The Scholar’s Heart (The Chronicles of Tournai #3), Antonia Aquilante
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: Gay Romance
Tags: Alt-Historical, Fantasy/Paranormal Aspects, Second Chances
Length: 294 pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
Youngest son of a royal duke, Etan is a scholar at heart who juggles his work for the prince with his studies of the history and legends of Tournai, something of particular interest to him because he shares the magical Talent that runs in the royal bloodline. Etan’s peaceful world turns upside down when his best friend—the man he secretly loves—unexpectedly marries a woman. Though Tristan values his friendship with Etan and has always been attracted to him, he is a dutiful son, raised to shoulder responsibility for the family business one day. That day comes far sooner than anticipated, and he makes a deathbed promise to his father to marry the woman his father chose and become head of the company and family.
A year later, Tristan is a widower with an infant daughter and a mother who demands he marry again quickly—something Tristan resists. Circumstances throw Etan and Tristan together, and even as they succumb to the desires they’ve always harbored, Etan battles his feelings, wary of being cast aside again. When Tristan’s daughter is kidnapped, Etan and Tristan must come together to find her, find the person responsible, and support each other through the ordeal… and maybe beyond.
I was looking forward to this book. Since Tristan was sad when Amory was a love match for, and then married, Prince Philip. From the hurt after Amory married, to the new connection formed between Etan and Tristan. From how Etan felt when it was announced Tristan was marrying a woman. This pairing was always going to be the relationship in the series. That one readers look forward to. I rarely follow series because you get let down or bored. And I was let down – by the relationship, by the character development, by the lack of chemistry so apparent from close to the beginning of this book.
Tristan marries a woman his father chose for him. After a year, while in childbirth, she dies. Tristan is in mourning for his wife because, while he didn’t love Dariela, he cared for her deeply. He also has a baby to look after, which is overwhelming, as well as his annoying mother who feels men can’t be responsible for babies. Who keeps harping and hassling Tristan to hand Bria over to her. His sister is annoying and supports her mother. Thankfully, one of Tristan’s younger brothers is sensible and a good support from his side of the family.
Etan is still very hurt by Tristan marrying – he stayed away for the period of his betrothal and marriage because he didn’t want it to be so obvious how he felt when Tristan was marrying/married to someone else. He’s a good friend though, and he’s there, as are the rest of the royals, when Tristan is going through a hard time. He doesn’t think to encroach on Tristan’s mourning period. However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t often think of Tristan, albeit warily. That Tristan maybe never loved him or has fallen out of love with him. So, loving Tristan comes with obvious caution and emotion that Etan has tried to bury.
After a while Tristan needs to scratch an itch. He is gay and was married to a woman due to (seeming) family desire for an heir. However, months after Dariela’s death, Tristan wants a release and that will always be with another man. The unfortunate thing is he scratched that itch with others – nothing is ever on page for those who need to know. Etan is gutted when he sees Tristan leaving a pub one night with another man. And gutted more when he discovers that Tristan has been with other men before he married, but never him, and yet they were so close. Etan is thoroughly perplexed by this. Tristan is perplexed that Etan stayed away during his betrothal and marriage… thus begins the utter lack of communication in this book.
Things I liked :
Philip and Amory. They are such a terrific couple. You couldn’t ask for better friends and family. You can tell the author loves them because they are always true to character and consistently sweet, loyal and steadfast. It’s nice to see Adeline- Amory’s sister – happy and all of them forming a network of support for and around Tristan. These are kind people whom I like revisiting. Antonia Aquilante always does a good job of incorporating previous couples without overwhelming the new couple.
Cathal was good to see again. I’m so glad he is more relaxed and he was a good brother to Etan when he needed him. If he had more time on page I wouldn’t have complained.
Etan had taken a few steps away when Cathal called him back. “Etan?”
“If what you did with Tristan… if it makes you happy, even a little, for a little while, you can let yourself enjoy it. Let yourself be happy.”
“And if I end up hurt at the end of it?”
“Maybe you won’t be.”
The writing is technically sound and pretty. It suits the alt-historical fantasy world that Ms Aquilante has developed nicely.
I enjoy the shapeshifting Talents of the royals of Tournai and the mystery shrouding it. I liked Tristan’s Talent of fire. But neither of these were explored much in this book.
