Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review for a M/M fantasy romance from Antonia Aquilante. THE ARTIST’S MASQUERADE is the second story in her Chronicles of Tournai series. I really enjoyed THE PRINCE’S CONSORT, so I was eager to read this sequel.
Scroll down for an excerpt, my review and to enter the $10 GC giveaway.
About the book:
As the first-born son of a royal duke and cousin to the prince, Cathal has always put his duty to family and country first, even when it conflicts with his own wishes. When Cathal’s father arranges a marriage between him and Velia, cousin to the emperor of Ardunn, without consulting him, he sees no alternative but to go along with his plans for the good of Tournai. But it’s Velia’s companion, Flavia, who fascinates Cathal from the moment he first sets eyes on her. Cathal doesn’t know Flavia is really Flavian, an artist masquerading as a woman to escape Ardunn, a restrictive and repressive place where Flavian’s preference for men is forbidden.
Even when Cathal discovers Flavian’s identity, even as he struggles with his obligations and duty, he cannot fight his attraction to the sharp-tongued artist. Flavian is intrigued by him as well, but Cathal is still betrothed to Velia, and Flavian worries he is more taken with the feminine illusion Flavian presents than the man beneath it. He came to Tournai to start a new life—a safe one—as an artist, and an inconvenient attraction to his friend’s betrothed, a man who happens to be a member of the royal family, is not a part of his plans. While both men battle their longings for each other, spies from Ardunn infiltrate the capital, attempting to uncover Tournai’s weaknesses and secrets. They are also searching for Flavian, who possesses a magical Talent giving him the ability to see the truth of a person just by painting their portrait—something that would be invaluable to Ardunn’s emperor.
How about a yummy taste?
“It’s time you took a wife.”
Cathal managed to keep his surprise hidden with some difficulty. That blunt statement was not what he’d expected when he received the summons to his father’s office. A discussion of family business, perhaps, or questions about happenings at the palace, even a diatribe about one of his cousin’s choices—since Father seemed to hate every one of them since the prince’s marriage to Amory—was what usually precipitated a call to Father’s presence.
He’d never imagined Father would bring up marriage. Cathal had seen no indication Father was even thinking in such a direction. Father had said plenty as he’d pushed the prince to marry, and plenty more when Philip had married a man of his choosing instead of the woman Father would have chosen, but he’d never said a word about his own sons’ need to marry.
Cathal probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. He was twenty-five years old and his father’s heir, and Father was a royal duke and dynastically minded. Producing an heir for the dukedom was Cathal’s duty, despite the existence of his younger brothers. He’d always known it, and he would never think of shirking that duty.
“Yes, Father.” He wasn’t interested in anyone in particular, but there were plenty of women who would make him a suitable wife in Father’s eyes. He was certain he could find someone who wouldn’t make the duty a chore. “I will begin looking for a wife immediately.”
“No need. It’s all arranged.” Father returned his attention to the papers on his desk, as if what he’d just said was of no particular consequence. As if he hadn’t just told Cathal his entire life was about to change and taken Cathal’s last bit of choice away at the same time.
Cathal snapped his mouth shut when he realized it was hanging open. “It is?”
Of course it was. Cathal should have expected that as well. Father would never leave such an important choice—a family alliance, a mother for future dukes—up to Cathal. He should have done so, or at least he should have asked for Cathal’s opinion. Cathal was of age and had proven himself trustworthy time and again, or he thought he had. It left a sour taste in his mouth to think Father respected him so little.
“May I ask whom I will be marrying?” He immediately regretted his tone as Father arched a single brow.
When Cathal didn’t jump to apologize quickly enough, Father let out a huff that expressed his disappointment more eloquently than a hundred words would have, but he answered anyway. “She’s a cousin of the emperor of Ardunn. Velia is her name. Beautiful, by all accounts, and accomplished, but the connections are the important part.”
Cathal hardly heard anything after Ardunn. Cousin to the emperor of Ardunn? What was Father thinking? And how had he even managed it?
Father looked up again, and this time his huff held more than a little annoyance. “Why are you staring at me that way?”
