Hemlock and Exile by Christie Kenwyn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is hands down the best book I’ve read all year. And probably some time before that. I wish I could give it more than five stars. A special “this plucked all my strings in the right order” award, maybe. I don’t even know where to start? Do I talk about the world-building first? The pacing? The prose? The characters? The beautiful, heart wrenching love story?

Adrian is a soldier, well, ex-soldier I should say, because he has fallen from grace and gets one last chance to save his life and his honor. Enrico is a … well, lets call him a rogue (thief-pirate-assassin-something) who is sent to intercept Adrian. So while they don’t necessarily start out as enemies, the two of them have juxtaposing goals when they first meet. But there is undeniable chemistry between them from the beginning. Instead of sticking to their original (mutually exclusive) plans, they basically end up rescuing each other for the rest of the book, because every time one of them does something to help the other, it gets him into deeper trouble than before and as a result the role of who is helping who is reversed. The way they develop from strangers to friends to lovers is beautiful and sometimes painful to watch. I repeatedly felt like I wanted to hug them or kick them in the butt. Sometimes both at the same time.

The POV changes between the two main characters and the tone changes with it, from Adrian’s desperate attempts to keep his honor and do the right thing to Enrico’s more fatalistic and sometimes very self-ironic way of seeing the world. The descriptions are rich and beautiful and always give a clear sense of the characters surroundings without ever slowing the story down.

The world is heavily inspired by European cultures, the technology level feels like 16th or 17th century to me, simple firearms exist, but swords and sabers are still important weapons (maybe because the Vila, a kind of fae-zombies, are immune to bullets). Adrian is from a Nordic culture (think Norway or maybe even Iceland) and Enrico is from somewhere that feels a lot like Renaissance Italy. There’s magic, a relatively soft magic system, that isn’t explained in much details and doesn’t need to be, and there are other fantastic creatures as well, like the Hulder, but they all feel very familiar and blend well with folklore and myth from our world. There is a book religion that’s not so different from Christianity in it’s moral code, especially when it comes to love between men. As a result, the world building, though not massively original, is very believable and solid. It reminded me a bit of the world Leigh Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” and “Shadow and Bone” are set in.

I read somewhere that it took the author five years to complete this book. And I would say they were 5 years well spent, because everything in this book appears as if it has been revised and polished to reach this level of perfection. On the other hand I hope she won’t spend five years on the next one, because I really want to read more from her sooner than that.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

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