This is a review I originally wrote for Goodreads in 2015, which I’m cross-posting here because the new edition of the book was published this week. I’ve made only minor edits.Lips Like Ice by Peggy Barnett
Representation: Black bisexual MC, alien gender system, physically agender major character who transitions to male against social convention
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
He calls himself the Prince. He is humanoid but not human—fascinating, sensual, at the cusp of maturity, and accustomed to getting what he wants. And Lydia has awoken in his world with no memory of her life before to find that she has been given to him: as a pet, a plaything, and, if he so desires, a lover.
As Lydia comes to realize that the Prince is as much a prisoner to his culture's ways as she is, her resentment slowly unfurls into pity, curiosity, and a deeply unpredictable and confusing lust. She wants him too, on her own terms. But in a world fraught with hidden dangers, her terms are not open for discussion, not when their thirst for one another could doom them both.
In a court where monarchs are obeyed and sexual hierarchies are strict, one wrong move could end the Prince for ever... and what would happen to Lydia then?
Trigger warnings for the book are listed at the end of the review.
Let’s get this out of the way: I do not read romances. Not only do I not read romances, but until last year I was one of those horrendous snobs who looked down upon Romances, capital R, as being somehow lesser than my precious spec-fic.
Obviously this is an incredibly stupid thing to think, and I’m very glad I learned out of it.
But although I no longer deliberately avoid romance novels, I still manage to…well, never read any. I’m the one who likes dragons and epic quests and in those kinds of stories, my darlings, the romances tend to be very poorly written. Women in popular fantasy don’t tend to have a lot of agency, and the romantic (or simply sexual) relationships they tend to end up in are usually…less than ideal, shall we say.
I tell you this, because it adds weight to the declaration that Lips Like Ice knocked my fool socks off.
Look: it’s kind of an alien abduction story. And it’s kind of a faeries-kidnapping-humans-to-Elfland story. But mostly? Mostly it is a very, very self-aware look at agency and consent and personhood and gender, wrapped up in some of the most fascinating world-building I have ever seen. It’s tense and exciting and awful and emotional. It broke my heart and made me rage and had me in tears.
Lydia is a woman of colour who wakes up on another planet. Or maybe in another dimension; it’s not perfectly clear. She’s surrounded by very tall, very inhuman creatures she takes to calling ice elves; creatures who view her as humans view goldfish or dogs. A pet, in other words. She’s been snatched from her life, spelled into amnesiac compliance, and bestowed upon a prince in much the same way human parents might give their child a kitten.
Weirdly enough, it doesn’t really go well.
I don’t want to talk too much about the plot. It’s fascinating, though, because even as it slowly transforms into a romance, you know it shouldn’t – and Lydia knows it shouldn’t. Both the main character and the reader knows, every step of the way, that this is messed up and unhealthy and quite possibly not based on real emotion at all. It’s bitter even at its sweetest, because how can you trust yourself to love when you know you’re being brainwashed? And at the same time, there’s a fantastic amount of character growth, for Lydia but particularly for her owner/master, who’s simply known as ‘the prince’ until the final pages. Barnett is a sorceress with her words, slowly and skillfully making it clear that the prince is just as much of a victim as Lydia – if in a whole different way. She does this without once ever letting him off for his treatment of Lydia, which is something I’ve never seen another author accomplish. Abusers can start out as victims, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are abusers. They may deserve understanding, but not forgiveness – not until they apologise and do better, at the very least. And maybe not even then.
Barnett’s characters leap off the page – every page. The interactions of Lydia and the prince are multi-faceted and unflinching, even at their most horrific. Barnett does not try to sugar-coat the horror of Lydia’s situation, and I think that’s what saves the story from what could be a mess of dubious cliches; it’s so self-aware, and Lydia herself is so self-aware, that Lips never dissolves into an unrealistic fairytale. It’s not a fairytale. It’s brutal. It’s also incredibly human for both Lydia and the prince to build the relationship they do – even if the process of getting there will tear your heart out over and over. It’s impossible not to feel every drop of Lydia’s horror and frustration, her conflict as she starts to sympathise with her captor – and her fear of what that sympathy will do to her, what it means for her.
As for the ice elves themselves – not many authors can pull off really inhuman characters. The ice elves are not completely alien (although I absolutely adored their physiology and the thought Barnett has put into their culture and biology!), but neither do they feel human. It’s a fine balancing act, but one that really works; completely alien aliens might be more terrifying in theory, but because the ‘elves’ are familiar enough to understand, it’s all too easy to see similarities between the elves’ view of Lydia and humanity’s views of other animals. It’s an unnerving, alarming comparison (especially given that Lydia is a WoC) one that really drives home the fear and screaming frustration Lydia is forced to go through. We can understand how and why the elves think the way they do… And we, no more than Lydia, cannot convince them that they’re wrong.
All of this makes it sound like a terrible book. It’s not. It’s one of the best written novels I’ve seen in a long time; one of the very best I’ve read so far this year. And it’s not all horror and depression. There’s a lot of beauty in it, and there is a happy ending. I think you need to know that, going in, or sensitive readers might not make it the whole way through…
I loved Lips Like Ice so much I had to track down Barnett’s other pen-name. I won’t say it here – although you can find it if you look – but I wasn’t surprised to find that I already know and love her other books. I definitely recommend tracking them down. Google is your friend! In the meantime – you definitely have to read this one. If you like unique romances, if gender issues are dear to your heart, if you want an emotional roller-coaster that you can’t put down – this is definitely the book for you.
Just make sure you have chocolate and tissues nearby.
Trigger Warnings for the book: abduction, magically-forced emotions and amnesia, magically-inflicted pain, slavery/dehumanisation, cultivated Stockholm Syndrome, dubious consent, sexual assault, female-on-male rape, refusal to recognise/accept a character’s gender identity