Cathal didn’t know how he was looking at his father. Usually he had more control, but incredulity seemed to have obliterated it. “Ardunn, Father? I don’t understand. Why—?”
“Don’t be stupid. If your cousin isn’t going to do his duty and marry for the good of this country, then it falls to you to take up where Prince Philip failed.”
And that statement made even less sense. “But, Father, you negotiated a marriage contract with the emperor of Ardunn. Does Philip know?”
His cousin couldn’t know. Cathal had damaged their relationship and weakened the trust Philip had in him—he knew and regretted it—but Philip wasn’t vindictive enough to keep something so big from Cathal, especially considering the prince’s hatred of arranged marriages. Though how a prince came by such a view, Cathal would never know. Nevertheless, Philip would have said something, which meant Father had been negotiating with someone in Ardunn without Philip’s knowledge or consent.
Father scoffed. “He’ll know soon enough.”
“But, Father, negotiating with Ardunn…what did you—?”
“Are you questioning my ability to negotiate a marriage for my son?” Father snapped.
“No, sir.” Just the prudence of doing so with a powerful foreign emperor without the knowledge of their own ruler. “But—”
“This is the marriage your cousin should have negotiated for himself, but since he wouldn’t do his duty, we have to do it for him. For the good of Tournai and this family.”
“No more.” Father slapped a hand down on the wooden surface of the desk. “It’s done, and when she arrives next month, you will marry this woman. We’re finished discussing it.”
Cathal gritted his teeth against further protests and gave a sharp nod.
A few moments later, dismissed by his father, Cathal dragged in a lungful of crisp air. Spring was taking hold, but the mornings were still cool. At the moment, he was thankful for the gulp of bracing air.
That had been unexpected.
He shook his head and strode down the steps into the garden. The home where Cathal had grown up was probably the largest in the city. Constructed generations ago of pale-gray stone, the house had three stories surrounding the inner courtyard and the garden it contained. He’d played in the garden as a child with his brothers and cousin, chasing each other, hiding among the statuary and bushes. As he grew older, he’d come here when he needed a moment of peace. These days, he spent most of his time at the palace, and the garden was the domain of his mother and younger sisters, who often sat on the benches near the central fountain to do their needlework.
He didn’t linger, couldn’t have if he wanted to. Cathal couldn’t even go up to the palace and inform Philip of the betrothal, because he was due at the port to inspect improvements to the harbor defenses. Taking the most direct route from Father’s office to the front of the house, he strode through the garden and ducked inside again and then made for the entrance hall without slowing.
His sister’s melodic laugh and the quiet murmur of his mother’s voice floated back to him. Smiling, he stepped from the corridor into the grand room. His mother and sister stood at the polished table in the center of the large room. At his first step onto the red marble floor, both women looked up from where they were arranging early spring flowers in a large vase. Identical smiles of welcome lit their faces. His youngest sister looked remarkably like Mother, though Meriall was just fourteen. She was the only one of them to inherit Mother’s golden-brown hair and not Father’s much darker locks.
Each time he saw Meriall, he was surprised at how grown up she was becoming. It seemed just yesterday she was trailing after their brother Etan and getting into scrapes and jumping on her brothers whenever she saw them. Now she was a young lady. The oldest of his three younger sisters was married, and his second sister was nearly seventeen. Cathal might have expected, if he’d thought of the subject at all, Father to be negotiating a marriage for Ottilie, not for himself.
Meriall and Mother were still smiling at him, and they left off fussing with the flowers and greenery as he approached. When she was younger, Meriall would have flung herself at him. She’d learned more appropriate behavior since then, but a part of him missed her enthusiasm. Then again, she would probably still throw herself at Etan. They’d always been closer.
“Cathal.” Mother held out her hands to him and tilted her head for his kiss to her cheek. “I didn’t know you were here.”
He brushed a kiss over Meriall’s cheek as well. “Father wanted to meet with me.”
Because he was watching, he saw the flash of concern in Mother’s warm-brown eyes. Did she know her husband’s plans for Cathal? “Is everything all right?”
