court, from the dragons to the threat of war, is not written with the interest and strength of the world inside of it.
BOTTOM LINE: An epic fantasy recommended for readers far more interested in romance and character interactions than wide-screen worldbuilding and action.
In Moth and Spark, the debut novel by Anne Leonard, the Kingdom of Caithen is not in the best of states. The overlord, Emperor Hadon, has the daughter of the King in a protective custody that borders on hostage-taking. A powerful Kingdom behind the mountains looks to grab relatively unprotected pieces of the empire like Caithen and its neighbors. Can Tyrekh be stopped or even slowed before Emperor Hadon sends troops to help his vassal? And does Hadon even want to, with troubles in his own Court? Prince Corin, though, has even bigger problems. His mother is looking for a suitable match for the heir, and his trip north was even odder than he remembers. And why are things now so strange? Tam Warin, in the meantime, the daughter of a physician and visiting the royal court thanks to connections, is a fish out of water, at best. Still, this fish is going to witness strange doings in the shadows, and even a shocking death. These events are going to draw Tam and Corin together like a moth and a flame. But can a romance between a Prince and a Doctor’s daughter withstand even an ordinary Royal Court, much less one under threat?
The prose of Moth and Spark is the real star of the book. When and where the novel is at its best is when it looks at the characters in their home setting with beautiful, descriptive, evocative prose. It is no coincidence that the back of the dust jacket has no synopsis, but rather an excerpt of one of the more evocative scenes in the novel — a trip to a carnival that unfolds some of the magic in the novel. The prose carries the worldbuilding with economy and a light but convincing hand.
The touching, believable, and unabashedly romantic story of Corin and Tam is the emotional core of this novel. Secondary characters are done in quick sketches, but we deeply delve into the cores of what make both Corin and Tam tick and how they tick together. Although “Prince and the common girl” is a stereotype in fiction going back centuries, the author makes what could have been shopworn and predictable into something that deeply immerses the reader. Corin is no simple Prince Charming and Tam is no uncomplicated Cinderella.
The novel’s weakness occurs when the action leaves the Caithen royal court. I never got a real sense, even with a map, of how the threat from the major antagonist might play out. For all of the verve and strength of the character interactions and social dynamics inside of the palace, it seemed the novel faltered or lost confidence when the novel ventured far away from it. Readers looking for nuts and bolts to the magic or the external politics in the author’s world are going to be disappointed. The ending, too, is more than a bit of a wet firecracker. The journey, the story of Tam and Corin and their relationship, is far more interesting than how their journey ends.
I imagine a fair number of readers of epic fantasy are going to be frustrated with the novel. However, those readers who are more interested about heavy doses of romance and social dynamics in their fiction will find rewards here in the story of Tam and Corin. Readers unwilling to invest in long or endless series will be especially pleased to know that Moth and Spark tells a complete story in one volume. Finally, the book itself is beautiful; it sports a gorgeous dust jacket and, even without it, the beautiful typography — with ornate symbols in the headers and as scene breaks — shows the care that was put into the book’s production. This is a book definitely more suited to a print than an electronic edition. It will happily remain on my shelf.