Aurora has a big secret. She’s not special.
Oh, she’s a princess. She’s heir to a city-state and has never known physical hardship. She’s lovely, adept in languages, a gifted horsewoman, and a practiced fighter. But Aurora has no magic, and in Caelira, that’s the only skill that really matters for a monarch. After all, Stormlings in Cora Carmack’s Roar rule only by their ability to protect the populace from a variety of devastating storms. And so she is betrothed to a powerful prince to hide her deficiency, but Aurora can’t stand him or her own weakness. She wants her own power, and she’ll leave her sheltered life behind to get it.
Or, to put it another way: a princess with ice-blonde hair is pressured into an engagement to a ruthless prince in order to claim her kingdom, but undergoes a moral awakening and comes into a fierce power.
If this reminds you of Daenerys Stormborn, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons…well, it reminded me as well, and I do wonder about the exact genesis of this book. But princesses with unique hair and powers are a staple of fantasy, and there aren’t any dragons in Roar. Also it’s not like she actually gets married to the vicious prince. Instead, she runs away.
Specifically, she joins a group of storm hunters who promise to teach her their ways and get her some magic. Aurora–now calling herself Roar–trades her palace prison for a wise teacher and a motley band of gifted misfits, and a life in the wilds where storms are a constant danger. But snatching the hearts of those storms proves even more difficult than she imagined, as strange and uncomfortable abilities manifest and the countryside shudders under martial and magical threats.
This book needed a more hardhearted editor. It’s not like there are any particular chapters or items that needed to be cut entirely, but there’s too much emotional exposition. Scenes should speak for themselves, including the internal drama. In one particularly striking instance, when Aurora allows herself to hope for love only to overhear the object of her affection dismissing her, she flees to cry in private–and ruminate on a bit more psychological backstory than we need. Similarly, another character spends a good deal of time declaring–to himself–that he can’t get involved with romance (thereby all but ensuring that the opposite will happen). Some reflection is fine, but much of it is already obvious. Carmack needs to trust her audience and her characters more.
Caelira is a brutal land semi-sentient storms with hearts that can be stolen and magic that can be skimmed. Officially, Stormlings are the only ones who can fight these terrible forces of nature and protect the population. Unofficially, there are many more kinds of magic and uses for it, all carefully hidden from official view. Elemental magic, storm sensitivities, spirit manipulation…this is a rich magical backdrop.
Various nationalities and religions crop up, as well as interesting tidbits of history and fiction that suggest a large and complicated history. I like this world, and I find the magic system quite original and thrilling. Firestorms, twisters, hurricanes and more–it’s a great basis for some great pyrotechnics as well as for some subtler workings: lightning in chandeliers to provide illumination, embers in jars to provide warmth, and stones with sympathetic properties that warn when other storms are near. It’s quite cool, and it has the potential to be as wonderfully weird and deep as, say, the Mistborn world.
Unfortunately, Carmack spends less time on the intricacies of a storm-wracked society and more on the romance, which is uninspiring. There isn’t banter so much as squabbling, and the pretext of combat training for sexual foreplay has never been my favorite. Danger, a slight inclination toward S&M, and lots of physicality are all fine, I suppose, but there are more interesting ways to stage flirtation. We also have very little context for Roar’s curiosity. Her mother rules alone on the basis of her stormling powers, and we know she chose her own husband. There must be some gender parity, but how much? Is virginity important? Can’t she act on her lust? We also know that Roar is very sheltered, but we see little evidence of awkwardness (just that annoying RomCom tendency to deliberately misunderstand things).
Meanwhile, how is it that an unprotected town has an inn that can accommodate individual rooms for an entire adventuring party? How is it that it can lay out a spread of pastries when constant storms must make growing grains difficult? I know not all authors have to think through every part of their world, but Carmack wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants complexity but also hand-waving. She wants to talk about economic disparity and political oppression, but only when convenient to her characters’ backstory or growth.
Speaking of politics, I found the nefarious Locke family to be one of the best parts of the book. Cassius is compellingly demented, and the unfurling motivations for the Lockes’ presence in Pavan are unexpected and intriguing. Some of their most brazen cruelties strain credulity, but overall they’re decent villains.
Nova, the seamstress with a big secret, was also a favorite. Actually, Cormack is a fair shake at creating secondary characters–the whole hunter adventuring party and the royals are all pretty interesting. There could have been a lot more fun had if Cormack had taken out some of the heavy-handed heavy petting and let the personalities bounce off each other a little more. But this book was all about the romance and saved a lot of action for the second act, which I’m guessing comes out next year. I do intend to pick it up to see what happens to all the characters and the world, but I hope Roar finds herself in a simple, mutually supportive relationship that can take a back seat to her saving the world in the next one.