17th century Perigord is a county of sun-drenched villages and dark forests, languid rivers and moonlit lakes. It is a corner of France teeming with spirits, dryads and nymphs, and like everywhere else, witches are burned at the stake.
Born with the second sight, young fisherman Jehan wants nothing but to keep his head down, work hard, and stay out of trouble. Which works well enough until a suspicious string of bad luck befalls the village smith and his wife. Their adoptive son Giraud is everybody’s dashing darling, who behind his sooty smile and swashbuckling manners has buried a painful connection to the supernatural himself. Fearing that some evil is afoot, Giraud turns to the only other man in town who knows about the hidden world around them - Jehan.
Before long, they are embroiled in a quest involving brigands, witches and noble fey, while their friendship and attraction gradually shifts into something deeper. If they manage to survive ancient feuds and everyday prejudice, they might even have a chance to forge a Happily Ever After all of their own...
Lauded with a 2017 Rainbow Book Award for Best Gay Fantasy Romance, ‘The Blacksmith Prince’ is an old-fashioned, swoon-worthy historical fantasy romance about tender love in a time when history and fairy-tales were one and the same.
Heat Level: 2
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Bisexual, Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 18-25
Protagonist 2 Age: 18-25
Tropes: Adopted Child, Coming of Age, Forbidden Love, Hero and the Great Quest, Rescue, True Love
Word Count: 85000
Setting: France, Perigord
Languages Available: English, French
Translators: Aljoscha Steiner
Afternoon sunlight flooded the market square of La Morangiasse, gilding the stone houses that clung to the cliffside like swallows' nests. It struck sparks on the languid waves of the river, where mosquitoes played over the embankment, and the lengthening shadows brought the first relief after a scorchingly hot, late summer day.
It was the time of day when the cats came out of their hiding places, still drowsy after having spent the entire day sleeping through the worst of the heat, looking around the market stalls for the occasional bite of food to steal or beg from the sellers. Of course, the fishmonger's stall was the first place they turned to, and as always, Jehan had kept enough scraps for each of them to get a bite or two.READ MORE
All around the marketplace, the merchants were packing up their stalls, filling the square with amicable chatter over the last few bartered deals and bits of gossip. Someone in the entourage of Comte Rainaud had ordered an entire bolt of orange silk, the smith's wife had broken a toe, and brigands had been sighted on the road to Bergerac. So nothing out of the ordinary had happened since market day last week.
A gaggle of young men passed Jehan's stall, laughing and chatting. Apprentices and journeymen from the various shops, mostly, happy that the day's work was finally over.
“Are you coming with us, Jehan?” one of them asked. “We're going down to the river, for a swim.”
Some had already taken off their shirts, their skin glistening with a sheen of sweat where it wasn't covered in dust.
Jehan took off his frazzled straw hat, fanned himself and ruffled his close-cropped brown hair. It had been a long day, and he wasn't much looking forward to spending time with healthy young men, bathing and laughing and jumping off the rocks into the river, as naked as they could possibly be. Or rather, he was looking forward to something like that way too much.
“You just go ahead, I still have to pack up. You know Marianne, my niece? It's her birthday today, and I wanted to pass by their house for dinner and say hello.”
The group accepted his answer with a nod and walked on, still chatting, drifting across the market square towards the river. Jehan already had his eyes back on his crates of smoked trout when a shadow fell onto his wares.
“Really? Not even for a little while? You're the best swimmer of all of us, and you've been sweating all day, just like the rest.”
Jehan looked up with a bittersweet smile. Giraud, the smith's son, stood right in front of him, the lower third of his long trousers covered in soot and speckled with burns up to where his leather apron usually started protecting them. Only now, he was wearing nothing but those trousers – his belly and chest clean, tanned skin over sinuous muscle. His arms, neck and shoulders were covered with soot and striped with sweat. Around his neck, his simple cast-iron necklace had left lighter areas where it touched his skin. Giraud's face was black with soot, almost as dark as his hair, but his green eyes sparkled like the back of a dragonfly over the water.
Boys like Giraud were the reason Jehan preferred not to join the crowd, even after a day like this.
Giraud cocked his head and put on a tiny frown.
