Shrike, the Butcher of Blackthorn, is a legendary warrior of the fae realms. When he wins a tournament in the Court of the Silver Wheel, its queen names him her Oak King – a figurehead destined to die in a ritual duel to invoke the change of seasons. Shrike is determined to survive. Even if it means he must put his heart as well as his life into a mere mortal’s hands.
Wren Lofthouse, a London clerk, has long ago resigned himself to a life of tedium and given up his fanciful dreams. When a medieval-looking brute arrives at his office to murmur of destiny, he’s inclined to think his old enemies are playing an elaborate prank. Still, he can’t help feeling intrigued by the bizarre-yet-handsome stranger and his fantastical ramblings, whose presence stirs up emotions Wren has tried to lock away in the withered husk of his heart.
As Shrike whisks Wren away to a world of Wild Hunts and arcane rites, Wren is freed from the repression of Victorian society. But both the fae and mortal realms prove treacherous to their growing bond. Wren and Shrike must fight side-by-side to see who will claim victory – Oak King or Holly King.
Book 1: Oak King, Holly King
** I WAS GIVEN THIS BOOK FOR MY READING PLEASURE **
Reviewed for Divine Magazine
Oak King Holly King, by Sebastian Nothwell
3rd person, dual character POV
Themes: magic, Fae, two realms, duty, , romance, politics, homophobia, fear of discovery
Genre: MM Romance, Fantasy, Historical, Fae
Triggers: historical homophobic laws, mild violence, death of secondary character, exhibitionism/public sex, sex magic
Oak King Holly King is an epic novel of romance, two worlds colliding, and finding the courage to be unapologetically yourself. Told through a dual POV of human, Wren, and Fae, Shrike, it takes you on a journey through Victorian London and the magical Fae realm. Blending political intrigue, magic and fairytales, with the duties of a clerk and those of the Oak King, there is plenty to be explored in this 500+ novel. Yet, it never feels overwhelming, toiling or excruciatingly long or slow reading. From page one to the final word, the story takes you on a journey through the fantastical and the mundane, without ever losing its purpose or rushing you to a conclusion. It reminded me of the epic storytelling of Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine, weaving multiple plotlines through a single story.
The story begins with a bang – right at the start of a Fae/medieval mashup battle. This sets the stage for everything that is about to happen, and I’m so glad the author let us see it in its entirely. So many times, these kind of scenes are glossed over or mentioned as the inspiration for an event, but never shown to their full. Here, there’s no risk of that. Right from page one, we get to see every important event we need.
We have two main characters – Wren and Shrike. Wren is a clerk in Victorian London, trudging through a mundane life, after losing his closest friends – the Restive Quills – after the discovery of his homoerotic writings. When a mysterious man appears on his doorstep, the words “The Queen of the Court of the Silver Wheel has chosen me as her Oak King” doesn’t inspire him to believe in Shrike, Fae or the quest which Shrike has come to ask him to assist with. In contrast, Shrike is in a predicament. He has just been unjustly crowned the Oak King, which is a sure death sentence to ensure the change of seasons. In an attempt to survive, Shrike discovers that Wren is somehow his only way to succeed. Thus, the two are thrown together and form an unlikely alliance. One that will have them journeying between the Fae realm and London countless times.
Wren is quite a serious character, at first. It’s only through his growing friendship, then relationship with Shrike that you get to see him grow and lose his over-worked, fearful attitude, justly used to protect himself from discovery. As the Victorian era in the novel is true to history, sodomy is still illegal and punishable by death. A fact that looms over Wren’s head for most of his life. Until Shrike shows him the Fae don’t hold such archaic values. In the Fae realm, Wren finds his voice, his freedom and relief from the drudgery of his life so far.
Similarly, Shrike is a loner who feels shunned by most of Fae society, for deeds done long ago. Alone in his Briar, he avoids most contact with others and has a few people he would hesitate to call friends. He’s quite shy, thinks little of himself, and is a perfect counterbalance for Wren’s self-acceptance. Though Wren struggles with society’s view of him, he’s strong in his convictions, true to his word, and a little pushy and set-in-his-way, which allows Shrike to come out of his shell.
Together, they’re the perfect balance, and they each offer the other something they’re lacking, and support each other no matter what. Their romance is borne of acceptance and attraction, rather than instant lust and heat. Because of that, the romance is a slow burn for the first half of the book, but becomes a solid, sweet romance that not only continues throughout the rest of the novel, but flourishes and grows with time.
When it comes to secondary characters, I was intrigued by Nell and the Ambassador, as well as Tatterdemalion, who all had a part to play. Each held their own importance, but were nicely explored, with trickles of personality coming through, rather than simply appearing for their part and leaving again. Similarly, I found Flora to be extremely interesting throughout, and hated Felix as I was meant to.
Despite beginning in the Fae realm, the book actually flits equally between the human world – London, specifically – and the Fae realm. This way, both Shrike and Wren get equal POV, and we as readers get to equally explore both worlds with them. It also helps to show how Wren is tugged between the two worlds – wanting to be with Shrike in the Fae realm, but having duty and responsibility in the human world, that he feels obligated to see through. The contrast, as well, played an important part in the plot, which I felt was a clever use of scenery and scene-setting.
