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INTRODUCTION: "The Tremont family has conquered kingdom after kingdom, and rules its continent. Now, Tremont stands on the cusp of an industrial revolution; trains and steam engines are new, and the Scholar Priests of Eddin's Temple make exciting discoveries daily. Magic is long forgotten, but the Gods are not. Prince Temmin must now leave his childhood home to live with his father--Harsin the Fourth, by the Grace of Pagg, King of the Greater Kingdom of Tremont and Litta, Emperor of Inchar. Harsin expects his son to become the kind of ruthless, pragmatic man he is. But his immortal advisor Teacher has other plans, involving the seductive human avatars of the Gods called the Lovers. Teacher intends to bind Temmin to the Lovers' Temple, bring him closer to his people, and set him on a path that will lead to ultimate glory for Tremont--or its end."
"Lovers and Beloveds" is an indie title I have discovery from a review inquiry. The Jacqueline Carey comparison the author used attracted my attention, while the excerpt linked above convinced me to read the book and I am really glad I did. I would note that indeed Lovers and Beloveds has "Kushiel vibes"; while it is more explicit though in the same tasteful vein as there, it posits a world where the Gods' embodiments - including the erotic one in dual male/female manifestation - play an important role in society.
FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION:"Lovers and Beloveds" stands at about 400 pages divided into 17 chapters with an Appendix about Tremontine Calendar and Measurements and one about Pronunciations.
The main POV of the novel, Temmin is the only son of King Harsin and for reasons we discover as the novel goes on, he has been raised far away from the capital in his mother's stronghold, very sheltered and with limited possibilities of female companionship. To the scorn of the capital's young bloods, he is still virgin when the king summons him to assume his responsibilities as heir. That factoid is very important since it is provable in a conclusive way in a special magic ritual which is fatal otherwise. But that magic ritual involves subtle issues about the power distribution in the Kingdom, so having the heir undergo it is not in the King's interest and the novel's main motive driver follows from here.
The mysterious Teacher who seems to be a long-lived magician advising the King and who is both in the King's power to command but who can also try subtly to influence things starts training Temmin as well as dropping hints about important events from his family's past that somehow never made it into the official histories. One such event is the subject of the secondary thread of the novel which starts interspersing with the main narrative after a while.
"Lovers and Beloveds" is secondary world fantasy in the Legacy of Kushiel vein with quite a lot of explicitness which is integrated well into the main story. The first volume in a series, "Lovers and Beloveds" stops at a good "to be continued" point and offers a complete and satisfying reading experience. I am very interested in the sequel which is tentatively expected in the second part of 2011.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The novel starts slow and a bit on the raw side but it picks up considerably after a while; I liked the writing and was intrigued by the premise so I persevered beyond the clumsy descriptions in the first several pages, where things seem just out of kilt somehow, not quite making sense in the "pseudo-medieval" setting we are introduced to.
The later events and world building will make sense of that part, but here we encounter one of the common problems in secondary fantasies that contain "unhistorical elements", whether in social mores or in how political power distributes, namely that the author knows much more than us, but fails to convey the reasons for the 'way things are' against our empirical knowledge of the human nature.
"Lovers and Beloveds" ultimately depends on the character of Temmin and while he becomes quite interesting by the end of the novel, readers have to put up with a lot of silliness and even dullness before; not a bad prince as they go, but still spoiled and naive which makes for the worst combination sometimes.
The emotional distance of 3rd person narration works against the book to some extent - one big reason the Kushiel books are so good is the immediacy of first person narration - and since we essentially follow Temmin's path with few outside events recounted, I think that a first person narration would have made the book better.
The secondary story that Temmin sees in the magic book of the subtitle (Intimate Story of the Greater Kingdom) is somewhat cliched and predictable, so a bit overlong as a subthread but it works as a morality tale/history lesson and I guess it may play a role in later world building expansion.
The huge strength of the novel is the writing style which is excellent and helps smooth some of the issues mentioned above, while keeping one turning the pages and accepting at least temporarily what the author "sells"; once getting going, the world building is pretty good, still a little bit sketchy to the end but not with great flaws and I expect continuing volumes to expand it. The characters develop and show a lot of nuance after a while, so I urge everyone to give this book a little time to develop as story and hero go.
All in all the series has extremely great promise so I am very interested in the sequel, while Lovers and Beloveds (A+) is one of the best indies - more or less a debut since the book has been expanded a lot from its first edition - I've read this year. If you are a fan of Jacqueline Carey I would definitely urge you to try this one and as mentioned give it a bit to settle down and of course I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in beautifully written fantasy of intrigue and eroticism and who is not afraid of some explicitness.