The Fiery Crown, by Jeffe Kennedy (St. Martin's)
This novel was listed as both sf/fantasy and romance. Such crossovers range from sf/fantasy with a love story to romance with a few fantasy elements. It all depends on the emphasis, where the energy and moving force in the story lie. That focus determines the reading experience, even with the same set of events. A novel can be driven by characters/relationships, by plot, by ideas (like mysteries), and even by the world itself. Romance may contain all of these elements but the heart of the story lies in the evolving, often tumultuous relationship between two people. The Fiery Crown is one of these. It’s set in a world with interesting magic and political conflicts, and various events, although the most dramatic don’t happen until three-quarters through the book. But the center of it is the love story between Conri and Lia, a prince-turned-slave-turned-king and the not-quite-human Queen of Flowers of the island nation of Calanthe, possessor of the Abiding Ring of prophecy. The Fiery Crown follows the story begun in The Orchid Throne, beginning with Conri and Lia married, very much in lust with one another but lacking the understanding that would allow them to work together against their mutual enemy, the mainland emperor, Anure. Over the course of this book, each makes progress in that direction, although whether it will be enough to overcome their separate habits of suspicion and stubborn independence in time to save Lia and Calanthe from Anure’s invasion is uncertain.
The Fiery Crown is the middle book of a trilogy, although it isn’t labeled as such. I didn’t realize it when I picked the book up. Indeed, it felt as if I were coming into the middle of a story. I didn’t find the characters and situations confusing, but I did have the sense that this was an interesting way to open a romance novel. Usually, these begin with the couple meeting, being attracted to one another, struggling through one misunderstanding after another, and finally surrendering to their mutual passion. Here, they’re already married and enjoying an enthusiastic sexual relationship, which seems to be the only point on which they are agreed.
I’d strongly suggest that the first book (The Orchid Throne) be read first, and that readers set their expectations to a long, slow, relationship development with not much action until the final quarter of the book, and an unresolved ending that must wait until the final volume. If slow-burn romance in a fantasy world is your thing, you’ll love this series.