All the Hidden Paths by Foz Meadows
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This second book in the Tithenai Chronicles takes a slightly different tack than the first, concentrating more on the romance and court politics than the magical elements. Once more, the protagonist Velasin is in danger, threatened because of his marriage to a Tithena nobleman, Caethari.
There is a lot of character work in this story, because Vel and Cae, despite being thrown together in a political marriage that neither of them wanted, find themselves falling in love. Velasin in particular, coming from a country where same-sex relationships/marriages are frowned upon and gay people are discriminated against, has to do a lot of growing to adjust to this new situation and his expanding feelings for Caethari. Throw in an assassin after the two of them and a separate person sent by the king of Ralia (Vel's former country) to break up his marriage, and he has a lot to deal with.
But Vel is clever and politically savvy, and he is able to navigate the treacherous waters at the Tithenai Court and secure a place for himself and his husband. He also has to deal with his own feelings and the completely new situation he finds himself in: a secure relationship in a place accepting of gay people, where he can be open with his love for Cae. Caethari, on the other hand, has to cope with the trauma Velasin experienced in the previous book, as well as his own countrymen not accepting his marriage and working against it. Layer a murder mystery on top of all this and we have an intriguing and complicated stew with many different plot threads to deal with.
The author does all this with aplomb. They also have a deft hand with character work (page 364, when Velasin realizes how he feels about Caethari):
Everything around me slowed and blurred, as if I were an insect incased in tree-sap. My heart wrenched erratically against my ribs, for all the world like a leashed dog straining to greet a friend, and I realized, in a bright and sudden unfurling of truth, that I loved him. Oh, I thought stupidly. The realization washed through me with all the sweet shivering shock of brandy drunk on an empty stomach. I stared at my husband, at the desperate worry in his face, and felt my blood beating within me like wings. I'd thought myself in love before, but in that moment, the strength of my feelings for Cae cast every prior romance in the retroactive light of infatuation. I had yearned for love, had hoped for, cherished and feared it in nearly equal measure, but all of that paled before my sudden certainty that, if my heart was a ship, Caethari had become its harbor.
There's some lovely writing in this book, and a strong sense of pace and balance. The romance does not crowd out the political shenanigans and vice versa. The main characters have depth and nuance, and while I would love an entire book about Vel's servant/best friend Markel, he does make a good showing here. I don't know if this is the final book in the series, but if so, it wraps things up very nicely.
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