Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.


Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

5 stars.

What a hidden gem! I won’t lie: without the very enthusiastic review of a fellow Goodreads friend I would never have read this book. I did not find the cover appealing and would have overlooked it. But the saying is true: don’t judge a book by its cover because this story is little treasure.
That’s quite ironic as one of the main topics of this book is to see beyond outer appearance to discover the real beauty: that of the soul. Maybe every reader has to follow the same path our heroes did: disregard the plain book cover, go beyond the surface and look for true beauty nestled inside the pages.

I’m really smitten with this story, with the gorgeous (I would say courteous as it has a medieval tint to it) writing, with the exceptional characters, with the topic broached, with the universe.

The topic as stated above is about true beauty. It’s also about love, not insta-love but a love built on a partnership, on mutual respect. It’s about the fear of the other, the one different in culture and coloring from your people. It’s a timeless topic treated with finesse and grace.

The intrigue takes place in a medieval/fantasy universe. Three kingdoms compete with each other, two inhabited by humans: The Kingdom of Gaur and the Kingdom of Belawat while the Kai Kingdom hosts the Kai people, some non-human creatures.

Gaur will unite with the Kai through the wedding of the youngest Kai prince, Brishen and the Gaur King’s niece Ildiko. Both characters are “spare pieces” as they’re not destined to rule their kingdom and their value resides in such arranged marriage to strengthen strategic alliances.

Ildiko with her red hair, blue eyes with black pupil , pale skin and flat teeth is ugly to every Kai as they’re black skinned with full yellow eyes void of pupil and harbor fangs and claws. Both people find the other abhorrent. One lives in daylight and the other in moonlight. They can’t conceive children together. They could not be more different.

Ildiko is orphaned and has never known love at her uncle’s court. She avoids her aunt the Queen at all costs and finds solace in the beauty of the gardens. Conscious of her duty, she’s determined to be the best wife she can. Brishen is also lonely and has never loved his father’s court, a real nest of viper with his mother Queen Cimse being THE evil queen (trust me, the Queen in Snow White or The Sleeping Beauty are child’s play compared with Cimse).

When they first meet, they’re not aware they’re in the presence of their intended.

”Brishen braced for an ear-pinning scream from his unexpected visitor. The Gauri woman who stared at him wide-eyed with her strange gaze did neither. He’d obviously startled her with his presence in the garden. She flinched away when he raised a hand in cautious greeting but she didn’t run. “Forgive me, madam” he said softly. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

They’ll both be honest and blunt throughout this encounter, enjoying a refreshing and honest moment, far from the court’s hypocrisy. I loved reading about their mutual perception, how they saw each other, both honest, curious but respectful at the same time. In a few sentences, I was enlightened about these characters and already in love with their souls.

”You find me ugly,don’t you?” “Hideous, a hag of a woman.” “And you”, he said. “you don’t think me a handsome man?”
”Thank you for not lying what you thought of my appearance. You might have a face to turn my hair white, but your honesty is handsome.”

They’re both so accustomed to the lies of courtesans they value highly honesty.

”She was a challenge to look upon without wincing, but he very much liked her wry humor. Brishen had no expectation about his bride, but he hoped she might possess a small amount of the pleasant demeanor this woman exhibited.”

As different as they seem at first glance, Ildiko and Brishen are very similar in their hearts. Brishen wasn’t human but he was “congenial and gracious”. He swore to help Ildiko and teach her about the Kai and Ildiko thought some women marry men “with handsome faces but ghastly souls”. They both found themselves very fortunate.

Very soon, they formed a strong bond, a partnership built on respect and mutual admiration. They valued the other and what began as forced wedding evolved into beautiful and strong love once they saw beyond the appearances.

”Brishen would kill whoever had tried to hurt his wife, split his skull the way he’d done with the Beladine raider who attacked her. She was ugly; she was beautiful, and she was his.”

I discovered two very lovable and strong characters. Both are the one you overlooked all your life, people of low importance, content to live far from the court’s conspiracies but lonely. They may be discreet but they don’t lack in strength, astuteness and determination.

I really fell in love with the author’s writing. It has its own magic and flows effortlessly, with a graceful quality. It makes us think about what true beauty is it demonstrates that strength is not a show of brute violence but rather lies in tranquil determination.

Ildiko will be seen as the ugly wife by the Kai people and will adapt to a new life, living at night and sleeping the day. She’ll have to adopt their customs, even the one consisting in eating pies prepared with very living deadly insects (they reminded me of gigantic scorpions). She may have no claws or jagged teeth but she has a strong backbone and can use her silver tongue like the best to duel with the formidable Queen Secmis. She has my utmost admiration as she handled all this with pride and poise. Brishen with his unwavering support, his huge brute force but true gentleness with his wife has also gained all my love.

I’m so taken with this series I’m already 55% into the second book and I can already see a sleep deprived reader tomorrow.

”Will you be that for me, Ildiko? That beacon in the void?” Ildiko’s heart cracked. Loneliness had been her constant companion, the silent shadow that hovered over her for years. “The void is vast, like the sea at night and no land in sight. I’ll be the beacon, Brishen.”

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    1. It is Shanah! A really good surprise indeed.And I would never have read it based on its cover