Truly, we are living in a golden age of queer fantasy. From continent-spanning epics and fairytale reimaginings to seemingly futuristic dystopias and worlds built on complex systems of magic, these are stories that run the gamut from thrillers to romance and everything in between. The best of the lot, however, are usually those that mix various genres and elements in a way that feels fresh and new or gives readers something they haven’t seen before.
And Foz Meadows’ new novel A Strange and Stubborn Endurance does exactly that, simultaneously offering readers a lush, fully realized fantasy adventure, a delicate exploration of healing and trauma, and an incredibly satisfying, sexy slow-burn romance. The book’s worldbuilding is rich and enticing, its supporting characters detailed and memorable, and the politically motivated intrigue at its center compelling. Yes, this is the sort of book that may take you the first 50 pages or so to settle into—Meadows drops readers directly into the story’s action and trusts that they’ll be able to both keep up and figure out the rules of the world they find themselves in—but once our two leads meet, the emotionally gripping bond between them will keep you turning pages as fast as possible.
The book follows the story of Ralian aristocrat Velasain vin Aaro, who has been promised to wed a princess from the neighboring country of Tithenia, as part of a diplomatic effort to improve relations between their two kingdoms, who have long been historical rivals. But when the sudden return of an abusive ex-boyfriend reveals the truth about Vel’s preferences for men, his father disowns him, leaving the young man with what appears to be no future. Until a Tithenian envoy reveals that their kingdom has no such laws or taboos restricting same-sex relationships and that Vel’s intended bride has an equally eligible brother. Exiled from the only home he’s ever known and reeling from the trauma inflicted on him by his ex, Vel agrees to the switch and heads across the mountain to marry a man he’s never met, simply hoping that things will somehow be better than the smoking crate of his life he’s living behind.
Upon his arrival in Tithenia, Val is stunned by many things: The delicious food, the unfamiliar religious practices, and the kingdom’s much more relaxed attitudes toward sexual and gender identity. The kingdom’s eldest heir is herself married to a woman and Tithenian society is comfortable not just with using pronouns to denote when someone is trans or nonbinary but also encouraging the use of magical solutions in order to allow its citizens to best live their lives as their true selves.
Having never experienced this sort of generalized acceptance of his sexuality and identity before is all initially pretty overwhelming for poor Vel, a situation that’s compounded by the fact that his new husband Caethari Aeduria isn’t the monster he feared, but a kind, devastatingly attractive man who seems like everything he could have ever wanted in a partner.
Spoiler alert: The absolute best part of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is the relationship that slowly grows between Vel and Caethari, a delicate push and pull that shows rather than tells us about the pair’s growing feelings for one another and then genuine desire to make their unexpected partnership work. I know I can’t be the only person who gets a little swoony over a well-done marriage of convenience trope, and Meadows executes it brilliantly here.
Of course, trying to figure out the identity of the person trying to kill you is likely reason enough for any pair to get closer fairly quickly, but the fact that we’re allowed to see both Cae’s dogged willingness to be a person his new husband can trust and Vel’s slowly dawning understanding that he’s allowed to want things that make him happy is a joy to watch unfold. (Also, I mean, maybe you’re capable of resisting a man who wants to learn sign language simply because he wants to be able to communicate with his new husband’s mute manservant, but I am not that person. Swoon.)
The aforementioned murder plot mystery is ostensibly the driving focus of the back half of the novel as Cae and Vel have to unravel complex threads of political loyalties to figure out who, precisely, is so invested in seeing the political alliance their marriage represents fail. But it’s also probably the least important part of the story it’s telling. (You also may guess the twist that arrives in the book’s final quarter well before it happens—I did, and I’m not normally terribly adept at such things.)
There’s plenty of blood and shocking twists, though for me it was at its most interesting as our heroes try to figure out who, precisely they can trust. And though the climactic face-off between Cae and those seeking to do him and Vel harm is more than a bit ridiculous—with events ranging from kidnapping to someone being set on fire—the trust that our new husbands are forced to show in one another in order to survive it all is more worth the messy price of admission to get there.
Note: For all the swoony romance involved in this tale, it should be noted, however, that A Strange and Stubborn Endurance deals very heavily with assault and the aftermath of sexual trauma, including suicidal ideation at various points. And although the book does an excellent job realistically presenting the ways that Vel’s healing and recovery don’t—and truly, cannot—happen in a straight line, it does have some imagery that may prove upsetting for some readers.
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.