In Katya's world, the virgin girls from hers and neighboring villages are routinely chosen by a sect of "holy men" known as the Guardians to be sent to the forbidding fortress on the hill as "brides" for the warriors who live there. Since the Warriors keep them all safe from potential invaders, the families of the girls count it as an honor to have their daughters be chosen. Katya has always questioned the practice, but when she herself is selected as a "bride" for one of the Warriors, she goes willingly so as to not bring shame upon her family. What she finds behind the walls of the fortress is worse than she imagined. Many of the men have been brainwashed into mindless killing machines, while the women are little more than sex slaves. Only the male offspring of these unions are kept to be trained as future warriors, while the female children and women who've outlived their usefulness are sold to slavers for profit. The only bright spot in Katya's new existence is the Warrior for whom she was chosen, who turns out to be anything but what she expected.
Turan may be a soldier, but when he isn't fighting he is a kind, gentle soul. Much like Katya he was taken from his family as a boy to be trained as a Warrior and is a virtual prisoner within the walls of the fortress. He no longer remembers what it was like to live in the outside world, but he savors the bits of nature he's able to take in when the Warriors are released to fight. When the lovely Katya is brought to him as a gift, he hardly knows what to do with her. He knows no more about sex than she does, but he has a passionate heart that leads him in the right direction. Turan loves his time with Katya and vows to keep her with him always. However, he deeply fears the Guardians who watch over and train them as well as their "lightning sticks" which can inflict great pain. When Katya begins to talk of escape, Turan must find the courage to stand by her side and fight for a revolutionary cause, one that could free them all.
I've enjoyed the Bonnie Dee books I've read so far, and The Warrior's Gift was no exception. It takes place in an unspecified time that has a medieval feel to it, but the world is more consistent with the fantasy sub-genre, although these elements are light. Names of characters and places are mostly non-standard and the Guardians possess weapons known as lightening sticks (I imagined them as something like a glorified cattle prod) which is technology that wouldn't have been available historically-speaking. Otherwise, though, it has a rather historical feel to it, but I settled on the fantasy category because this is how the author has it listed on her website.
Because this is a novella, the story is a fairly simple one in which a group of "holy men" known as the Guardians live in a fortress surrounded by villages. The Guardians regularly choose young boys from the villages to take to the fortress for training to become Warriors. They exert complete control over the Warriors, and they periodically choose young maidens from the villages, as well, to become "brides" for them. Because the Warriors keep their realm safe from their enemies, the villagers count it as an honor to have their sons or daughters chosen by the Guardians. But the heroine has had uneasy feelings about what goes on inside the mysterious fortress all her life. When she is chosen as a bride, she goes to her fate willingly, because she doesn't want to bring shame upon her family, but she's not nearly as willing to submit to the Warrior if he proves brutal. However, the man with whom she's paired far exceeds her expectations, while the goings on behind the walls of the fortress are far worse than she feared, leading her to form a daring plan to do whatever she must to bring about regime change.
Katya is a very strong, determined heroine who was the perfect mix between sweet and a little spicy. Once she realizes her Warrior isn't going to harm her, she treats him with the utmost kindness and falls easily for him. But overall, she's every bit the warrior he is. She's the one who forms the plan for their escape, and she's the one who gradually begins to convince both Turan and the other women to do what they can to help in the cause. In turn, Turan convinces many of the other Warriors to go along as well. Katya is also intelligent enough to realize that merely escaping won't help either the Warriors or the women. They must completely overthrow the Guardians to have any kind of lasting change and to keep everyone safe. I really liked Katya and thought she was a near-perfect heroine. She does what she must to survive and keeps her head about her at all times, while still having a gentle, nurturing side.
Turan has two sides as well. He's a fierce soldier, who's known nothing in his life except training and killing, yet he possesses a gentleness that's almost too sweet for words. He's a rare virgin hero who doesn't really know what to do with Katya when the Guardians bring her to him, but he's an intuitive and quick study in the sensual arts. He always treats her with the ultimate tenderness which I loved. Turan knows immediately that he doesn't want to ever let Katya go, and her talk of revolution intrigues him. However, he's been so thoroughly psychologically conditioned from such a young age that it takes him a while to reach a point where he can stand up against his captors. Once he does, he becomes a fearless leader, but he still takes most of his cues from Katya. So ultimately I felt like he was definitely more of a beta hero despite his skill and bravery in combat.
The main reason I dropped a star off the rating is because of the heroine being sexually assaulted by the villain not just once, but twice. In her cover blurb warning, the author mentions an attempted rape, but as far as I'm concerned (and by the CDC's definition of sexual violence), it doesn't matter that both instances were relatively brief and both were interrupted in one way or another. Since the villain forcibly penetrated Katya both times, this is no longer "attempted;" it flat-out is rape. I typically don't have a problem with a heroine being raped before a story begins and perhaps dealing with the aftermath or even with her being menaced by the villain up to an attempt of sexual assault during the story. But I don't really care for something like this happening after she's already involved with the hero, and I believe this is the first time I've read a story where this was the case. However, the main reason I took issue with it wasn't just the timing. It was because the experience is basically brushed under the rug with no fall-out to Katya's psyche or her relationship with Turan, which is highly unlikely. She simply takes it in stride and keeps on fighting. In this respect, I felt like the author didn't give the abuse the weight it deserved, and in doing so, committed a disservice to both her characters and more importantly to her readers who may have experienced sexual assault. I will give her kudos, though, for giving the villain what he deserved, even though I think she could have made him detestable without going to the extreme that she did.
Otherwise, I thought The Warrior's Gift was a great story. I very much enjoyed the way she turned the proverbial fairy tale on its ear by having the heroine basically save the hero and everyone else for that matter. If not for her determination and smart planning, the revolution probably never would have happened. While there isn't time for a lot of details at the end, I also liked that Ms. Dee mentions that not everyone in the villages was pleased with the way things turned out and that Turan and Katya didn't necessarily have an easy road ahead of them, which seemed quite realistic. But the ending was at least a a happy one for our couple, romantically speaking, and a hopeful one in general. What I loved most about the story, though, is the sweet, tender romance between Turan and Katya that gradually turns more and more passionate over time. A relationship that happens as quickly as theirs does often doesn't work for me, but in this case, I felt an immediate connection between them from the moment they met that made the rapid progression very believable to me. For a shorter format the story was well-written and engaging. If Ms. Dee had dialed back on the sexual assault, this would have been a near-perfect read for me. As is, it was still very good and makes me look forward to trying even more of her books soon.
Note: This book contains graphic violence, including wartime violence and rape, that may distress some readers. Also, the love scenes, while on par with most steamy mainstream romance content-wise, they do employ the use of some frank language that is typically reserved for the erotic sub-genre.
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