Book review: Vassal, by Marissa Ames

Author’s note: I was given an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

I thought I had waited too long to read Marissa Ames’ first novel in the Tir Athair series, Minstrel, but by happy coincidence, I finished it just before the sequel, Vassal, was released, so I didn’t have to wait long between books. Ames makes bold choices thematically and stylistically with her second book, setting it long enough after the first one that everyone from the first book is dead, referred to rarely, and only in an historical context. Also, while Minstrel focused quite a bit on nation-building, bringing a feel reminiscent of Stephen R. Lawhead in interactions with new civilizations to the north, Vassal is much more of a romance (although not a bodice-ripper), bringing us a more intimate story, while at the same time, widening the reality of Tir Athair.

Vassal focuses on Aislin, a woman trying to navigate a very narrow path of making her own decisions in a world where women are rarely given that opportunity. She has essentially inherited her father’s lands, but holds onto them in large part because of two men – Sully, an old family friend with enough influence and money to provide assistance, wanted or not, and Warrick, the Earl to whom she is a vassal, who wants nothing more than to bed her and make her the next in a long series of wives, and who lets her hold on to her lands as a means of controlling her.

Into Aislin’s life comes Darrion, ostensibly hired by Sully to help her with manual labor, but who harbors secrets about himself, Sully, and the true nature of the refugees that the King is so determined to wipe out. To protect her from Warrick’s advances, Darrion and Aislin wed, although it’s a loveless sham of a marriage (or is it?). Herein lies the “romance” part of the book, and Ames does a nice job of drawing out the will-they-or-won’t-they without overly belaboring the point, slowly drawing us more into larger conflicts than the one between Aislin and Darrion.

Vassal shows that Ames has range as a writer, in addition to skill. She brings verisimilitude to the stories of life on a farm, drawing from her own experience, without making the book a how-to manual. The struggles of a woman in a very male-dominated world is a strongly feminist tale, without pounding the reader over the head.

On the negative side, there were some parts of the storyline near the end that lost me a bit (I wasn’t quite sure how one of the characters got out of some challenging situations they found themselves in), and that part of the book could have used a little more room to breathe, in my opinion, but overall, Vassal was a quite entertaining read. Because of the time jump from Minstrel, if you get a copy of this, you won’t be lost if you want to just leap in and read, but the world is richer if you know more of the whole story.

Vassal is now available at Amazon.

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