Things I didn’t like:
There was repetition and filler throughout that bogged the storyline down. At 294 pages it is too long. It could have been cut down and more of the primary relationship concentrated on. Or at least one thread could have been handled more in-depth and to conclusion, alongside a good relationship that developed with intensity.
The whole Savarin thread – the main Sorcerer in the series – was weak. He came to Etan because he believed the magical protections around Tournai were weakened in some places. Nothing much is known about the spells cast a long time ago and he wanted to explore that more. It’s a great concept but nothing came of it other than, yes, they are weakened in places. Time was wasted because there was no informative conclusion.
The visiting academic, Corantin, was a furphy. What was that even about? Nothing. It was kind of implied in the beginning that he may be a suitor for Etan or someone to push Tristan out of his clueless stupor. That didn’t happen. That arc also fizzled.
What was it with the questions? If Etan said he didn’t trust Tristan, Tristan would ask what that meant. If Etan said he had an issue with secrets, and he’d explain a little, Tristan would ask what that meant. It was like he had no knowledge of simple words and sentence structure. He’s a well educated young businessman – I felt like shaking him and saying, “Well, a secret means…”
The chemistry and passion was non-existent. This book should have had a slow burn to knock the reader’s socks off. All it did was frustrate me as a reader of the series. I know this is not a steamy series, it’s not written that way but I wanted more between this pair. It was so awkward when they were together. I don’t want ruminative perplexity and walls up when a couple is going to bed in my sweet books. In something dark and brooding maybe, but it still better be sexy. I wanted and needed to feel a connection, I wanted and needed some heat, I just needed some overall passion! The kissing was sad as well and the kissing in this series is usually very sensual.
The kidnapping of Tristan’s baby daughter was a weak plot device. I can’t add much more without a spoiler. There was no ransom and the captain of the guard kept checking in with no information at all – filler. I honestly don’t understand the whys of the kidnapping, the details were shoved off the page so quickly I got whiplash and thought, ‘Hang on, what about the bad guys and their full reasoning?’ other than the one partially given. I don’t mind a child if the romance and the couple is to the fore, but neither were. The child and the kidnapping did nothing more than interfere with the already impotent romance between Etan and Tristan.
One more thing. A HUGE thing, Tristan’s clueless behaviour annoyed and frustrated me throughout. It’s bad enough that you don’t personally announce your wedding to someone else when that someone else is more than just a friend. It’s further compounded when you have rendezvous with other men. It’s made worse when you suggest a friends with benefits arrangement when the person concerned tells you they are more about the emotional connection with someone, not just sex for sex’s sake. It is also poor form that Tristan didn’t know much about Etan and yet Etan knew a lot about Tristan. Tristan was a terrible listener, poor friend and potential partner. The most passion I derived from this book was my anger at Tristan for over 90% of the book. Etan doesn’t get off scot free – no. He was a terrible communicator, a very good friend and a very gentle, considerate man, yes, but shocking at letting his feelings and passion be known.
“Why didn’t you, then? Not right at that moment—you know what I mean.”
Etan thought he did. Why not kiss him, why not bed him, when they first met? But that wasn’t Etan, and he thought Tristan understood that about him. He didn’t want to explain any of this now, not when there wasn’t anything between them anymore. “I don’t do that, Tristan. Then we became closer, knew each other more, but you were in love with Amory. And then you were married. It’s different now.”
I feel so miserable writing this review. This series has been a lifeline of sorts for me. I was so looking forward to this book. Oh how I wish it could be rewritten… but that’s not going to happen. I wanted to love this story more than the others. Etan was my man going in and I still think highly of his character. Tristan let me down. Maybe my expectations were raised too high because I see this book as a missed opportunity. I have very much enjoyed the series, which is quite out of character for my usual reading tastes. However, in spite of my difficulties with The Scholar’s Heart, I will be reading more of Ms Aquilante in the future – I thoroughly enjoyed books #1 & 2. If you want to read a gentle fantasy series set in an alt-historical world then maybe you’ll be right into The Chronicles of Tournai and maybe you’ll enjoy The Scholar’s Heart. Sadly, it’s 2 Stars! from me for this particular book.
ARC supplied by the publisher in return for an honest review.