Dark Vow by Shona Husk was an interesting kind of genre-bending romance. Emphasis more on the genre-bender than the romance. The world-building was really kind of neat, a sort of post-apocalyptic Western. It reminded me a little of a polytheistic Firefly, except with hellsteeds instead of starships. Whoa! I just had a vision of Mal Reynolds from Firefly riding Death’s horse Binky from the Discworld. And it might fit.
The world of Dark Vow is definitely a post-apocalyptic Earth. Someone’s grandmother remembers when the horses were really horses. Now they have a taste for human blood. The central character of Dark Vow is Jaines Cord. She is a gunsmith. Or rather, she would be, if women were allowed to be master smiths. Or master anythings. Since Jaines is a female, the highest grade she can attain is apprentice, with her husband overseeing her work as the master smith. But as the story opens, her husband Lance is away on a buying trip, and Jaines is handling the gunsmithy.
An Arcane Hunter comes to Jaines’ smithy with an order for her to add certain runes to his gun. Two smiths have already worked on this gun, a woodsmith and a metalsmith. Jaines’ specialty is engraving: only she can add these runes to the gun. And the Arcane Bounty Hunter may have phrased his order as a request, but members of the Arcane have magical powers, and certainly earthly ones. If she doesn’t do what he wants, he can kill her and he will not suffer any consequences.
Her husband has always warned her not to deal with any Arcanes, but Jaines feels she has no choice. She is literally damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t. At least if she does the work, she will earn enough money to pay off their debts.
The work is challenging, but also eerie. When the gun is complete, she can feel its hunger to be used, to kill. Unlike most weapons she makes, she does not test-fire it. The Arcane Hunter returns to pick up his weapon, pays her, and leaves.
Jaines never gets the chance to tell her husband Lance Cord about the commission from the Arcane Bounty Hunter. The evening that her husband returns, the Bounty Hunter bursts into their house and test-fires the weapon on her husband. Jaines is a widow, and it is all her fault. At her husband’s funeral, she makes a vow to his spirit that she will hunt down the Arcane Hunter and kill him. She does not expect to survive, and she doesn’t care.
Jaines begins her journey in the middle of the night. She leaves behind the life she has known for the past eight years. With each mile she travels away from her home, she loses her illusions about the life she has led, and about the husband that she loved. The Jaines that emerges from that forge is a very different woman from the one who goes in. She’s worth meeting.
Escape Rating B+: Jaines’ personality is what carries this book. She was someone I wanted to meet, so I enjoyed spending time with her. That made the book for me. This is a fascinating world. I wanted to find out how things got to where they are, and so quickly! If someone’s grandmother remembers our type of horses, what the heck happened? And what happens next? The greater story does end on a cliffhanger, and I want to know!
The world-building was good, the science fiction and/or fantasy of it worked for me. This is one of those books where I’m not exactly sure which one it is, and I don’t care. It’s speculative fiction in the big tent sense, and that’s good enough. The romance aspects I had a little bit of trouble with. I understood why Obsidian fell in love with Jaines. She’s the heroine, and her character is pretty clearly drawn. She’s holding up really well in a lot of adversity. She’s not just tough, but she’s growing even with all the pressure.
I could get why Jaines might fall into bed, or bedroll, with Obsidian. But we don’t see enough of his character to know why she’d fall in love with him, especially that fast. Her willingness to trust anyone was probably a little shaky at that point. And Obsidian doesn’t exactly put his best foot, face or hand forward. For good reasons of his own, he lies about himself, a lot, and for quite a while into their acquaintance. Just not quite as much as her husband did. But still, one after the other, I’m not sure that’s a foundation for love, at least not that quickly.
But I chose this book because I’d read some great things about Shona Husk’s work. And I’m very glad I did.