“Nothing I can do to convince you?” he asked, his smile revealing teeth as white as salt. Not quite as tall as Jehan, yet, but Giraud seemed to grow more and more handsome with every year.
Jehan looked down to hide the colour rising to his cheeks, but the only thing he could look at was the trail of fine black hair rising from Giraud's trousers towards his belly button. He closed his eyes firmly.
Don't stare, he reminded himself. Don't stare, don't stammer, don't blush.
“No,” he replied. “I have work to do.”
“Is it anything I can help with?”
“No. Thank you.”
“Jehan, we all have work to do,” Giraud countered amiably. “Yet we all find time to have a little fun now and then. So why don't you?”
“Maybe I am just different.”
“'Course you are. But did you ever wonder if maybe that's a good thing...?”
Jehan looked up in surprise, just catching Giraud giving him a lopsided smile, all good cheer and friendship. Little wonder the other boys in town looked up to Giraud the way they did. He was just the smith's son, but for all the townsfolk cared, he was a young hero in the making. He even looked the part these days, with his dark locks and the fashionable moustache and narrow goatee he was growing of late. He was lithe and agile where Jehan felt just tall and angular, running and laughing where Jehan just tried to stay out of trouble.
Besides, Giraud just wanted to be nice - a friend - as he was to almost all the young men in La Morangiasse. How could he be expected to understand that Jehan had good reasons to keep a certain distance from everyone?
The silence between them grew awkward until Giraud gave a little sound, that half-chuckle, half-scoff he did so well.
“Whatever it is that you are, I'll be down at the river.” He turned to leave, but not without a friendly nod of his head. “If you change your mind, you know where to find us.”
“Thank you,” Jehan forced out, even managing to add a credible smile. “Maybe another time.”
But Giraud was already on his way towards the river where the other boys were shouting and laughing by the shore. For a heartbeat, Jehan thought he smelled white oleander flowers in the air, even though there were no shrubs nearby, but the impression was gone in an instant. Lost in thought, he allowed himself to watch Giraud cross the square with lithe steps and pass the road along the riverside. He skipped down the few steps to the water where he was greeted with more shouts and some handfuls of mud thrown from several directions. When Giraud undid his belt to slip out of his trousers, Jehan turned his eyes back to his trouts as if he had been stung.
Don't stare, don't blush.
Being different could get a man killed, and there were more than enough ways he wasn't like the other men in town.
Inside their crate, the trouts looked up at him with dead eyes, one next to the other, indifferent to his worries.
“You know, he has a point there,” a mumbling voice almost made him jump out of his skin. “Hiding yourself like that isn't healthy.”
“Grandma!” Jehan turned around, staring at the old woman on her stool, half hidden by the shadow of the house behind them. She hadn't said a word all afternoon, and he had all but forgotten about her. “You can't seriously suggest that I - “
“What?” She laughed, showing her last tooth, her wrinkled face lighting up with mirth. “Of course I can. I am old, no one gives a wet rat about my thoughts.”
“I care what you think.”
“Yeah, you do, don't you? And yet you don't hear what I am saying.” With a sigh that was half insult and half resignation, she leaned against the wall behind her and turned her attention back to the cat she had been nursing in her lap, gently muttering to the small creature.
Only, it wasn't a cat.
“Grandma. There's a lutin in your lap.”
“It's been here all afternoon, just like I have been.” The old woman continued scratching the head of the little humanoid creature that held its red woollen cap in both hands and stared at Jehan balefully. “And no one has noticed either of us.”
“You can't just - “
“Don't tell me what I can or cannot do, Jehan le Pêcheur,” she snarled at him, and for a heartbeat, her grey eyes didn't seem as blind as usual. “Others have tried and failed miserably. And besides, it is not as if anyone but us will ever notice.”
Jehan gave a defeated sigh. There was little sense in arguing with his grandmother when she was in this kind of a mood. And in a way, she was right. They were the only villagers with the second sight, the ability to see and talk to all the creatures that weren't quite human, to the spirits and fae and ghosts they shared this world with. And it had served them well - while not exactly among the rich or powerful in town, his family was happy and healthy and well respected all around. So he gave a polite nod to the little fae in his grandmother's lap, and continued stacking what remained of his wares without a second thought.
