Title: Oak King Holly King
Author: Sebastian Nothwell
Length: 464 Pages
Category: Historical Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars
At a Glance: Oak King Holly King is both character and action driven, both fast and meticulously paced, and is not a book I breezed through but more one I savored not only for the richness of detail, especially of the fae realms, but for all the layers to the story itself. It’s another win for me from its author.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Shrike, the Butcher of Blackthorn, is a legendary warrior of the fae realms. When he wins a tournament in the Court of the Silver Wheel, its queen names him her Oak King – a figurehead destined to die in a ritual duel to invoke the change of seasons. Shrike is determined to survive. Even if it means he must put his heart as well as his life into a mere mortal’s hands.
Wren Lofthouse, a London clerk, has long ago resigned himself to a life of tedium and given up his fanciful dreams. When a medieval-looking brute arrives at his office to murmur of destiny, he’s inclined to think his old enemies are playing an elaborate prank. Still, he can’t help feeling intrigued by the bizarre-yet-handsome stranger and his fantastical ramblings, whose presence stirs up emotions Wren has tried to lock away in the withered husk of his heart.
As Shrike whisks Wren away to a world of Wild Hunts and arcane rites, Wren is freed from the repression of Victorian society. But both the fae and mortal realms prove treacherous to their growing bond. Wren and Shrike must fight side-by-side to see who will claim victory – Oak King or Holly King.
Review: “To be wanted was one thing. To be cherished and defended was another. To be loved . . . Wren dared not think so far as that.”
Author Sebastian Nothwell slipped into my recs back in June of 2020, and quickly became a favorite Historical fiction author. One of the things I love about his work, apart from the storytelling, is the diversity of his characters and how multifaceted they are, and how complex the situations are that they face. With his latest release, Oak King Holly King, that diversity and complexity expands to include the fae in a novel where reality and fantasy coalesce, and the romance that grows between a mortal and the newly-crowned Oak King is sweeping, heartfelt, and bold in the face of the challenges they are presented.
Nothwell does not gloss over the times in which this story takes place. The year is 1844, heavy fogs are a near-constant blanket over London, and the laws that discriminated against and endangered men like Wren Lofthouse keep him firmly in check and lonely. Wren is a clerk for Mr. Ephraim Grigsby, Esquire, and has been for ten years, since he was disowned by his family. Mr. Grigsby is an affable sort, a generous boss, and as he’s described as “a bachelor of some sixty years,” I couldn’t help but wonder if he didn’t recognize Wren for who he was, but Wren couldn’t reciprocate because the cost of being mistaken was a price too high to risk. Mr. Grigsby isn’t a critical role player in the story, as such, apart from him being the guardian of two characters who become part of an investigation Wren undertakes at Mr. Grigsby’s urgent behest. Wren is personally invested in this investigation as well, as these characters, along with a third, are suspected of stealing personal property of a sensitive nature belonging to Wren.
Oak King Holly King opens in the fae realms, when Shrike, known to all as Butcher—a name that he’s rightfully earned thanks to his prowess in battle but also because giving anyone his real name would give them power over him—has been ordered by the Queen of the Silver Wheel to fight the present Holly King to the death. Shrike emerges victorious, though the thrill of victory is short-lived when the Queen, for reasons that won’t be revealed until much later, crowns him the new Oak King, effectively handing Shrike a death sentence at the change of the seasons. Determined to thwart this fate, Shrike uses his magic to locate the one and only person who can help him overcome his death sentence. That person ends up being a mortal, Wren, and thus begins what will become their love story.
When Shrike shows up at Mr. Grigsby’s place of business, dressed in strange clothing that appears more medieval than modern, Wren assumes Butcher, as he introduces himself, is an actor hired by some former friends playing a prank. It doesn’t take long for Wren to realize his mistake, though, when Shrike takes the man he only knows as Lofthouse on the journey of a lifetime. And nor does it take long for Wren to realize that Butcher comes from a world where men like them are free to express their feelings for one another without fear. When Wren gives Shrike the gift of his real name, Shrike reciprocates despite it giving Wren power over him, and their romance is forged and their bond becomes unbreakable.
There is so much to this book, and my summary only barely scratches the surface of all it is. It’s both character and action driven, both fast and meticulously paced, and is not a book I breezed through but more one I savored not only for the richness of detail, especially of the fae realms, but for all the layers to the story itself. Masks play a literal role for the fae and, in the figurative sense, for mortals as well, and that becomes especially true for the people Wren is investigating.
Wren and Shrike’s love story has its share of external challenges, but there is never a moment of doubt that they are each other’s forever, despite the Queen of the Silver Wheel’s sinister machinations. Their connection was so pure and intense, and I found it refreshing not to have relationship drama inflicted upon them while there was so much other turmoil happening around them. The resolution to thwart the Queen was not something I foresaw, so kudos to the author for not only surprising me but for taking that metaphor all the way to its finish. An investigation of disappearances and stolen property becomes a murder investigation, and not only that but it solidifies Wren as the good and kind man Shrike loves. It all came together to ensure I’m counting Oak King Holly King as another win from the author.
You can buy Oak King Holly King here:
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