Title: Kestrel’s Talon (The Stonewatchers Book 1)
Author: Bey Deckard
Genre: Fantasy, gay romance
Page count: 426
Following the Prentish/Nemarri war, Kes is rejected by his homeland under the guise of religious purity laws. Though he’s spared execution, the proud Nemarri’s fate is only marginally more merciful than death when he is sold into sexual slavery at a prosperous pleasure house.
Despite his stoic endurance, Kes knows he’s reaching his breaking point, but there is nothing he can do—there is no path to freedom in the Holy Prentish Empire, only a lifetime of humiliating servitude.
That is, until a beautiful young slave and his formidable master approach Kes in the marketplace and make an astonishing offer to take him home with them. The only problem: “home” is the accursed Horthmont Castle from the scare-stories of Kes’s childhood.
Thrown into a world of living myth, powerful magic, and ancient gods, Kes learns the secrets kept hidden by Horthmont’s thick blackstone walls. There he discovers something he thought he’d never know again: hope for the future.
The essence of fantasy rests in how it transports us to new worlds or alternate dimensions while tapping into subtle extensions of what we know, coupled with what we are willing to imagine. It is a rare thing, this balance of outlining the bones of a culture and a society, complete with its own rules and internal logic, then filling in the blank spaces with the heartbeat and visceral elements that bring those bones to life.
Bey Deckard has such an ability—he places you solidly within a framework you recognize as containing the familiar and the exotic, new and old, comfortable and not-so-much. Yet he often colors outside those lines and in so doing brings a richness and variety to the narrative unmatched by many.
From the outset in Kestrel’s Talon, the complex rules and plot elements are laid out, unobtrusively and with exquisite finesse, such that even the initial encounter of Talon and his master with the slave Kes will bear fruit far into the meat of the tale.
Kes’ enslavement was forged in war, his salvation wrought by a subterfuge that will haunt him and compromise his acceptance of his new compatriots, as well as leading him to make ill-chosen decisions in the heat of the moment.
Nothing of what Kes thinks he knows about the enigmatic Count Strade and his loyal servants will prepare him for the truths to be revealed, nor will he immediately abandon his reservations in the face of his new reality.
Kes is, in a word, real. Unlike how all too many characters end up as caricatures or, worse yet, as cardboard cut-outs, on the intimate stage of Horthmont Castle, the author has infused his actors with emotions, perspectives and prejudices that are a result of lives lived authentically in a complex cultural stew of actions, expectations and outcomes.
Kes is reserved and stalwart, stoic to a fault, and the perfect foil upon which myth and reality take aim. Talon is young, impulsive, intensely and heart-wrenchingly loyal. The Count is an enigma wrapped in legend and cursed with a fate of his own choosing. His is the gentle soul for whom destiny has dealt an untenable hand, a man of uncommon depth, a man with such a ferocity of spirit it dwarfs all in his presence.
In a triumvirate of affection and friendship forged in the fires of learning to trust, the ties between and among such diverse men is unique and beautifully imagined, and often unexpected as the scenes of affection play out with unabashed sensuality and breath-taking gravitas.
The stage upon which Kes, Talon and the Count act out their scenes is also populated with fully-fashioned minor characters who add life, drama, and verisimilitude to this ensemble.
Magical realism, myth and legend, all mix and mingle with elements of fantasy, action-adventure, and increasingly difficult high-stakes games of politics and survival.
Another noteworthy accomplishment is how the author also suffuses the narrative flow with deftly handled flashbacks and back stories that occur throughout the tale and enhance, rather than stop, the forward momentum. And momentum there is. I got to the point where I simply could not put the book down and read far into the night, lost to the lush prose, the soul-sucking misadventures, and the gradual awakening of each man to the nature of sacrifice and the infinite number of ways of defining how one cares.
And as with all fully imagined fantasies, the end is often the beginning, yet the narrative felt complete and immensely satisfying, despite my desire to know more, to find out what happens next. Mercifully, this is a series. I just hope I do not have to wait long for the continuation of the adventure, for I am invested—thoroughly, completely and without prejudice. There is no Team Kes or Team Talon, there is only a promise and a solid foundation for moving forward.
I really couldn’t ask for more.
My highest recommendation, five galaxies worth of stars.