Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Brown achillean MCs, M/M, major mute character, brown queernorm culture, multiple minor nonbinary characters
PoV: 1st-person, past-tense; third-person, past tense
Published on: 5th December 2023
The follow-up to Foz Meadows's A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, a sultry political & romantic fantasy exploring gender, sexuality, identity, and self-worth.
With the plot against them foiled and the city of Qi-Katai in safe hands, Velasin and Caethari have begun to test the waters of their relationship. But the wider political ramifications of their marriage are still playing out across two nations, and all too soon, they’re summoned north to Tithena’s capital city, Qi-Xihan, to present themselves to its monarch.
With Caethari newly invested as his grandmother’s heir and Velasin’s old ghosts gnawing at his heels, what little peace they’ve managed to find is swiftly put to the test. Cae’s recent losses have left him racked with grief and guilt, while Vel struggles with the disconnect between instincts that have kept him safe in secrecy and what an open life requires of him now.
Pursued by unknown assailants and with Qi-Xihan’s court factions jockeying for power, Vel and Cae must use all the skills at their disposal to not only survive, but thrive – because there’s more than one way to end an alliance, and more than one person who wants to see them fail.
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.
~Gift is the best gift
~husbanding is tricky
~mysterious bear-cats are mysterious
~who’s out to kill which one of us?
~we are not tragedies
*Spoilers for book one, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance (reviewed here)!*
If you think I didn’t drop absolutely everything when the arc of All the Hidden Paths arrived in my inbox, then you are SORELY MISTAKEN.
Not only did it not disappoint, I loved it so much I read it again – twice before release day!
Beginning just weeks after the end of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance (and I do recommend at least rereading the last chapter of Endurance, if not the whole thing, before diving into this one) All the Hidden Paths is a luxurious paragon of a book, opulent in prose and emotion, deliciously indulgent without ever skimping on the plot. When I started reading, it was almost a shock – I’d forgotten that THIS was what reading was supposed to feel like, that ephemeral, ever-chased sensation of being completely, deliciously submerged, embraced by the story and embracing it in turn. After months of struggling to focus on anything at all, All the Hidden Paths made my brain feel pampered.
Endurance kept the story tightly focused on Vel and Cae and their immediate surroundings – Cae’s family, and city they reside in and rule, Qi-Katai. We saw some of the ramifications of Vel and Cae’s marriage, but only in terms of the small-picture; Velasin’s fears about what a Tithenai marriage might demand of him, some small amount of unrest in Qi-Katai, and of course, Laecia’s reaction to seemingly being dismissed in favour of Cae. It was really all family politics, though we didn’t know it until Laecia’s role in events was revealed.
All the Hidden Paths, on the other hand, explores the wider ramifications of Vel and Cae’s marriage – which is, after all, supposed to cement political relations between Tithena and the violently queerphobic Ralia. With everything going on in Endurance, there wasn’t really a moment to consider how Ralia might react to their treaties and trade being tied to a marriage of two men, but since AtHP opens with the asa – what we’d call a queen – of Tithena summoning Velasin and Caethari to court, well…now we, and poor Vel and Cae, have to consider it. Especially when they reach the asa’s court, immediately running into all the various factions who each have their own opinion on the matter. It only makes matters worse that Cae is now – by default, not anyone’s choice, including his own – his grandmother’s heir, raising him to the highest levels of Tithenai nobility.
And, uh. Cae is not good at politics. He’s far too straightforward. Vel, on the other hand, is a political genius (even if he wouldn’t call himself that) but he’s greatly hampered by the fact that he knows nothing about Tithenai politics. Throw in Cae’s mourning for the deaths of his father and sister, Vel’s trauma, a series of increasingly suspicious ‘accidents’ along the road, and very bloody intrigue at court, and you have a recipe for an unputdownable tapestry of intricately interwoven silk threads.
“We’re both new to husbandry,” he said, leaning back. “It would be stranger, I think, if we were savants at it.”
Vel and Cae’s relationship continues to make my heart melt like warmed candle-wax. Both of them fear stepping wrong with the other, but I was pleasantly surprised by how often they were able to talk to each other about their fears – and when they don’t talk, it’s for very good reasons. We saw a little of this in Endurance, but AtHP really drives home the fact that Vel and Cae come from wildly different cultures. Velasin has had it drummed into him that he can’t love another man openly; just holding Cae’s hand where other people can see is a Thing for him (albeit a pleasant one), and he genuinely has no experience with what we’d consider a normal romantic relationship, where you have to make up after fights and talk out your feelings when they’re complicated. I despise stories where everything could be solved if characters just talked to each other, and don’t for Extremely Contrived Reasons, but here the communication issues stem from believable and understandable cultural differences, and I really loved how Meadows explored that, and how Vel and Cae (with Markel’s help, of course!) managed to navigate it.
