Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Categories: Non-binary (genderfluid), Trans, Royalty & Nobility, Arranged Marriage
Content Warnings: N/A
Buy it at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Less Than Three Press
Description: When Prince Ernest unexpectedly becomes King Ernest, he quickly finds that it’s lonely at the top — until the appointment of his new court jester, Drel, gives him some company. But he quickly finds himself deeply attracted to them. Would an affair with the Court Jester weaken his reign? Or can they find a way to make it strengthen it instead?
Impression: There’s a lot in this novella to love. It’s a sweet story about the instant connection between two people—Ernest, who clearly suffers from anxiety, is inherently kind and wants to be good to his people, but longs for romance and love rather than simply political marriage, and Drel, who is ambitious and whip-snap clever, but still entirely trustworthy and reliable. These traits bring a lot of charm to their interactions; it’s easy to see how each finds in the other not just physical attraction but a deep connection, and there’s a sense that each completes something in the other. The romance completely won me over. A lovely additional touch to their interactions was how it also included Ernest discovering a dominant side to himself that he could relax into when he was alone with Drel, along with Drel being deeply content in a service sub role, all without it requiring overt sex scenes. It was just part of who they were when they were together.
Another part to love is the seamless integration of non-binary identities into the narrative, which switches pronouns for Drel (who is genderfluid) at various points. There is originally a sense of discord between Ernest’s always using one pronoun for Drel, and Drel’s own switching in their point of view sections, but this is narratively deliberate and gets resolved in the text with a very delightful scene of emotional trust. In addition, this is a setting where non-binary identities are largely normalized.
I did have difficulty with how vaguely established the political elements were, despite them being set up as vital to the non-romance parts of the story. The prologue established that the old king is dead, the heir-apparent is missing, and Ernest, who is in over his head in politics that were previously someone else’s business, will be required to arrange a political marriage. Because of this, I spent most of the story thinking about the risk of foul play for both the king and Niven (and what that might mean for Ernest), what would happen to Ernest’s reign if Niven returned, and who stood to gain from either of these things. That they weren’t investigated in the text itself felt like something of an oversight. I would have liked either for it to be more of an element of the story (as the prologue had implied to me), or to have had a line here or there mentioning that the death had been found to be natural, that Niven’s absence was probably not foul play and they had formally given up inheritance before leaving, and that sort of thing. Without any mention, I found myself dwelling on the possibilities and risks, and that sometimes interrupted my attention to the active romance (ie, when Ernest was alone with Drel a day or two after meeting them, with no guard, I was wondering how that looked, why Anton would allow it so soon after losing two royals, etc).
I do like that the camera stays close on the romance, rather than the politics, to show their intimacy, but I think it would have felt a bit more grounded if I had seen hints of the possible political threads—a narrative assurance that Ernest had been raised for all of this, a brief mention of an investigation turning up nothing, Drel’s own political details being known to Anton so it was clear nothing would slip past him, etc.
That said, I absolutely still enjoyed the story and would recommend it to others. I’m very excited to see these characters again when King’s Council #2 comes along. Can’t wait to read more!