From the narrow street that led up towards the houses built higher into the cliffside, Père Ancel appeared and began to make his customary round. The priest inquired about the families that lived farther away from the village and reminding everyone that the weekly market was over now. His church was situated up on the last street before the cliff got too steep, and his face was slick with sweat from the exertion of hauling his belly all the way down here. But he carried himself with good humour, as always. He was a kind man, if mostly clueless to what happened around him.
At the far end of the market, in the direction of the castle, Jehan saw the captain of Comte Rainaud's guard approaching for pretty much the same reason as the priest, trailed by two of his men in the Guard's black and green colours.
The little creature in his grandmother's lap gave a satisfied little grunt, straightened his strawlike hair and gave a deep, almost courteous bow before putting his cap back on and hopped down. He threw a last baleful glance at Jehan, put up his chin and walked off around the corner of the nearest house. Jehan followed him with his eyes, lost in thought.
“How do you know we are the only ones able to see them?” he asked.
“Huh?” His grandmother made a few mumbling sounds. “Everyone can see them. They just prefer to believe they don't.”
“You know what I mean.” He turned over the wide straw basket that had held the perches and slapped it onto the cobblestone ground to clean out the last scales. “I am just worried that – you know what happens when people notice we talk to ... them.”
“What wouldn't I give to have another one who could do my job. I won't live forever, you know?” She fiddled with something in her lap and reached out to Jehan. “Here, for you.”
Jehan put down the boards that had served as a makeshift table for the day. The thing in her bony hands turned out to be a small, grass-woven satchel, tied with a length of vine. Inside, he found over a dozen small berries, their wrinkled black skins waxy and dull, but their scent unmistakeable.
“Juniper berries?” he asked, incredulous. Those were a precious spice down here, especially after the droughts of the last years, and priceless for smoking fish. “How did you...?”
“A generous payment for an afternoon of head-scratching.” She shrugged. “Need to earn my gruel, after all.”
“You have earned your keep for many years to come, Grandma.”
She merely scoffed. “Still need someone to replace me when I am gone.”
Jehan rolled his eyes. It wasn't as if they were having this talk for the first time, today. “But I thought Alienee was doing such a good job. You even said so yourself.”
“As a midwife, yes.”
He just gritted his teeth and took down the last racks and boards that made up the bulk of his family's stall. Last was the faded awning, and he folded it up with a few practised motions.
“You know I wasn't talking about replacing me as a midwife, do you, Jehan?”
Now it was Jehan who gave a sigh. He surveyed his pile of crates and boards and declared his work finished, stretched and sat down on the cobblestones next to his grandmother.
“I am not a ... 'midwife'.”
“Are not or do not want to be?”
“Both, I guess?”
She put her hand on his shoulder, like she had always done when Jehan had still been a little child, and he leaned his head against her leg.
“You don't have to be a woman to be 'not a midwife'.”
“And how is that supposed to work? As soon as anyone gets even a little suspicious, I'll end up hanged. They might even burn me at the stake, just for good measure.”
“And how's that different? Do you think that is even a cat's whisker more of a risk for you than for a woman?” Her cool hand patted his shoulder. “You wouldn't even need a husband to justify your every movement. I'd say it would be a lot easier for a man to do my job.”
Whatever reply he might have had, Jehan swallowed it. There was just no point in arguing.
“Though, on the other hand,” she continued as if talking to herself, chuckling under her breath, “a strapping husband might do you a world of good in other ways.”
She took a deep breath, patted his shoulder again and leaned back against the wall. Silent, they waited for one of Jehan's nephews to come downtown with the donkey and pick up the stall and what little wares hadn't been sold today.
Of course she knew he wasn't looking at girls the same way as other boys. She might be blind, but her senses were sharper than those of most seeing people. And Jehan didn't mind - neither her knowing, nor him being different in yet another way. He would have vastly preferred living someplace where being different wasn't a bad thing, yes, but that was something he took like the weather, something to prepare for, but nothing to fret about.
Most of the other merchants had left the marketplace by now, only a small group remaining to argue with the Captain of the Guard and Père Ancel about yet another brigand attack somewhere in another town on the far side of Castelfort. There hadn't been any brigands near La Morangiasse in the last two years, but there were still plenty around in the region, at least enough to make for decent gossip.
