The Eldritch Heart by Matthew S. Cox

The Eldritch Heart by Matthew S. CoxCox fuses the classic tale of a destined saviour with the equally classic tale of a love society will not understand without becoming constrained by either. The result is lesbian fantasy that transcends a sense of political agenda.

For sixteen years, Princess Oona Talomir has lived a life of privilege marred by only two things. First, she is prophesied to end the war between her nation and its neighbour; leaving her confined to the palace in case assassins come, and filling her with fear she will cause the slaughter of a nation. Second, her feelings for Kitlyn, her childhood friend and unofficial handmaiden, have lately become more than platonic; leaving her fearing both the rejection of her friend and the opprobrium of a society guided by rules of divine purity. Unable to cope with the thought of both unleashing magical fury on her neighbours and living a lie for the rest of her life, she resolves to flee.

Cox opens with little threat to Oona, describing instead the day-to-day pursuits of someone possessing great status yet no real freedom to act. Interwoven with Oona’s daily existence, he shows Kitlyn ordered to serve Oona yet also abused and mistreated by some of the servants and staff for getting above her status. These parallel views of a world very far from the conflict between nations and free of real danger but with little reminders that the war continues, create both the sense that the princess is spoiled and wilful and build a sense of paranoid and doubt: supposedly, the other side are aware of the prophecy and so seek the death of the princess, but if she’s seen no sign of assassins for all her life are they really out there?

This conflict between Oona’s rejection of her place being possibly self-indulgent and the bases of her duty being possibly a lie expands and shifts as the novel continues, preventing the reader from deciding whether either side of the conflict is right, or even be certain what it is about and what will happen; as such, it avoids the issue that many fantasy prophecies display of telling the reader how things will end before the challenge has begun while also creating a feeling that events have grown from a history as convoluted and conflicting as the real world.

In contrast to the lack of objective facts provided to the reader in the ongoing conflict, the relationship between Oona and Kitlyn displays the dramatic irony and conflict arc of a traditional romance plot: as the point-of-view swaps back and forth between them in successive chapters, they each desperately wish to reveal their love to the other but are constrained by a fear of being seen as disgusting both by their beloved and society. While this failure to just tell each other might cause some readers to wish to bang their heads together or lock them in a room until they figure it out, it also provides an intimate demonstration that the state religion and society that surrounds it are embedded in a way that modern culture and conventions aren’t; thus feeding back into the thread about the holy war against evil neighbours.

Oona and Kitlyn are, while distinct in character, united by the same desire to do the right thing rather than what they are told is the right thing. As such, their naivety and immaturity are underlain by decency and courage, making them feel sympathetic rather than spoilt, petty, or vengeful; similarly, while they are following a prophecy, their challenges are varied and costly, preventing them from slipping into the cliché of “chosen one and trusty companion saving the world”.

The supporting cast are similarly recognisable yet complex. While everyone accepts the prophecy is true, their idea of its fulfilment runs from the mundane dynastic marriage to the apocalyptic scouring of the enemy to its bedrock. Similarly, characters display a spectrum of reactions to romantic relationships both between women and between social classes.

Although same-sex relationships and a society strongly opposed to them on religious grounds power one of the two central conflicts in this novel, so many characters have an opinion, Cox does not ram a message down the readers throat: readers will not be able to cleanly divide the characters into good people and bad depending on whether they are troubled by homosexuality.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking a blend of classic fantasy tropes and nuanced character.

I received a free copy from the author with no obligation to review.

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