Author: John Wiltshire
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Rating: 5 stars
Type: Standalone Novel
Received from Publisher
Blurb: Doctor Nikolai Hartmann represents himself as a learned man of science who believes wholly in the rational and scientific above all else. In reality, he is a man haunted by an unusual past and running from his own nature. While the Reformation transforms much of Europe, it has yet to touch Hesse-Davia; this is a land mired in superstition with cruel punishments for crimes such as witchcraft and sodomy.
While traveling to the dying king’s bedside to offer his medical expertise, Nikolai is set upon by a bandit. Reaching the king’s ancient stronghold, he discovers his mysterious brigand is the beautiful, arrogant Prince Aleksey. Aleksey is everything Nikolai is not: unguarded, passionate and willful. Despite their differences, Nikolai feels an irresistible desire for the young royal that keeps him in Aleksey’s thrall.
But Hesse-Davia is a dangerous world for a newly crowned king who wants to reform his country—and for the man who loves him.
Review: This book is, in a word, brilliant. Definitely one of my favorite reads this year – I could gush on and on. John Wiltshire is a new to me author, and I went looking for more of his work immediately.
The “voice” of 35 year old Nikolai is the heart and soul of this story. His narrative begins with a veiled prologue. I was hooked from the first sentence, and found myself wanting, no make that craving, his full story. In vivid and absorbing detail Nikolai recounts his somewhat harrowing solo journey across a stark and brutal Europe to reach the court of Hesse-Davia, where the king is suffering from a long illness. Nikolai is an unconventionally trained doctor who, by virtue of his healing talents, found himself held in high favor with English aristocracy which in turn earned him the summons to tend the foreign king.
Nikolai’s first interactions with the king’s youngest son – the brash and alluring 23 year old Aleksey – involved a fair amount of snark and an underlying spark, setting up a powerful dynamic between the two that builds cleverly and deliciously throughout the course of the story. This is an exchange between the two men after Nikolai’s initial examination of the king:
“What did you think of my father?”
“He is very sick.”
He scoffed lightly. “And you come all this way to tell us that. How grateful we all are.”
“Sarcasm isn’t likely to improve his health. I will tell you that for free.”
I loved both men from the moment they appeared on page, and they proceeded to exasperate and delight me in equal measure. Nothing was simple and nobody was quite what they seemed to be. Though Nikolai is narrating this story – with wonderful insight, great detail and some of the wittiest and funniest dialogue I’ve had the pleasure of reading – his recognition of exactly what was transpiring between him and Aleksey lags behind that of the reader. Nikolai, by necessity born of the time and place in which he is living, has to suppress his true inclinations. Men in Hesse-Davia were brutally tortured and killed for sodomy – he had been an eye witness to it. Throughout the story, there is a slow reveal of Nikolai’s past. I was mesmerized by what it turned out to contain. As he was forced to recall events from his life, he found himself having to remember, share, and process many unpleasant memories. The use of this narrative style delivered powerful, authentic character and relationship development.
Nikolai was able to successfully treat the king, but could not quite bring himself to leave Hesse-Davia, or more specifically – Aleksey. Aleksey was not ready to lose the companionship of Nikolai, and so asked him to join his army as a field doctor in their looming war against a neighboring land. Nikolai accepted. Going to war actually brought the men in closer and constant contact with one another. The escalation of their romance took place juxtaposed with savage battle and brutal medical scenes (the blood soaked snow and dagger on the book cover have definite relevance!). Nikolai seemed better able to deal with all the death and destruction than the fact that he was in love. Aleksey in turn had never experienced a relationship such as he finds himself in with Nikolai, and he is slow to acknowledge the romantic nature of it, but once he does, there is no holding him back. Once they are finally able to accept and embrace the reality of their feelings – and each other – Aleksey’s legacy and the weight of the kingdom crash down around them.
Poison was definitely a running theme throughout the story. There were the obvious poisonings that Nikolai dealt with as a doctor, but he also viewed organized religion as a poison of sorts. Nikolai questions Aleksey as to the king’s routine:
“Who has access to the king when he prays?”
“No one except God, and I do not think God is trying to poison my father.”
Why not? I thought. He’s poisoned almost everyone else he’s had contact with.
Power is also viewed as a poison. This shows up in Nikolai’s memories of his childhood and formative years, as well as in the high courts and on the battle fields of Hesse-Davia. Interestingly, the build- up and culmination of the relationship between Aleksey and Nikolai could be considered a slow poison as well.
Strong secondary characters – including a loyal wolf and a couple of supremely brave horses (always a plus in a story for me!) – compliment Nikolai and Aleksey. The surprising and actually very original revelation of how Nikolai spent his younger years hit a nerve for me as well, and lent credence to his negative views on organized religion, European “law and order” and the Hesse-Davian battle tactics.
The intriguing set up in the prologue, combined with great dialogue, witty humor, snarky banter, careful reveals, more than a few plot twists, and some “oh what the hell, no this can’t be happening!!” moments toward the end, left me turning page after page, often with my heart in my throat. Not to worry though… no cliffhanger. Well, actually, there is a cliff….
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. There are many details and plot devices I’ve purposely not touched on, as the discovery of them and the way they are spun out over the course of the story are huge reasons for what makes it so memorable. A Royal Affair absolutely delivers all that I’m looking for in a story: unique and compelling characters, a vivid, action packed setting, believable romance, all wrapped in a fresh and captivating narrative style.
A sequel is promised by the author. I’ll be first in line!