Gently, Jehan's grandmother placed her hand onto his head and began stroking his hair. A loud splash from the river reached them, followed by a burst of renewed laughter. He didn't look. Moments later, a stray cat joined Jehan, a beautiful gold-and-red striped creature that dropped to the ground next to his knee, demanding his attention with loud purrs. Jehan started scratching between her ears, closed his eyes and lost himself entirely in the moment. Like so often, he wondered why life couldn't just always be as peaceful as this.
“Grand-mère Matrone, Jehan, a good day to you,” a man's deep voice yanked him out of his reverie. It was Capitaine LaForge standing in front of them, politely reaching for the tip of his wide-brimmed hat. His expression was mostly obscured by a formidable dark beard that also hid his deeply scarred jaw, but his eyes were bright with genuine kindness. “As always - the one family in La Morangiasse that I don't need to worry about.”
“Is that you, Bertrand? My eyes aren't so good any more...”
“Yes, it's me, Grand-mère Matrone, little Bertrand,” LaForge replied, giving Jehan an amused eye roll. They both knew that her hearing was still so acute that she could identify anyone she wanted. If she wanted. “How are you feeling today?”
“Oh, I am fine. A bit tired, from the heat, but no pain in my bones, so there won't be a thunderstorm tonight.” She muttered something unintelligible, then added: “And your wife, Bertrand, how is she? Is she better?”
“Yes, very much. The tea you gave her seems to have cleared up whatever she suffered from. Once again, we are in your debt.”
There it was – that tiny note of unease in a man's voice when speaking to Jehan's grandmother about another woman's ailments. Jehan had grown up with those moments, and those hushed talks about things 'men should never know'. And just like he had done as a child, he now pretended not to have noticed anything, and just smiled politely, scratching the cat at his feet.
Jehan understood the ways of fish rather well, and the changing of the weather. Spirits of the wild were easy to understand, and the High Fae were predictably unpredictable. He could look at most of the plants around and have a rough idea whether they were helpful or harmful. Humans, on the other hand, were a complete mystery to him more often than not.
“I am happy I could be of help,” his grandmother replied, maybe mumbling a little more than she had to. “Just tell her that she should come over and talk to me if anything else is amiss.”
“I will, Grand-mère Matrone, I will. And how is Ugs? Is his leg still acting up?”
Ugs was Jehan's elder brother, and the nominal head of their family since their parents had died in a sudden flood six winters ago. Despite having a stiff leg since his childhood, he had managed to win the hand of the most beautiful woman in town – Alienee, a stunning beauty from far away Sarlat, the apprentice to their grandmother and new midwife of La Morangiasse. The two of them had a small army of children, and together with Jehan they covered the entire fishing business here in town.
“He is fine, he is always fine.” Grandmother gestured wildly in the general direction of their mutual home. “That little brat has been complaining all his life, and I think he'd feel bored out of his mind if he wasn't yapping about this or that for a day. I can still remember when he was about this tall, and he came hobbling home, crying about this frog, you know?”
Jehan was just about to remind his grandmother that poor Capitaine LaForge really didn't have to hear the story about that frog yet again when he heard the familiar snort of their faithful donkey.
“Sorry, Grandma, but I'm afraid it's time to go home,” he said and jumped to his feet. “You'll have to tell the story another time.”
She muttered a few choice words, but Jehan chose to ignore it. Instead, he gave a friendly wave to Lucartz, his little nephew, who led the donkey onto the market place with an expression of deep, adult gravity. Little Luc waved back and quickened his steps, which was harder than expected with a donkey in tow that absolutely wouldn't hurry anything.
Jehan and LaForge shared a silent smile.
“Grand-mère Matrone,” LaForge offered with another tip to his hat, “I'll bid you a good evening. Please send my regards to Ugs and Alienee, yes?”
“Thank you, Captain,” she replied, nodding in his vague direction. “Have a good day as well, Bertrand, and my greetings to your wife.”
He gave a silent nod to Jehan and scanned the square. It didn't take him long to spot his two guardsmen in front of the 'Plume d'Or', where they were busy chatting up a barmaid on the steps of the inn, so he jutted out his chin and strode off.
