Battles of Salt and Sighs – OR – let’s define ‘dark romance’

Come, child, on a journey with me through a dark place, and let us define how dark literature fits in our dark world, and along the way, maybe we can define more what dark romance and dark romantic fantasy is and establish some elements that we love, hate, and would rather not know exist… while doing a book review :-D. Because I received a copy of a dark romantic fantasy to read and review!

Battles of Salt and Sighs is described by the author as: “Pitch-black savage romantic fantasy for Reylos, Darklina shippers, and other readers thrilled by dangerous men.” – “Painful, passionate dark fae fantasy. Lovers and enemies all at once. Morally gray characters. Vengeance. Love that is more agonizing than hate. Magic. War. Slave revolts. Warnings for explicit content, mature language, and non-consensual sex. Not for the faint of heart.”

If you have a f*cked-up mind like me, you will be all over this 🙂 So first things first! Here is the book description:

Two sisters.
Two dark fae male captors.
This is war, and they are the spoils.
Prantia Onivia’s wedding feast is invaded by death fae rebels, who destroy everything in in their path and cut a bloody swath through the night. Onivia’s new husband is killed, as are her father and brothers. Her only surviving family member is her sister Magdalia.
Magdalia is Favored, which means she is in possession of a rare and powerful magic. The Croith, the death fae’s Night King, wants to make use of her talents.
Onivia vows to save her sister. However, she is being held captive in a fae war encampment as the Centurion Larent’s prize. She is powerless to stop him from doing what he wishes with her, and she is marked for the centurion’s bed.
Magdalia is taken to the north, to the capital city, where the Night King has invaded the emperor’s palace, and where he waits for her presence eagerly. But when she is thrown down at the hem of his black robes, she can’t help but be horrified.
She knows him.

So anon! I started reading, and until about 50%, the two women characters feel very young, which fits their ages (18 and 21?), and after that is when I came across the book’s dark elements, which culminate in the climax (haha literal climax?) at the end, which was, as the author states, well… ‘not for the faint of heart’.

Well! So that was an experience, and I set off on an online quest to define the elements of a dark fantasy romance so I could specify which elements are present here that readers will find intriguing, and I stumbled across this UTTERLY FASCINATING thread (well, I found it fascinating!) that I just gobbled up while bulbs of light were flickering all over the place in my brain like, “Yeah!” and “So true”, and so, before I review this pitch-black savage romantic fantasy so you can determine if it’s right up your alley or if you want to run from the knife, let’s first define elements that make a romantic fantasy book ‘dark’.

I waded through the chat and came out with these elements of dark romance:

  • A power dynamic with the male usually exercising violent control over the female
  • Stockholm syndrome-like attachment between hero and heroine
  • Kidnapping or entrapment, psychological and/or physical abuse, and dubious consent, often because of revenge, a misunderstanding, or a debt that must be paid
  • The hero is usually the inflicter of most if not all of the abuse
  • The women’s sexuality is often turned against them; that is, they feel aroused even when they don’t want to
  • Dubious consent – I looked this up online and found that it’s supposedly a term “coined by the fanfiction community to make visible the gray areas between rape and consent—for example, in situations where the distribution of power may limit an individual’s ability to give meaningful consent to sex.”

One person summed up dark romance like this: “Dark Romance” has all but become synonymous with abused and tortured people, rape fiction and gore.

However, I was also coming across sentiments like this, which I found myself sharing: ‘no matter how tortured or “justified” the hero is, I just can’t get past it to see him as redeemable or loveable in any way.’ and ‘I’m okay with tortured heroes, but not cruel, unforgivable, or physically abusive ones.’

So, in that light, let’s also add the following elements that can make a book a more ‘acceptable’ dark book:

  • Tortured hero with a f*cking dark past
  • Tortured heroine with a f*cking dark past
  • Someone trapped in a place where they must do terrible things in order to attain some justified (even honorable) end
  • Dark circumstances

So that got me to thinking that maybe there are two types of dark romance / or dark romantic fantasy, because I’ve noticed a trend toward unapologetically murderous heroes and heroines, and it makes me wonder if authors are subconsciously responding to the current state of the world–in two ways.

One, by diving straight in and romanticizing conscienceless characters who do what they want, kill whomever they choose, and hate without real foundation – these maybe embodying complete freedom but also being the very characters who CREATE or, at the very least, perpetuate the darkness in the world in which they live. In a way, these characters embrace the darkness, becoming that darkness themselves, perhaps as a survival tactic or in retaliation, and their acts sometimes even surpass the reader’s grossest imaginings.

