by Livia Blackburne
When last we saw the healer Zivah and the warrior Dineas, they were on a mission against the Empire. All of their collective efforts were wrapped up in finding out the purpose and strategy of the impending war, and what they could do to stop it.
But the mission did not come without grave fall-out.
Zivah’s potion was designed to keep Dineas safely undercover as a double agent but it worked almost too well, causing an unlikely romance to bloom between the two. No matter how hard she fought it, Zivah could not make herself immune to Dineas and his innocent charms. As a result, he burrowed his way into her heart and despite her best efforts, she can’t seem to remove him. In his potion-induced stupor, Dineas became the last thing he’d ever wanted to be – an ally to the Amparan army and a friend to the soldiers entrenched in it. He forged friendships that ran deep, and he inspired a loyalty and respect in General Arxa that was all masked in lies and deceit. As the influence of the potion wears off and Dineas has to face the things he has done for the cause, he has to wonder … was it worth it?
The two came out virtually unscathed – on the surface. They had to flee the city walls when their plan fell to pieces and disaster struck a violent chord around them, but they made it out successfully. It wasn’t easy to turn their backs on the people they had begun to call on as friends … and even harder to realize that betrayal had been living on their doorsteps all along. And through all of this, the two begrudgingly realize that they both obviously caught feelings that they did not intend to catch. But Zivah and Dineas have more important things to think about now: first on the list, how do they make their way back home and warn their tribes of what is looming in the distance? And will there be enough time to prepare for war?
Dineas is infuriated and disgusted with himself. Zivah is embarrassed and prideful. The journey is difficult and full of danger. But it’s one that they cannot ignore and so they press on, one step at a time.
The problems only compound for the duo once they reach their intended destination. The Shidadi tribe is torn in two, each ripped side frayed and damaged by arguing over whether or not Dineas can be trusted and whether his intel holds water. They watched as he slaughtered his fellow tribesmen with genuine hatred in his eyes … and it’s difficult for them to believe that all of that was done under the influence of the healer’s potion. Dineas is desperate to make them understand that the inevitable is coming – a war full of death and destruction for their lands and tribe – but no one seems to be able to find it in them to completely listen or take him seriously. Zivah is still rosemarked and her symptoms are getting worse by the day. On top of her physical ailments she is battling internally with the way she bastardized her healer’s vows. And when Dineas comes up with a plan that further puts her morals into jeopardy, she’s not sure she can stomach the outcome. Trouble is, Zivah has no choice, and Dineas knows it.
In Umbertouched, the second installment and conclusion of Livia Blackburne’s Rosemarked series, the battle of morality is brought to the brink for nearly every person involved. Woven in such a way that each character is threaded into the other with strands of both contempt and love, Blackburne’s writing style shines and continues to be masterful. Mid-graders and YA readers love a driven storyline with relatable characters, and Blackburne delivers on both counts, picking the story up immediately from its predecessor and moving ahead with appropriate speed and strength.
While most fantasy books are plot-driven, Umbertouched is a bit more complex. I again have to speak on the characters, so bear with me while I gush just a little. The development in personality was slow and steady, and all of it believable. Zivah is put into countless situations where she is incredibly uncomfortable, and the choices that she makes along the way linger long after they are made. I was impressed with her singular view on morality and the profoundness of weight with which she felt her healer’s vows carried. Taking in to account that she is a teenager, Zivah’s maturity was unexpected and a credit to her character in general. Most YA (and most fantasy) writers will showcase their female characters as either lovestruck or cold and cruel, but Blackburne drew a different type of woman for her readers and instead gave them a heroine who didn’t need a man to save her. Zivah never allowed her romantic feelings for Dineas to overshadow what she felt to be her ultimate purpose – to save lives. In this respect, she remained true to herself first, and this is something that I find to be an empowering model for the young female reader.
And speaking of Dineas – this man had layers. There was a serious PTSD vibe, and again – remember this guy is a young man, virtually a teenager himself. The realistic way in which he dealt with his issues was compelling and full of an emotion that is not typical of young men. Instead of being shown as the typical male hero who has good looks and acerbic wit, Dineas was riddled with emotion and a sense of decency. Dineas struggled with the things that he did and said (and the friendships he forged) while under the influence of the potion that allowed him to forget his previous life and become completely immersed in his duty as a spy for the Shidadi and outlying tribes. While the potion was a crucial and critical part of his undercover work, the readers never forgot that in Dineas’ eyes, it was a detriment to his very soul and carried with it devastating consequences. I was heartbroken for him when he had to answer to his tribe for the transgressions he’d unknowingly made against them, and was impressed again by the layered writing of Blackburne. Umbertouched was not only world-building, as is typical in fantasy novels – it was a study of true character building.
A healthy supportive cast of characters was also in attendance, with a particular spotlight on Mehtap, a character who was previously portrayed in Rosemarked as a helpless and flighty young girl who was only interested in dresses and using makeup to cover her rosemarks. In Umbertouched we see the real Mehtap, and I have to say … she made an interesting transition from weepy child to ruthless vixen. She was portrayed as a bit of a villain, but not in so harsh a way in that you didn’t also want to root for her on a number of levels. Her end-game was admirable but the way she went about things … well, I won’t spoil it too much for you. Also making an appearance are a few notable and new Shidadi tribal members and a several memorable soldiers of Ampara.
All in all, I give Umbertouched a solid 4 out of 5 stars. I readily recommend this duology to a younger and cleaner crowd of mid-grade and YA readers. Older and more seasoned readers may be let down by the lack of hot romance. Don’t get me wrong, there is a slow burn going on here … but no one is getting thrown up against a wall or anything. These novels are clean and appropriate for readers aged 10+.