“So, Luc, how's it going at home?” Jehan asked when his nephew came up to them. “Everyone gathered for dinner already?”
The boy nodded eagerly. “As if anyone's ever going to miss dinner.” He grinned widely, and when Jehan gave him a friendly nudge to the shoulder, he took that as the opener to an impromptu wrestling match with his uncle. Jehan didn't have children of his own, but he loved his brother's milling brood without reservations.
Packing their stuff onto the donkey was a well-trained task for both of them, and done in a matter of moments. Jehan checked the straps one last time before he handed the leading rope back to Luc and nodded him towards their family's home. Jehan himself helped Grandmother back onto her feet, took her stool and offered her his arm to steady her on the way back.
Together, they slowly marched down the street that led out of town. Luc told them of the many special treats his mother was preparing for tonight, of the bread and the snails and the roasted goose, about the cabbage and the rabbit and the walnut cake. Step by step, they followed the curve of the river until they reached the sturdy little house where Jehan had been born and where his brother now lived. It stood right on the riverfront in a large bend, and like every late afternoon in summer, the sun reflected off the river and painted glittering golden lines across its yellow stones. Right next to it, under the old walnut tree, a large table had been set up, white linens fluttering in the breeze. Ugs was already sitting there on a bench, his leg stretched out, smoking his long clay pipe, while his children chased geese around the table.
It would be a beautiful evening.COLLAPSE
Feliz on Goodreads wrote:
I expect great characterizations and superb storytelling from the this writing pair, and the Blacksmith Prince was exactly that. Once a book wins a Rainbow Award I don’t know what else I can tell you besides I loved this book. And why.
Sense of place: the story sucks you right back in time. It’s vivid and immersive: but thankfully without the true slog of preindustrial life (with the occasional anachronism). The language makes you believe in the small magics and the large ones: Fey belong here.
“Like the afterimage of a lightning bolt, Jehan now saw antlers over his head in ghostly shapes, leaves on his shoulders and storm in his hair.”
Sense of character: Jehan has magic and no desire to take on the duties his wisewoman grandmother is about to leave behind. We get to watch his understanding of how he is needed grow, and how he rises to the need. Even in the face of angry foes, he manages to parlay his small but growing skills into triumph, and the occasional punch in the nose.
Giraud too grows in his power and acceptance of power. He's willing to bust heads and take names doing it, even when it wars with his sense of fitting in.
Sense of story: what started as a small quest becomes a large one, even as the characters grow into themselves.
What started as a lark and a way to enlist Jehan’s help, becomes much more than that for Giraud: you can feel the bond growing between the two young men. They aren’t taking much time for romance: they have grave matters to unravel, and they meet magical creatures along the way, whose help they must have in their quest, or that they must somehow defeat.
The history here is woven into the fantasy, just as boldness is woven into healthy caution, and magic into the everyday. It’s a lovely tale, with the sweetness of love to leaven the adventure.
If you're looking for sexytimes, this is the wrong place to look: it's all adventure and love, and I promise, you won't feel anything is missing. Because nothing is.
The Blacksmith Prince is a genuine fairytale in the tradition of a Hauff, La Motte Fouque or even Tolkien, quirky and imaginative and laceed with a healthy dose of fine, subtle humor. It has just about anything you'd wish for: a damsel in distress and a knight in shining armor (who switch roles now and then)going on a quest together, curses that need lifting and spells which need to be fueled with blood and passion, supernatural beings, witchcraft and sorcery and, on top of all this, not only one, but two love stories. The whole of it combines traditional elements with a more modern narrative in a way that I can only call masterful storytelling.
And what's more, this author duo has really mastered the art of painting pictures with words. I felt like I was really there with Jehan and Giraud during those long ago summer days in circa 17th century Perigord, in a time when "wishing still helped" as the saying goes, when twists of fate could still be begged, bartered for or bought from the forces of nature. It's a world where magic and mystery are still close to the surface, where ancient, secretive beings dwell in rivers, lakes and trees, where those who take the time and pay attention can call upon the forces of nature at will.
In short, this is a beautiful story and a very delightful way to spend a few hours of escaping reality. Highly recommended.