Hart and Soul by Nica Berry – review

Rating: 9/10 ★★★★★★★★★☆ Title: Hart and Soul
Author: Nica Berry
Genre: Historical fantasy romance
URL: Torquere
Price: US $5.95
Other Information/warnings: explicit sex, non-con, violence
Summary [from the publisher]:
Orphaned Niann has one wish, to go up the mountain to seek a spirit guide like the rest of his peers. Instead, he’s forced to wait until frustration drives him to go without permission on his eighteenth birthday. There, he meets his guide–the kala deer, the tribe’s patron animal and one that grants its disciples the ability to heighten the power of others’s animal spirits. Unbeknownst to him, the tribe’s shaman, Heyka, plans to use Niann to harvest enough spiritual energy to transcend into the spirit world.
Jennar, a talented carver and hunter who’s cared for Niann since Niann’s infancy, has a secret of his own; he went up the mountain to seek his spirit guide, but none came, and he’s been lying about his spirit animal ever since.
Jennar leaves to find the reason for his lack of a spirit guide, but returns to find Niann under the sway of Heyka and living as a woman, as those with the deer totem usually do. Jennar’s focus turns from saving himself into saving the man he loves, but all his love and determination may not be enough to stop the relentless ambition of Heyka and his snake patron.

My review: The author sent this to me for review yesterday, and I opened it to see how readable it was. I didn’t take my eyes off the monitor for the next hour. Reader, I inhaled this. Rarely have I been so taken by the power and beauty of a story in this genre, and rarely has magic, sensuality and sexuality been so poetically and powerfully woven together to create such a rich and mesmerising story.

It’s a story of two men linked by fate, of predestination, and of gods and men. But it’s not a story about lovers who are meant to be. In that way, it skirts many of the obvious pitfalls of a story where the characters have a great role to play in the history of their kind. It’s a fantasy squarely rooted in Native American mythology, and anyone who’s studied that, will notice many resonances. You don’t need to be familiar with those myths or native society to enjoy this, however. It’s basically a damn good story, told damn well.

Unusually also, the characters are rounded, flawed creatures – in Niann’s case, physically so. Jennar is brave and creative, but he’s also a liar, and his lies have dire consequences for him and for Niann. Niann seems unable to break free of the tyranny of the women into whose company he’s forced by virtue of his outsider status. The villain of the piece also has considerable good in him, and no one in the tribe is entirely good or entirely evil. The real evil, in fact, comes from the nature of the entire tribe operating together – they’re harsh, ungenerous, greedy people, with a pronounced imbalance in power between the sexes. They’ve lost their way, and while other tribes thrive, theirs is dying.

When Niann is pronounced to be their Holy one, they see him as the salvation to their situation, yet they treat him as they treat every gift from the gods, carelessly, greedily, with no thought of giving back to him. In the end, they almost lose him completely, and it’s up to the only person in the village who wants to give, rather than take, to right that wrong. This is far, far more than a simple fantasy romance. It’s a multilayered story about relationships between people, between groups, and between men and their gods. A morality tale with a very human heart.

Berry’s writing is lovely, descriptive without being flowery, sensual in the truest way. It’s genuinely erotic, but the sex isn’t the least bit gratuitous. It’s absolutely integral to the spell she weaves, just as it is to the power Niann holds. I don’t often like the sex writing in this genre but I adored this, even when the sex is nonconsensual (there’s a drugged orgy scene which is both horrifying and arousing, though it is nothing less than rape for the individual concerned.) She doesn’t flinch from the cruelty of nature or of men, but contrasts it with moments of altruism, kindness and tenderness.

Even the editing is decent – regular readers will know why I’m surprised, considering the publisher – and I only noticed one error (though that might have been the magic of the story, blinding me with its beauty 🙂 ).

As you can see, I adored this unusual and lyrical story, and would recommend it heartily. I guarantee you, if you let it work its spell on you, you will enjoy a most rewarding experience.