For some people, that veers too close to the mindset of a remorseless killer, which is why some readers find such characters unrelatable. They may revel in them for a time, but at some point, they draw the line, and if a character crosses that line, they become irredeemable.

For example, a male lead’s abuse of the heroine is often unacceptable. I personally also struggle when a character indiscriminately slaughters large numbers of people or kills people for no reason, or for a flimsy excuse related to the heroine.

Like I love me a man who has the capacity for it, but one that both has utter control over when he uses it, and he uses it only very specifically for good reasons. And to be clear, I NEVER like violence or killing, even if it’s supposedly justified or by the good peeps, but if the hero or heroine must hurt or kill people, then I want to understand freaking why. I think I would describe my ideal ‘dark’ hero as something like this:

  • a man of undeniable power
  • in a merciless environment
  • which he survived but was scarred by
  • but he fought back,
  • conquered it completely,
  • and now his authority is unquestioned,
  • his aura is controlled and terrifying,
  • but he’s f*cking in that ugly place in order to do a justified thing
  • and willing AF to do real bad shit to get it done (while not killing people along the way just ‘cuz he’s menstrual)

This kind of character defines what I think is the second type of dark fantasy: the tortured heroine, or the hero in a bad place, stories that aren’t dark because of the characters’ behavior or unapologetic displays of violence, but because the things they are overcoming are terrible – their past, their surroundings, or they are even fighting their own dark tendencies, or a mental illness, or an evil entity is controlling them from inside. These are the stories where the characters are stuck doing bad things or in a crap situation, but they are fighting against it with all their will. Fictional characters in a shit place are trying to find hope by clawing their way out.

Alright, so with that in mind, let’s explore Battles of Salt and Sighs! Which, I believe, has elements of both types of darkness defined above: it follows two storylines, with one pair capable of becoming ultimate darkness for their world, and the other pair struggling in a sh*t situation. Well, so far, that is.

I would say this book has four types of characters: the Good Guy in a Bad Place, the Good Girl (Woman?) in a Bad Place, Spoiled girl teetering on descent, and the Broken man who embraces a lack of mercy.

Larent – Good Guy in a Bad Place

Within the first 10% of the novel, we know that Larent is known for being easy on humans (the enemy) and not abusing them, and that he is having to do some things for show that he does not want to, but he does anyway. He is very definitely a morally gray character because he’s basically a good man having to do bad things, and he’s willing to do those bad things in order to keep the position he’s won.

Onivia – Good Girl (Woman?) in a Bad Place

Onivia is the young woman who ends up Larent’s prisoner. She’s also got good motives – she wants to save her sister; she doesn’t think of herself as superior. She is pretty powerless, but she possesses a quiet, enduring strength. I think she grows most out of of all characters in the book, and at the end seems a stronger person for it. If I had to pick a favorite character, I think she would be it!

Magdalia – Spoiled girl teetering on the brink (of evil?)

Magdalia is portrayed as a spoiled brat. She’s only eighteen, sheltered, and a lot of her initial reactions seem childish. Because she’s so self-centered, she has a slightly disturbing tendency to not care about the lives of others. She, too, is pretty powerless, but she definitely has the potential to fight Duranth (her male love interest). Thus far, she is still a petulant child more than a resolved woman, but my guess is she will either become a total badass or she will descend into utter darkness with Duranth.

Duranth – Broken Man who embraces a lack of mercy

Here, I use ‘broken’ not to mean that anything has actually broken him, but that something (he admits himself) is broken in his mind. He’s presented as a man from whom an essential part of humanity has been broken away, and he is totally not interested in putting it back. Sometimes he seemed pretty decent, but at others he comes across as unhinged, and I think unhinged might be closer to defining what he actually is 😀

So those are the players, and these are the dark elements they’re playing with in this book:

  • Power imbalance: the women captives are not (yet) an even match skill-wise to their male leads, and there is little to no alliance between the pairs, although some grows throughout the book.
  • The women are trapped, their bodies used against them
  • Dubious consent
  • There is some meaninglessly wrought death and violence – characters killed to show the darkness of the characters
  • Hero in a bad place
  • Stockholm syndrome-like attachment between hero and heroine

So there you go, you Dark Ones! Go gobble it up 😀 [Just be warned lol that I think the ending traumatized me a little 😀 though that may be an endorsement for some of you!]

Oh, as for the prose in this book, Val has mastered the art of invisible prose, and the story shines through 🙂

Aaaaand I have a bonus! Because she agreed to an interview! Mwahahaha I am queen of persuasion. A’right, I’ll shut up now 😀

So, to introduce her, I asked her to send a short bio and, me being me, I’m picking out the juiciest bits.

