Review | Reign & Ruin – J.D. Evans

About the Book

“All magic is beautiful,” she said, “and terrible. Do you not see the beauty in yours, or the terror in mine? You can stop a heart, and I can stop your breath.” 

She is heir to a Sultanate that once ruled the world. He is an unwanted prince with the power to destroy.

She is order and intellect, a woman fit to rule in a man’s place. He is chaos and violence and will stop at nothing to protect his people.

His magic answers hers with shadow for light. They need each other, but the cost of balance may be too high a price. Magic is dying and the only way to save it is to enlist mages who wield the forbidden power of death, mages cast out centuries ago in a brutal and bloody war.

Now, a new war is coming. Science and machines to replace magic and old religion.

They must find a way to save their people from annihilation and balance the sacred Wheel—but first, they will have to balance their own forbidden passion. His peace for her tempest, his restlessness for her calm… 

Night and day, dusk and dawn, the end, and the beginning.

420 pages (paperback)
Published on January 18, 2020
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It seems like everyone who talks about this book says something like, “I don’t read/enjoy romance but…” And look, I get it, we all have tastes and flavors and preferences and the like, but this book is a whole lot more than just romance, so sit back and let me tell you all the ways this one delighted me. 

Reign & Ruin was a pretty unexpected book. I honestly didn’t realize it won the SPFBO until like… the day I checked it out on Kindle Unlimited. I’m just so busy, I’m not really tapped into that kind of thing anymore. I saw the cover art floating around a lot, and I knew a lot of readers I respect have read and enjoyed it but I basically knew nothing else before I started reading.

I like to go into books as ignorant about them as I possibly can be, and so I didn’t know what the book was about or really anything about it until I started reading. I think in a lot of ways, this was a benefit. I had no preconceived notions. (Well, I had one, but we’ll get into that shortly.) I thought the cover art was interesting and I’ve followed the author on social media and that’s about all I knew. This left the book a lot of room to captivate and surprise me, to enchant me with the story itself. 

Here we follow two characters. One is Naime, who is the heir to the throne of Tamar. We find her on the cusp of change. Her father, the sultan, is slowly sliding into dementia and Naime knows her future and the future of her land hangs in the balance. However, as a woman, whoever she ends up marrying will rule rather than her, and so we get a front row seat to what many women throughout history have faced: the bartering of her life for the happiness and security of others. 

On the opposite side is Makram, the younger brother of Sarkam’s ruler and leader of the military. Buttoned-up and somewhat aloof (at first), Makram is a character that I quickly loved. His surface is so controlled, but there’s a seething storm beneath that façade and emotional depths to him that really rounded him out nicely. Torn between family loyalty and personal obligation, Makram secretly travels to Tamar to meet with Naime. Insert political machinations here. 

The characterization truly shines in Reign & Ruin, which is necessary, especially when you are dealing with romantic elements. Readers need to fundamentally care about the characters involved to care about the relationship that forms. One of the first things I noticed about Evans was how well she balanced their internal and external journeys. The emotional landscape is just as vivid and carefully crafted as the external one. Weighed down by family, loyalty, and obligation, both of these characters struggle with the face they must show the world, and the people they are beneath their facades. This personal touch, the care put toward exploring all of the layers that makes someone who they are, had me instantly invested. 

Naime and Makram are different people at the end of the book than they were at the start. Not literally, of course, but figuratively as Evans does a magnificent job of pushing them to points where they are forced to grow and evolve past who they thought they were, straining the limits of self as they rise to the challenges they face, neither saving the other but rather complementing each other well. The ending, due to this felt extremely satisfying because I was so invested not just in their external arcs, but the emotional ones as well.

I mentioned a few paragraphs up that I went into this book with one preconceived notion, and that sort of held out and sort of didn’t at the same time. Due to the cover art, I knew I was getting a court-style fantasy. I expected it to be a typical European court-style fantasy but I was quickly surprised (and delighted) to find myself in a world with realistic Middle Eastern notes. Evans fleshed out all the aspects of her creation perfectly, making sure elements worked together when necessary and added just enough friction at other points to keep things interesting. 

Due to situations in the book, this isn’t really a light read. It’s not something you need to brace yourself for either, but there are deeper themes at work here and these deeper themes are my playground. This is where I was happiest. One such theme is balance, and it reverberates throughout the book, impacting everything from the magic to the politics, to the characters themselves (as well as giving the book a really interesting yet subtle play between past and present). Along with that, Evans touches on dementia, PTSD, bigotry, misogyny, and more. Don’t misunderstand me: this book is not what I’d consider to be dark, but it was unexpectedly heavy in some regards and I loved the caring, poignant way Evans fearlessly explored some of these deeper, more difficult themes.  

Naime is not a woman who needs to be rescued, and Makram knows that, which is part of what made their romance so delightful. By the time the book gets to that point, it felt more like a natural evolution of two people rather than anything else. I absolutely adored how Evans stayed true to both characters and their strong personalities. While romance was had, it wasn’t always easy. The author knew how to build atmosphere with carefully chosen words and descriptions, and while that impacted the book throughout, I really felt it keenly in what develops between our two protagonists.

Focusing primarily on the romance really isn’t being fair to all the other aspects of the book. Yes, this is a romance, but it’s so much more than that as well. This is a tale about lives becoming entwined as people desperately try to do the right thing for them and those they care about, about risks and rewards, and yes, balance. It’s a story with a whole lot of soul, and high stakes. The action happens mostly with intrigue and relationships, whether romantic, familial, or otherwise. The world is vividly crafted with meticulous attention to detail and the characters are so real, they breathe on and off the page. 

Yes, here be romance. But here also is transformation, the evolution of individuals as they break the ties that bind them and become who they are meant to be, and it ended in such a way that left me eager to read more.

Reign & Ruin ultimately is a human story with a vivid emotional landscape matched only by the politics and turmoil the characters navigate. Evans holds nothing back, but neither does she glorify in pain and darkness. As in all things, this book is an exploration of balance, and it is in the careful execution of this amazing tale where Evans truly shines. 

5/5 stars