Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Brown cast, gay MCs, M/M, major mute character, secondary nonbinary character, secondary trans character, queernorm culture
PoV: 1st person past tense, 3rd person past tense
Published on: 26th July 2022
“Many a reader longing for a sense of homecoming in the realm of romantic fantasy will find it in A Strange and Stubborn Endurance.”—Jacqueline Carey
“Stolen me? As soon to say a caged bird can be stolen by the sky.”
Velasin vin Aaro never planned to marry at all, let alone a girl from neighboring Tithena. When an ugly confrontation reveals his preference for men, Vel fears he’s ruined the diplomatic union before it can even begin. But while his family is ready to disown him, the Tithenai envoy has a different solution: for Vel to marry his former intended’s brother instead.
Caethari Aeduria always knew he might end up in a political marriage, but his sudden betrothal to a man from Ralia, where such relationships are forbidden, comes as a shock.
With an unknown faction willing to kill to end their new alliance, Vel and Cae have no choice but to trust each other. Survival is one thing, but love—as both will learn—is quite another.
Byzantine politics, lush sexual energy, and a queer love story that is by turns sweet and sultry, Foz Meadows' A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is an exploration of gender, identity, and self-worth. It is a book that will live in your heart long after you turn the last page.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~knives make the best wedding presents
~political genius + warrior cinnamon roll
~THAT’S NOT WHAT PITCHFORKS ARE FOR
~sweet, intense romance
~oh no they’re out to kill you – or are they???
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is a beautiful treaty-marriage fantasy that blends intricate political intrigue with idyllic romance and exquisite worldbuilding. Although it has something of a dark start (see the end of this post for the trigger warnings, which I’ve placed under a spoiler tag), this is fundamentally a warm, silken, feel-good fantasy, unquestionably one of the best books of the year for a whole host of reasons!
Velasin is a gay man in the nation of Ralia (which has roughly a Renaissance-esque level of technology and culture); the third son of a technically-not-noble family, he’s been able to play the wastrel a bit and keep his sexuality hidden from his father. But after breaking up with his long-term lover Killic, he suffers a second blow in learning that, in a bid to strengthen ties to neighbouring Tithena, his marriage has been arranged to a Tithenai noblewoman.
When his sexuality is revealed – in the worst possible way – the Tithenai ambassador suggests he marry said noblewoman’s brother, instead.
It’s the best thing that could ever happen to Vel – but it sure doesn’t feel like it at the time. But then, he has no idea that Cae, his future husband, is so perfect a human being that it’s almost ridiculous. Only almost, though, because Meadows does a marvellous job at keeping him mortal and fallible (interestingly, the book switches back and forth between Vel and Cae’s PoVs, and while Vel’s chapters are in first-person, Cae’s are in third. I don’t know what prompted that decision – maybe to emphasise what different people they are, and how different are the cultures they come from and thus the way that they think? – but it works extremely well). The two characters are the best kind of complimentary opposites; which is to say, opposites in a few significant ways, but sharing positions on everything important. Cae is an honest, more straightforward warrior type (not stupid or bad with people, just better with literal swordplay than verbal), while Vel is a genius when it comes to politics, and they meet in the middle with heartwarming trust and openness. Probably my favourite aspect of their developing relationship was that they were honest with each other – open even when it was awkward, or difficult, or painful. Speaking as someone who’s been married for over a decade, that kind of honesty is what convinces me, every time I see it, that a relationship is going to work. And it’s just so damn refreshing to see characters who talk to each other, like grown-ups, rather than acting like dramatic teenagers.
Vel and Cae aren’t teenagers. Their relationship starts small, from a foundation of honesty and trust and a desire to make a good life for themselves together, and grows into something deep and real and heartwarming. I’ll admit it develops quickly, but five days after we met the hubby and I admitted we knew it was forever, so between that and Meadows’ care and skill in telling their story, I have no trouble believing in it. Especially given the circumstances in which their relationship is forged.
