This is such a wonderful, special book. It may be the author's first, and fantasy stories may not normally appeal to you, but this was amazing to me. I completely forgot that this was an "alternative" romance book by a new writer!
This is first and foremost a truly exemplary Adventure and Romance novel. As great as any I've read by Eddings, or Zelazny, or Donaldson. And -just- as touching in it's moments of love and heartbreak. (And there are many.)
The plot points of spoiled young princess, court intrigue and treachery, a loving Goddess, a dedicated, dashing yet torn young hero, are all old and familiar, yet the story is refreshing and above all, new, despite this. And in no small part because the story is told from the author's heart. I could really tell this story has been cherished by the writer, for a long long time.
I started backwards, reading her second book first ("Branded Ann"), and what I said then is doubly true with this, her first book. I really got to care about the two main characters, and I was carried away with their lives. Heck, rumors that I may have gotten teary eyed more than a few times in reading it (and re-reading it) would be difficult to deny.
I love books. Yet I can be honest in being critical of books I don't like. I have just started to discover and enjoy the genre of "lesbian romance" books, and perhaps I'm a bit more comfortable than some in reading them with an open mind and heart, but -this- book truly transcends the genre. I wish I was a better writer, so that I could be more eloquent, and somehow convince you how unimportant it is that the -hero- is secretly a -heroin-. (It's important to the plot, yes, but not to the -book- itself.) This story stands head and shoulders above many other popular fantasy books, on it's -own- merits.
I won't deny, there are a number of pages of, er... "physical intimacy", enough to -more- than fill the needs of one's romantic, and baser instincts, yet without offending.
I honestly think you would enjoy getting to know the people inhabiting this world: Talon, with her self-sacrifice and dedication, and the heartache she endures for the sake of the people she loves; Shasta, shedding her mercurial adolescence, and learning to put her kingdom and the ones she loves ahead of herself; Lyris, overcoming her quiet, shy nature to seek out her destiny serving the Goddess, and in doing so finding a strength she didn't know she had, and; Bria, stumbling through being the youngest sister, and the terrible mistakes she makes.
The list of characters goes on, and yet it is not so long as to be confusing. I was delighted to see the author has a website, and to see there that she will return to the kingdom of Ithyria with the book tentatively entitled "Prayer of the Handmaiden". (Wherein I hope to see the return of the irascible chambermaid Erinda, and the woman she lost to the Goddess's service?? Hint? HINT?!) Ok, I'll shut up now.