Of Mist and Shadow [Review]

Of Mist and Shadow

by Jenna Wolfhart
Self-published, 2022

This was the second of the Romantasy books I read.

The book starts off similar to a YA novel: “I’d been born to fulfill a promise to the fae king. It was an ancient promise, bound in powerful magic. I was sworn to serve his every need, smile and laugh at his jokes, be silent when commanded, and offer myself up as his next mortal bride.

Instead of all that, I leapt into a chasm where monsters lived.”

Wow, who can resist that?

The novel then starts in media res, first person present tense, as the FMC, Tessa, mines gemstones from the side of said chasm with her best friend Val for “a rebel leader.” Mixed in with this labor is a very confusing backstory about her, and her village’s, present circumstances: humans live under the thumb of the fae of The Kingdom of Light (is that the same place tokusatsu hero Ultraman lives?) who, since they saved the humans from the armies of the Kingdom of Mist, treat as combination serfs and brood mares, since the war rendered the fae women sterile. The Kingdom of Light is sealed off from the rest of the world with magic, the chasm, and a wall of mist where monsters are said to dwell. Though the humans are granted long lifespans and healing powers they live in a gilded cage of sorts, subject to rages and propaganda from the Light King about the wickedness of the opposing empire. The name of this Kim Jung-On-like nasty? OBERON! Ta-da!

Which might have amusing if the story had any parallels to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it didn’t. How uncreative can a writer be to crib a fae name that’s so obvious and done to death?

Unfortunately King Oberon bumps into the FMC as she is leaving the chasm, takes her gems, and glints and preens wickedly at her showing off just what a baddy he is, and though it’s fun, it goes on and on until I felt like saying, “Ohhh-kay, Captain Obvious, we get it, you’re bad. Let’s get on with things, all right?”

He comes back into the story later when it’s revealed he will be taking a fresh human wife (remember the fae women are sterile) to give him more heirs, and that wife will be… Tessa! Because he’s a baddie and wants to toy with her some more. The book goes on and on, again broadly and unsubtly, that marriage to the fae king is a fate worth worse than death, that though living in luxury she will be brainwashed with magic, unable to speak unless spoken to, and saddled with impossible restrictions, eventually being discarded to “The Tower of Crones” when the king tires of her.

The story might have been saved at this point for me if it continued with Tessa’s marriage and how she resists and eventually rebels; harem stories are a secret favorite of mine. Surely all the setup for this leeringly evil and decadent court was for them to be eventually defeated and punished from within? But instead she’s busted out by the rebel leader she’s been helping, for unclear reasons, and spirited away to join him in the mists. And… he turns out to be the evil King of the Mist! Except he’s not, he’s a nice, normal guy who’s been unfairly maligned by the real villain. But Tessa doesn’t think so and so a game of “enemies to lovers” begins.

Which is rather stupid and tiresome, as the reader can clearly see Mist King isn’t a bad guy, because his first-person chapters alternate with Tessa’s. Which makes Tessa come across as dim for holding on to her prejudices, as there’s absolutely nothing to back them up. A bad choice by the writer; it would have been better to stick to Tessa’s POV and make the love interest more ambiguous.

I stopped reading at that point as it seemed they would be doing nothing but running around in the mists from then on which, let’s face it, is boring no matter how many monsters there are.

This writer, again, feels like she’s pulling inspiration from A Court of Thorns and Roses as well as the Grisha YA series by Leigh Bardugo which has a kingdom separated from the world by a misty wall. This isn’t bad in itself, but since nothing else about the characters, prose, or setting was outstanding or original, the sources that were cribbed tend to stick out.

As with An Heir Comes to Rise, which I reviewed here, there were anachronistic boners, such as this speech Tessa gives to her royal husband-to-be: “The only thing I see when I look at your castle is gaudy wealth. You’re showing off. Probably to overcome an inferiority complex or something pathetic like that.” Then there’s “a muscled fae with a buzz cut appeared.” (Do they have electric shavers in this Medieval world?)  There were more, but I didn’t bother to bookmark them. I do give the writer props, though, for (mostly) avoiding the Maasian “male.”

In the end, the book felt cookie-cutter and like the writer was merely checking story elements off on a list. There wasn’t any real passion or novelty in it. I checked the writer’s webpage, and so far she’s written around 94 (!) self-published books, mostly in series, starting with urban fantasy romance years ago, then magic school fantasy, and so forth through all the popular money-making genres, until Fae Court Romantasy began a few years ago. I salute her business model and sheer moxie, but, still,  the product isn’t great. I can’t call it bad, because it’s acceptable to a certain audience and the fact it’s still around means that it sells. But it’s dull.

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