I do feel that it might have been more useful to have an explanation of the Oak King and Holly King purposes and meanings earlier in the book. I felt, at the beginning, that the worldbuilding needed a bit more explanation, but it actually just happened later in the book than I would have liked. It was for a reason, so I didn’t let it affect my rating, but it meant that I had to wait until Wren got an explanation of it all, at around 16%. That’s a long time to wait, to understand the intricate dynamics of something that is super important to the plot, and the impetus for Shrike seeking out Wren in the first place. However, I understand why it was done…
…for the same reason it takes 30% for Shrike to battle the Holly King, which was the entire reason he asked for Wren’s help. I actually appreciated that it took this long, because of the intricate plotting involved to get Shrike and Wren from total strangers to comrades in arms. There was a lot of time needed for them to become acquainted with each other, for Wren to believe Shrike was Fae in the first place, and for the whole story to be tested and proven real. For that, I thought it was clever and appropriate for the battle to wait until this point of the story, to allow all of that growth and trust between Shrike and Wren.
As I said, the plotting was intricate. There are two timelines, two realms, two main characters both with their own lives, and two parallel storylines that are interlinked by the characters. The Fae realm and Shrike have their plot – defeating the Holly King, being the Oak King, and making sure Shrike always survives each new season change – while Wren and London have their own plot – his work as a clerk for Mr Grigsby, his wardship over two wayward youngsters, and Wren’s secret of being gay.
There is a lot to unpack, throughout the course of the novel, but though it felt long – it took me an unprecedented 4 days to read it, due to family stuff going on – it never felt boring or stagnant. I always felt comfortable in the story, not like it was rushing or dragging. The storyline was consistent, and despite the multitude of characters and events, it never lost focus or lost track of the little details. Everyone had their place in the story, no matter how small, and were often proven more important than they first appeared.
The discovery of a trans character was a great addition, which explained a lot, and I loved how Wren never misgendered or dead-named them after discovering their secret. Though he did both when in the presence of those who didn’t know the secret, it was never malicious but to protect them.
Due to the Fae realm, there was a lot of possibility for imagination. I loved the addition of the Huldre/huldrekall (a creature I’ve also explored, myself) and the various creatures of the Fae realm, like centaurs and such. It really added to the diversity of the Fae realm. There’s also a lot of acceptance for things that would never be acceptable in Victorian England, such as public sex, sharing partners, open relationships, sex magic, and exhibitionism.
I loved the way that Wren was used to show the Victorian English perception of these things, while Shrike found them commonplace and normal. It meant that, when they appeared, they weren’t just thrown in for gratuitous sex scenes, but actually had a point to make and helped Wren cast aside his prudish British attitudes and live more freely. Accepting himself, as well as those around him.
The story is told in appropriately Victorian language, so there were a couple of times I had to rely on Kindle’s dictionary, to double check my meanings, but it was all perfectly in-keeping with the timeline of the story and the characters.
There was a lot of information in the first few pages – not in terms of info dumps, but because a lot happened. There was a battle, political intrigue, betrayal, possible corruption or collusion. All mixed perfectly with gorgeous, vivid descriptions. Opulent and scenic without becoming useless purple prose.
I loved that I never once felt like I needed to see an event that was discussed or mentioned in more detail. I never felt that any of the events explored in detail were unnecessary or unimportant to the plot. Sometimes you only realise the importance of a scene in hindsight, when the book is done, but that wasn’t the case here. The book was so well plotted, so carefully woven together that EVERY event, every scene had a point, a purpose, and a meaning to the storyline as a whole.
The heat level was fairly low, which I actually liked. It meant that when there was a detailed sex scene, it was for a purpose, while the intervening events were passed over in fade-to-black fashion. This really allowed the plot and storyline to take up the most space it needed, without sacrificing too much to the heat level, except for what was important, necessary or gave the most impact.
For an ARC, yes, there were some editing issues. Some mis-spelling, one mislabelling of a character, and a super sudden ending that left me feeling a bit caught-off-guard, but otherwise it was a very clean edition. Certainly much cleaner than some ARC’s I’ve read in the past, and the issues I did see will be easily caught during the final editing stages, so I didn’t let them affect my rating.
As for the sudden ending, I felt confused – even wondered if I was missing the final pages or not – but I’m hopeful it means the story of Wren and Shrike will continue in a further book. If not, I’ve certainly read more unsatisfying endings. The story concluded fine, it just felt awfully sudden. Again, as this was a “me” issue, I didn’t let it affect my rating. I think, if I still want more after 521 pages, then the author did their job and had me thoroughly connected to the characters and the world. Though, I certainly wouldn’t have said no to an Epilogue.
Oak King Holly King is going on my physical bookcase as soon as payday comes around. It’s one of those books that takes you away from the world and implants you into an adventure that you never want to leave. I fell in love with the characters instantly, and rooted for Wren and Shrike equally, no matter what they were facing. The secondary characters added depth and interest to an already rich story, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.
While I did guess some of the twists, it was only because the groundwork was laid out so well it was possible to decipher the clues, ala Agatha Christie. Putting the pieces together wouldn’t have been possible without the trickling of seemingly innocuous information that came together to form a theory.
The writing was elegant, opulent and full of intricate details that allowed me to get a visual picture of everything that was happening without overdoing it. I never once felt overwhelmed by the dual storylines, the constant adventures and mishaps, nor the multitude of characters.
The pacing was perfectly plotted to give breathing space when needed, to keep the momentum of tension when necessary, and to provide moments of reflection, consideration, and – of course! – plenty of romance.
Overall, Oak King Holly King is a work of art, and it’s one that I’ll be revisiting in the future. As soon as I’ve finished devouring everything else Nothwell has ever written.
“Something stirred within his atrophied heart, ancient embers breathed into renewed life by the exhilaration of the hunt and by Butcher’s warm bulk in his arms.”
“Whenever you can get away…”
“I will run to you,” Wren finished for him.”