Milla Vane’s Epic Fantasy series A Gathering of Dragons is probably best known for its first full-length novel A Heart of Blood and Ashes. And although that book is a phenomenal entry into the canon of Fantasy Romance, we’d be remiss not to consider the vast world Vane has created that sets the stage for an epic battle between good and evil spanning multiple books, including the second installment, A Touch of Stone and Snow. While this book expands upon the world-building and deepens the series plot arc around the second coming of the Destroyer, it is a solid book in and of itself, introducing new characters, its own plot arc, and presenting a decidedly different romantic tone.
This review was originally written as part of a personal project to complete an all Fantasy Romance card for r/fantasy’s 2022 Book Bingo. You can read an introduction to my project here. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 21/07/2020
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
A Gathering of Dragons gives off strong Sword and Sorcery vibes, highly reminiscent of Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. The world is filled with loin-cloth wearing barbarians from the widely different lands that comprise this vast world. They come together to form various alliances (this is where the series title A Gathering of Dragons comes from, where Dragon refers to a cadre of protectors) to embark on the quest contained within that particular book. There are bloody battles with swords, their fists, and sorcerers’ and the gods’ (who are real!) magic. It is barbaric and ruthless, and fans of this genre will most definitely pick up on that vibe. One of the more unique aspects of this S&S world-building is that the barbaric setting is amplified with beasts – dinosaurs roam this world, and in this particular book we see a pet saber-toothed cat, a dragon, leatherwings (essentially pterodactyls), and woodstalkers (giant, white-haired, long-taloned apes) traipsing through jungles, burning plains, and snowy expanses. The world is so vast that one of the knocks I have on this series is that the books don’t contain a map. This series *needs* a map. Badly. There is one on her website, but, well, not the same.
These books are very much Romances, and so they are perfect for folks that want to see that old Conan S&S vibe combined with full A-plot romance. These books are incredibly sexual, with graphically explicit descriptions of sex acts. I would say that A Touch of Stone and Snow is a tad less-so than A Heart of Blood and Ashes or The Beast of Blackmore, but it is still far more sexually charged and explicit than a lot of Romance.
In terms of the plot, A Touch of Stone and Snow continues the epic thread that started in A Heart of Blood and Ashes. I highly recommend reading the novella, The Beast of Blackmore, in between books 1 and 2, because it provides essential context that is referenced in book 2. However, significant CW for that novella as there are depictions of rape on page and references to sexual abuses in the past. If these are triggers for you, you can skip the novella no problem and glean the necessary information from the context in book 2.
The Destroyer is coming, and Yvenne (the FMC of book 1), the Queen and partner to the Ran of the Parsatheans has started to create an alliance – a Dragon – against his coming. The warriors that have been sent by Yvenne and Maddek meet with the bastard Prince of Koth, Aerax, our MMC, who is on a quest of his own to gain help for his island nation of Koth that has been besieged by bandits. Along the way, he comes back into contact with his betrothed and his love, Lizzan, banished from Koth, her name stricken from the book of names, for being the only warrior to survive a brutal attack against their people. She embarks on a quest of her own, to protect him and fight a battle to regain her name and protect her family. The two plots – the series-wide arc and the book 2 plot – are masterfully woven together contributing to and feeding off of one another. The seeds of book 3 are also planted, introducing the characters that will form that romance. I found this especially well done – it was not contrived at all and fell out naturally from the plot.
This is a second-chance Romance. The FMC and MMC are still in love with one another when our book begins. But they must do some serious character and relationship work in order to achieve their happy ending. I personally am not a huge fan of the second-chance romance trope, but I must say it was really well done in this book. When we meet our heroine, she is a complete mess. Lizzan has become a full-blown alcoholic, depressed and haunted by the wraiths that attacked and decimated her army at the Hero’s Walk to Koth. She was banished from her home, her name never to be spoken or acknowledged by her people, and she believes her betrothed, her love, Aerax did nothing to stop it. Aerax had reasons, which come to light (no spoilers!) and they must navigate her trauma and recovery together. Aerax is completely devoted to and in love with Lizzan; if the “alphahole-ness” of Maddek put you off in book 1, know that this book does not lean into that archetype at all. Aerax is plagued by his own destiny and what he must do to protect his people, a people that treated him no better than a feral beast because he was a bastard. Together, Lizzan and Aerax must overcome their past hurts and embrace one another once again, fighting both of their battles with newfound strength as a couple. It is a romance about recovering lost love, and rebuilding it into something new and greater, and it is no less powerful for that.
These books do have their quirks, which might be annoying to some, but I was able to look past them. Everyone talks like yoda. Everyone. All the time. The intent, I think, is to evoke an even greater “barbaric vibe,” to have the prose reflect the world-building, and I do actually think it achieves that goal, but I also see how that might grate on some readers, so know that going in.
I will definitely be reading on in this series. Book 3, A Dance of Smoke and Steel, is set to come out within the next year sometime, and I will eagerly jump on the opportunity to read it when it does. This unique combination of Conan-esque, barbarian world-building, Epic Fantasy, and Romance is just too good to pass up!