No, he didn’t think she knew. He doubted Father would have consulted her anyway. He flicked his glance at his sister, wondering if he should speak in front of her, but everyone would know soon enough. “Father wants me to marry.”
Mother blinked, once, twice, the only sign of surprise in a serene face. “I didn’t realize, but you are getting to be of an age to. There are many lovely girls you could meet and consider. Perhaps we can have a party and invite some of them.”
“Actually, Father has it all arranged already.”
“Oh. Well.” Mother fussed with the flowers before dropping her hands to smooth her skirt. “I didn’t realize you and your father had chosen someone. I wish you’d told me.” The statement wasn’t much of a rebuke, not the way she said it, but from his gentle mother, it was still censure.
“I wish he’d told me.” He bit back impatience. His ignorance of Father’s actions wasn’t Mother’s doing. “I only just found out myself, Mother. She arrives in a month. I assume we’ll all meet her then.”
“Arrives? From where? Who is she?”
He didn’t blame Mother for her bewilderment. “Father says her name is Velia. I only know she’s a cousin to the emperor of Ardunn.”
“The emperor? Does His Highness know?” Mother had been the wife of a royal duke for nearly thirty years. She could see the implications as well as he could.
“It doesn’t appear so.” He glanced from Mother, who was admirably controlling her surprise and concern, to Meriall and her avid, undisguised curiosity. Well, he shouldn’t be talking about Philip’s lack of knowledge of Father’s actions anyway. “You’ll have to ask Father for more information. I don’t know anything else.”
Mother frowned. “Will you tell your cousin?”
“I can’t now. I’m due at the port, and I may be tied up there for most of the day.” And he didn’t want to put this information in a note. Still, someone needed to tell Philip, and Cathal wasn’t sure when Father would. “I’ll tell him when I return to the palace later.”
She nodded. “I’ll speak with your father. We’ll see you soon?”
“Of course.” He took his leave of his mother and sister and strode out through the large front doors into the morning sunlight again. A servant appeared immediately with his horse. He mounted up and guided the horse out through the imposing gate, open in anticipation of his departure. He needed to hurry if he was going to be on time for his appointment, and he refused to be late. He would sort out the rest afterward, including informing the prince.
Philip was not going to be pleased.
This is the second book in a fantasy series, and likely best enjoyed when read in sequence, though it can be read as a standalone.
Cathal is the eldest son of a Grand Duke in Tournai, a small but wealthy country with a bustling port in the capital city of Jumelle. Cathal’s cousin is the Crown Prince Philip, and Cathal is his advisor and personal secretary. Cathal is 25 and is startled to learn that his father has arranged a marriage for him, to a cousin of the Emperor of Ardunn. This marriage proposal was arranged without both Cathal, or Philip’s, knowledge or consent. Politically, this was a huge overstep by Cathal’s father, because Ardunn is a warring nation bent on conquest, and offending the Emperor by breaking this betrothal could be an encitement to war. Also, emotionally, Cathal has been a dutiful and respectful son, though his father laments his “lack of ambition”. His father has recently created some large protocol offenses regarding Philip’s marriage to his husband and consort Amory. Philip is concerned his uncle is hatching some power play for the control of Tournai.
Flavian is an Ardunnian artist with the Talent to read the heart of any person that he draws in a portrait. The Emperor, who trusts few of his advisors or court, planned to make ample use of Flavian’s magic, and Flavian knew he could not live in that capacity. Also, matches between men are illegal in Ardunn, and a man cannot make his own way in the country until he is 30 years old, so for all these reasons Flavian decided to run from Ardunn. He is a good friend to Velia, the woman betrothed to Cathal–and they hatch a plan to transport Flavian to Tournai, disguised as a female companion to Velia, when she leaves to Tournai. It’s upsetting and humiliating for Flavian to masquerade as Lady Flavia for the three-week boat journey. He cannot wait to escape as soon as they make land. However, Flavian’s plans are scuttled when their party is not lodged in a house in Jumelle, but is instead welcomed by Princess Elodie, Philip’s younger sister, and taken to the palace to stay. Escaping the palace is not easy trick and Lady Flavia is expected to accompany Lady Velia to all of her attendant parties and excursions in the palace. It’s especially hard for Flavian to continue his ruse under the scrutiny of Cathal–who develops and unwanted attraction to the mysterious Lady Flavia.