First of all, this interview is with her alter ego [read: pen name] Val Saintcrowe! She thinks all stories are better with sexual tension and, like, y’all, I am in total agreement with this! She writes new adult epic fantasy with a heavy romantic component and enjoys high stakes, creating intricate new worlds, court intrigue, full of angst, and exploring what happens when evil men fall in love. Hehehe my kind of author 😀

Alright, so let’s start this interrogation!

How would you survive if you woke up in your fantasy world / what role would you take?

I would not survive at all! I put my characters through such hell. If it were me, I would curl up in a ball and sob and probably get killed right away. In this book particularly, I’m sure I would have either have been killed during the initial fae invasion of the villa or else starved to death in the jungle/been eaten by jungle animals. If I’m enough myself in this thought experiment that I have a child, it might increase my survival expectancy a bit, because I would try to stay alive to protect him, but otherwise, I am totally toast, and I know it.

Hehe, maybe one of the characters will sweep in and–wait, if you put them through hell, they might be disenchanted with you 😀 So onward! Which male lead would you choose as a partner for yourself from Battles of Salt and Sighs – and why?

Oh, God, none of them, for real. Maybe Albus, who you only meet at the end, but he’s also probably got oodles of PTSD from leading imperial legions to battle since he was 16, so I don’t think so. They are all supremely effed up, violent men who I would just run from in real life. Even assuming that I could trigger their sweet sides and they were not horrible to me, I am way too busy writing books to deal with their emotional needs, and they have a ton, because, see above, I put all my characters through hell.

Yeaaaahhh, I read a little bit of it 😀 So was there anything you edited OUT of this book?

In the initial draft, Larent at one point threatened to go back on his word to Onivia, and that HAD to be changed, because it was a complete character-breaking moment for him. He would NEVER break his word. I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote that originally.

Crazy stuff, probably, as authors do 😀 So what was the funnest scene to write, and why?

The sex scenes are always fun! 😉

Lol, well *clears throat* onward! What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

Well, I don’t think I write particularly realistic men. They are just fantasy men. I tend to make them just living embodiments of whatever my subconscious wishes men were, so I guess that’s just me skipping out on this question, but… mostly, I don’t care. I figure the number of male readers I have is probably zero, so there’s no one to call me out, snort. And if you want a realistic man, you can go look across the living room at your husband scratching his belly, so there’s always that.

Hey, I only have a female cat! Lol and she’s totally sexy 😀 Alright, so what dark themes / tropes interest you most and why?

So, I think that I’m drawn to “evil” characters a lot of times because of the id factor. They are often portrayed as having a lot of fun, doing whatever they want, and they have no guilt. I think this is really appealing to me, and I think it’s only natural that this would feed into sexual fantasy as well, so I think writing romance about evil men is always fun for that reason. Personally, I like to find the juxtapositions of strength and weakness, like I’m very drawn to Virgin!Kylo fanfic and you can see that in Duranth a lot. (I actually like this trope a lot. I think I have two other virgin villain heroes, Chevolere Vox in The Beast in the Barrens and Cyid Dhathron in The Red Echoes Duet) So, it’s very interesting to me when a person is really skilled and lethal but then stupid/inexperienced with women/relationships. Or when a person is cruel/mean/a vicious killer, but really sweet to his girlfriend. In the case of Larent, it’s kind of the other way around, where he thinks he’s a good man, but he’s forced to confront his dark and errant desires and to embody the things he abhors. I guess I like playing with internal tension, and I don’t like to write about things that are just one way. I like duality and moral grayness.

Oh, wow, I love making my male leads virgins, too! But it’s not because I like having the juxtaposition, but I have something against the idea that every man HAS to stick his schtick into every orifice he can. Like for realz? I deem it Toxic Masculinity. Lol.

Anyway, guys and gals and non-binaries! That is all today on my blog. Thanks for joining. Put any comments below and keep any insults to yourself 😛 If you want more books by my lovely guest, Val Saintcrowe is a variant on her urban fantasy alter ego, Val St. Crowe, and she also writes mysteries and thrillers under V. J. Chambers, romance under Jove Chambers, and Jane Austen fan fiction under Valerie Lennox. Go thou and seek romance! You can find a link to Battles of Salt and Sighs on Amazon below!

Stay good, y’all!

Owner of two cats and huge dreams and author of any kind of love story so long as wild stuff is going on...

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Sonya Lano

Sonya Lano

Owner of two cats and huge dreams and author of any kind of love story so long as wild stuff is going on...

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