“I can feel the pair of you mother-henning me from here,” Vel called from the bathroom door. “It smacks of conspiracy.”
“You’ll be cared about and you’ll like it!” Cae called back.
Which is not to say that AtHP is all Relationship Drama, because it very much is not. (Thank goodness.) AtHP is Intrigue with a capital I, much more so than Endurance, which had a strong investigative plotline. AtHP does too, but it feels different, maybe because there are so many more players on the board now, so many different political agendas grappling with each other, and we’re more aware of all of them. It feels more familiar, in a way – I love stories about courtly intrigue, and as a sucker for lush description of beautiful things I’m unashamed to say that I also loved the Tithenai court itself, with all the gorgeous clothes and jewels and such on display.
Thei flashed him a broad grin, and for the first time, Cae realised that thir incisors were set with gemstones: little chips of diamond that winked in the sun.
We gain a whole swathe of new secondary characters, including a new PoV character, and even if I didn’t like them all as people, I loved them as part of the story. Everyone from Asrien, another Ralian who gets caught up in the currents around Vel and Cae, to Asa Ivadi, who makes for a fiendishly clever and refreshingly sensible monarch, were fabulous. Even the most minor characters are fully fleshed-out here, with a great deal to contribute even when they’re not directly plot-relevant – for example, Meadows is careful to include many secondary and background female and kemi (third-gender/nonbinary) characters, more than enough to reinforce the gender equality of Tithena in the reader’s mind. Which genuinely added to the reading experience for me: I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a supposedly gender-equal/neutral story where all the minor and background characters happen to be men, but that’s not a trap Meadows has ever fallen into in any of their books, and especially not here.
“Ah,” said Vel, who’d clearly reached a similar conclusion. “Markel. Good morning. We didn’t hear you come in.”
“That was extremely apparent,” Markel signed, looking pained.
Beyond the decadent prose, gorgeous worldbuilding, and rich romance, there’s a quiet but powerful theme running through AtHP that is beautiful but hard to define; it’s a little bit queer joy, and a little bit queer hope, and a lot queer defiance, and mostly all those things mixed up together. As a gay man who internalised the belief that he could never be happy, Velasin has a lot of unlearning to do; after having to live as a tightly-knotted, shrunken-down version of himself in Ralia, he now has the opportunity to stretch and grow, because Tithena gives him unlimited space to be himself. To be joyful is often a form of defiance, especially when you’re talking about queerness, and reading along as Velasin really processes his new freedom – freedom that isn’t going to be taken away, even if worst comes to worst and he and Cae divorce, or he loses Cae in some other fashion – made me glow with all the Feels (and maybe tear up, once or twice). Sometimes it’s painful; the scenes where Velasin aches for what he could have had, if he’d just been born Tithenai, are heartbreaking. Meadows writes with such compassion and understanding, such raw and honest emotion, that I think even readers who have never had to be in the closet will feel the gut-punch.
But what I mean to say is, in a lot of ways AtHP is a book about refusing fear, about defiantly choosing joy instead; about believing that happiness is possible even when you’ve spent your whole life being told otherwise. I can’t overstate how well it’s done, nor how deep it hits even for those of us who have been very lucky in our freedoms. When it’s not making the pleasure centres of your brain light up and glitter, AtHP feels like a big, warm, fierce embrace of the most fragile part of you – your inner child, your deepest insecurities, the scars that will never go away – and a promise that you can be happy. That you will be happy. That you are beautiful just by virtue of existing, and no one can take that from you.
I am not a tragedy.
All the Hidden Paths is a book that brought me joy; a book that shimmers like silk as it wraps itself around your heart. It’s a jewel cut to perfection, every facet – characters, adventure, intrigue, romance, worldbuilding – absolutely flawless, the star of Meadows’ crown (thus far!) When I’d forgotten the pleasure of reading, the reason it’s the biggest part of my life, this book gave it back to me, and for that alone I’d be unspeakably grateful and unrepentantly rhapsodical about it – but it’s also, simply, a work of art that proves once again that Meadows belongs among the truly greats.
It’s perfection, easily one of the best books of the year, and I genuinely can’t recommend it enough.