I wanted to like this book. I really did. But I’ve got the same issue with it that I did with Jane Lindskold’s The Buried Pyramid: i.e., loved the concept, but the execution? Not so much.
And as with The Buried Pyramid, what pulled me in was the idea of an alternate history settings where the British Empire was pretty much like we expect, only there’s magic. And supernatural things. And lots of potential for the magic of Europe and the magic of Africa to clash and make things go very, very differently on the African continent than they did in real life.
But the biggest thing that stood in the way of me liking this book is this: it was a lot more “romance novel thinly disguised as alternate history fantasy” than it was “alternate history fantasy”. Now, I might not have minded that–if there also hadn’t been the problem that the biggest thing driving the conflict of the plot is one of the biggest things I hate about many romances, i.e., The Big Misunderstanding. In other words, we have characters here who start off making wildly unwarranted assumptions about each other, and they never once actually confront one another about them. Instead, they spend most of the book glowering silently at one another and continuing a chain of bad assumptions, each one more vexing to me than the last, because they’re all issues that could have been solved with one good fight to clear the air and let everybody get on with the actual plot.
And don’t get me wrong, there is plot here. Aside from The Big Misunderstanding that motivates the central characters, there’s halfway decent character development otherwise. It’s just marred for me as a reader because the maturation of the involved parties feels forced.
There’s also the bigger picture plot of why exactly our principle characters are searching through Africa for the fabled magical gem Heart of Light. Like the character arcs in play here, the bigger plot has a few interesting things going on, but they’re marred by a resolution that felt too predictable to me. Had the bigger picture plot gone in as unusual a direction as the characters’ various arcs did, I would have liked it more.
I can’t fault Ms. Hoyt’s worldbuilding; certainly the details she’s worked in of how the various nations of the world have handled magic are interesting. So’s the overall perception of dragons and other were-creatures. She does more than once throughout the book have some lovely turns of phrase. But overall this wasn’t enough to counteract the unsatisfying character portrayals for me. Two stars.