So, it’s a mismatch, and an intrigue. Philip and Cathal are hunting Ardunnian spies, and a chance encounter first puts Lady Flavia in their sights. Even Cathal’s growing attraction would not save Flavian if he were a spy–which he is not. Flavian is nearly consumed with jealousy for the acceptance of male-male pairings in Tournai, and wants to find a loving partner, and to get his life back as soon as possible. Because of the intrigue, he must continue his masquerade, but Cathal’s love grows and shelters Flavian in many ways.
Cathal wants out of his betrothal, and Philip is working to find out the specifics of the marriage agreement to see how he can disentangle his dear cousin from Velia–who seems to be a decent woman, but not one that Cathal truly loves. She’s aloof and Cathal’s attempts to develop a rapport are shut down with courtly manners and meaningless flirtations. While Velia is the perfect partner for Cathal–in his father’s eyes–Cathal is almost despairing what he feels will be a loveless marriage–and for what reason? He’s a grown man, and his father has never respected him as a man–and even less in his duties for Prince Philip.
I really liked the comparisons between Flavian and Cathal’s circumstances. These men are near each other in age, but have less common experiences. Flavian knows that he will be summarily despised in Ardunn for just being himself, and is willing to take drastic steps to find a way to live his life in freedom. Cathal has been duty-bound since birth to be an advisor to his Prince, and to raise heirs for the dukedom. Yet, when he falls for Flavian he isn’t put off by his masculinity. Cathal has had two years of observing the close and loving relationship between Philip and Amory, both of whom he respects quite keenly. He was prepared to sacrifice his personal happiness for his father’s ideals, but not once he developed such a strong bond for Flavian–and not when he cannot really bear his betrothed. Cathal is prepared to abandon his life, and build a new one, when fate intercedes.
There are a lot of nice relationship and world-building elements in this story–with a bit of magic and some shifter activity, though it is a small part of the story. Court intrigue and spies are big parts of the conflict here. The physical attraction for Cathal and Flavian picks up at their first meeting. They develop a more intimate friendship than is proper for their difference in station and circumstances. We have a front row seat to Cathal’s growth as a man. He has to value himself above his father’s opinion, and he has to reorganize his thinking about the attractions he’s had toward men–and always Suppressed. Flavian is sure that Cathal only likes him in women’s clothes, and that his attraction is sure to be short-lived. What man of Cathal’s position could truly love an asylum-seeker with a regrettable Talent that could bring the ire of Ardunn’s emperor. And, Velia’s taunts later reinforce Flavian’s doubts.
There are certainly a lot of twists, though I kind of expected the biggest one. The climax is appropriately thrilling, and the love story for Cathal and Flavian is difficult, due to circumstances being less than ideal. They have frantic assignations, and use secret passageways to maintain their secret trysts. The bond between them grows out beyond attraction into affection and eventually love. The whole story takes place over a couple of months–but the passage of time was a little hard to gauge at times. The end is definitely happy and resolved in a way that we can accept Cathal and Flavian are building a future together. I have enjoyed both books in this series, and am hopeful there will be another.
Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $10 NineStar Press gift card!
Good luck and keep reading my friends!
About the Author:
Antonia Aquilante has been making up stories for as long as she can remember, and at the age of twelve, decided she would be a writer when she grew up. After many years and a few career detours, she has returned to that original plan. Her stories have changed over the years, but one thing has remained consistent—they all end in happily ever after.
She has a fondness for travel (and a long list of places she wants to visit and revisit), taking photos, family history, fabulous shoes, baking treats (which she shares with friends and family), and of course, reading. She usually has at least two books started at once and never goes anywhere without her Kindle. Though she is a convert to e-books, she still loves paper books the best, and there are a couple thousand of them residing in her home with her.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Antonia is living there again after years in Washington, DC and North Carolina for school and work. She enjoys being back in the Garden State but admits to being tempted every so often to run away from home and live in Italy.