Author: Heidi Cullinan
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: M/M Fantasy Romance
Length: 220 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
A guest review by Kassa
Hal Porter is no man’s hero; he’s just another Los Angeles construction worker. So when he sees a building appear on what the day before was an empty plot of weeds ~ a site where people have been found dead ~ Hal knows a guy like him should steer clear of whatever is going on. But a vision at the building’s window draws him inside, and there Hal finds Morgan, a magical shapeshifter held captive by a rival clan … and Hal’s the only one who can save him.
It doesn’t take Hal long to realize he’s in over his head, not only because the clan has powers beyond his imagination but also because he’s fallen in love with Morgan. There’s no escape for them now without a hero to break the curse, and Hal knows it can’t be him. But as Hal and Morgan work together, they discover gifts far more powerful than magic and that heroes aren’t always in shapes they expect.
Hero is an unusual book even among fantasy fans but succeeds in offering a unique and riveting story in a pretty stunning authorial debut. I’m not sure why this book hasn’t been talked about more because it is thoroughly engrossing with a complicated and intricate plot, great characters, and a very strong romance in the somewhat mind bending fantasy world. It’s not perfect and there are some moments that the two men need to be slapped on the head but the honesty of their emotions is never in doubt and the complex plot moves very fast so you won’t want to put it down. Fantasy fans especially will appreciate this book but the themes offered should appeal to mainstream m/m romance fans as well.
Howard Porter, called Hal, is a typical construction worker from Kansas that came to Los Angeles to get out of his small hometown. After a particularly warm day at work, Hal sees an old, dilapidated building appear with a beautiful, lonely man in the window and a gorgeous woman beckoning him forward. Like any normal person Hal realizes how silly such an image is once he comments on it to a co-worker. Although he tries to ignore what he saw, the image appears in his dreams and won’t let go. Soon Hal is mixed up in a world of magic and cruelty where he doesn’t know the rules yet has one goal – to save his beautiful, lonely man Morgan.
The storyline is incredibly complicated and mixed with heavy world building, intricate characterization and strong romance. What seems to be a classic theme is actually turned into something unique and fresh. At the core the story is about Hal and Morgan and how the two men must overcome their own insecurities and doubts to find a way to happiness together. It’s never that easy and here there is a wealth of problems presented to the new couple in the rules of magic, cruel and fantastical beings, and well the slight problem of interspecies dating. The world building is an important part of both characters and the story. The magical rules and alternate reality offered is interesting but somewhat incomplete. There are inherent problems because any more world building would have overwhelmed the story and bogged readers down into too many details and issues but often the magical rules felt made up as the story went along or thrown in without much previous context. This helps keep the suspense and intrigue going – as I had no idea how the story would resolve – but also frustrating at the ever changing structure of the world. I never did get a firm grasp of the complex and complicated magical setting.
Worked in with the setting is the character of Morgan. He’s thoroughly unique and blends the magical world with romance incredibly well. He’s a young man that’s so desperately lonely he makes bad choices and enslaves himself to cruel men rather than be alone. The depth of his need and desperation is slightly exaggerated, just as his inability to take control of his situation is frustrating. However, Morgan needs to be a polarizing character as his situation and final actions show a dynamic change. He is kept rather sympathetic as a lonely, desperately sad man that has resigned himself to a life of misery. His change from a somewhat pathetic creature to a much stronger man is a key aspect to the story and the romance. He can never be totally independent and part of the reason is the fantasy setting – which is a truly inspired touch with regards to Morgan’s character – but he comes to understand his own strength and ability while finding his confidence and sense of self worth.
Following a somewhat similar path is Hal. Hal is a painfully shy gay man that struggles with zero self esteem and shame at his sexuality. He grew up in a catholic family and his mom sends him the Catholic Digest with money stuck between the pages. Although his mother is not an evil, ranting character – and the later explanation for her motivations is pretty clever and funny – Hal still experiences a great deal of fear and shame surrounding his desires. He struggles with a crippling shyness that prevents him from expressing himself and accepting his life. He is not attracted to women but a part of him desperately wants to be so he can be normal by his own definitions. So Hal’s struggle with accepting his sexuality and more so, belief in himself and his abilities is a key aspect to the story. Hal’s struggle is shown on many levels from his initial lies out of fear to finally admitting, vocalizing, and ultimately accepting his desires. His characterization and growth is difficult but well written. It stumbles in a few places when Hal is so wrapped up in his fear and shame that you want to shake the man and tell him to grow a spine but the exaggeration here as with Morgan helps to explain the depth of their shared love and emotion. Perhaps a more subtle touch would have been better but in contrasting to the muddy, elaborate fantasy world an obvious character growth is not bad.
The themes presented in the story are pretty universal. At the heart of the story are two gay men that together find the support and love they need and crave to finally believe in themselves. The concept of a hero is used very well as both men need to grow themselves before they can save anyone else and neither man is actually more powerful than the other, just possessing a different kind of magic. The world building is serpentine and somewhat convoluted but thoroughly absorbing and interesting. If you’re willing to stretch your imagination and dive into the fantasy world provided, this story definitely delivers.