And this is, ultimately, a romantic fantasy, which means some suspension of disbelief re falling in love is permitted. Although there’s a good deal of intrigue – someone is not happy about this marriage, presumably for political reasons – there’s no getting away from the fact that Tithena is a queer fantasy of a fantasy realm, an idealised queernorm state that could have come straight (hah) out of my own daydreams. Jacqueline Carey says in the cover quote that “Many readers looking for a sense of homecoming in the realm of romantic fantasy will find it in A Strange and Stubborn Endurance.” and I think that’s what she meant; although we get a brief glimpse of the queerphobia of Ralia, the vast majority of this book takes place in what’s functionally a queer wonderland, and there is absolutely a sense of relief and joy and homecoming in that. We don’t have to think about any of it too hard or too closely; just let it wash over us, and wash our hearts clean in the process.
But of course, if you decide you do want to look at things more closely, you won’t find anything to nitpick. All the worldbuilding prowess that was on display in Meadows’ previous books – the Manifold Path duet – comes through loud and clear in A Strange and Stubborn Endurance. Meadows has thought of everything; not just the different attitudes Ralia and Tithena have towards gender and sexuality – obviously very plot-relevant! – but details like clothing, cuisine, marriage traditions, views and uses for magic, and religion. And by that, I don’t mean Meadows decided one country wears trousers and the other doesn’t; I mean they’ve invented entirely new items of clothing. While there might be slight influences from a couple of real-world cultures, the world Vel and Cae inhabit is entirely Meadows’ own – and I loved it. Especially since Meadows is an expert at not overwhelming the reader with new strange-sounding nouns, or expecting the reader to have them all instantly memorised – and creating idioms that instantly make sense!
“Sorry,” he said. “I was whittling trees out of firewood.”
And you cannot talk about this book without talking about Markel! Vel’s manservant is also his best friend – and they communicate via sign language because Markel is mute. They’re so close that at first some people think Markel and Vel are romantically involved or want to be, and I loved getting to see that strong a relationship – especially between two men! – with no romantic or sexual elements at all. (Listen, we stan Steve/Bucky in this house but we also stan beautiful intense platonic love because THAT IS AMAZING TOO.) Besides which, Markel is just awesome for his own sake – very kind, and also extremely smart and funny, and I will be amazed if anyone walks away from this book not adoring him utterly, okay? He’s that wonderful.
One critique I’ve seen – but don’t share – for this book is that there’s several small plot points that don’t go anywhere: for example, Vel and Markel hide Markel’s knowledge of the local language in the hopes of him overhearing something useful, and he doesn’t. But to me, that just made the story feel more realistic, because in real life, not everything is relevant, or comes up again later. Not every idea you have works out, and not every plot results in ah-hah!clues. I know that’s something we usually don’t let stories do – and I’ve critiqued books for it before. But here it felt deliberate, which is what makes the difference. Here the characters did things that were logical for them to do, or worried about things it was reasonable to worry about – and those things didn’t always pan out, because in real life, they don’t always. It adds a bit of realism to what is otherwise a very idealised story.
Ultimately A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is just – so sweet and sex-positive and big on consent in an effortlessly queernorm setting and how??? do you??? even??? The takeaway is just HAPPY FEELS and bubbly joy through and through. Which is impressive, because the beginning is pretty dark, and yet this really is a book you want to hug to your chest because EEE! It’s idealised and escapist, detailed and delicious, with plenty of plot and a swoonworthy romance – an instant fave.
It’s lovely and you will love it. Preorder it immediately!
I’m hiding the trigger warnings beneath a spoiler tag; click to read if you wish.
View Spoiler »Very early in the book, Velasin is raped by an ex-lover. The scene is reasonably graphic, does not involve penetration, and in my opinion is handled very respectfully and realistically by Meadows and the narrative. It never feels gratuitous, and it is absolutely relevant to the plot; this would be an entirely different book without it. Later, Velasin has suicidal thoughts and comes close to attempting suicide twice. « Hide Spoiler