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A Strange and Stubborn Endurance coverA Strange and Stubborn Endurance by Foz Meadows, one of my most highly anticipated books of the year, is delightful and lush and absolutely worth the wait. Apart from containing some of my favourite tropes and pairings, it is a hopeful and healing story of recovery and belonging. A standalone fantasy romance with Byzantine politics, a little bit of magic, amazing characters, and great diversity, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance delivers all of the romantic and found-family feels a reader could want—as well as fleshed-out characters, setting, and oftentimes humorous lines.

I had such a fun time reading this novel, and for a book that has a deadly and ongoing plot hanging over it, I found A Strange and Stubborn Endurance quite cozy and very hopeful. The worldbuilding was fascinating but understated, the two main characters were lovely—soft boys trying to do their best—and the romance was delightful, featuring one of my favourite types of pairing. Having the two main characters, Velasin vin Aaro and Caethari Aeduria, be opposites allowed their individual talents to shine—Velasin’s knowledge of court politics and the intricacies of human behavior, and Caethari the stalwart and honorable warrior. It was a delight to see them interact, help each other, and slowly fall in love. I was also ecstatic when Caethari went from apprehensive about his new betrothed to protective toward Velasin within the span of a chapter.

I also felt that the author handled important topics in a sensitive way. While this book tackles heavy topics—rape, recovery from rape, suicide ideation and suicide attempts, murder, the death of Velasin’s horse—all of them are written with care. This is in part a story about a character finding a more supportive environment, learning how to be open about his identity, learning how to find himself worthy, and overcoming recent trauma—with all that this entails. All of what Velasin goes through, especially toward the beginning of the book, is visceral and unflinching, yet never feels gratuitous or invalidating for either the reader or the character. I was also aware and appreciative of how Velasin’s trauma at the beginning of the book continued to be referenced and play an important role in his reactions to situations, rather than be hand-waved away. Caethari also has his own struggles, which likewise felt quite relatable at times.

Moreover, the author’s stylistic choices, both in terms of worldbuilding and narration, allowed the book’s voice to feel unique while also helping to deepen the main characters. I want to first point out the novel’s excellent use of dual-POV narration. While it took me a bit of time to realize this, Foz Meadows cleverly gives both of her main characters an equal share of the book while simultaneously using a different narration style for each.

A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is split into nine parts, with Velasin and Caethari alternating their POVs. Velasin, who provides the first point of view, is written in first-person past tense, and Caethari is written in third-person past tense. This works perfectly. Voice and character are expertly captured, and feel truly lived in. With Velasin, the intimate and up-front nature of first-person narration works well to render his struggles visceral and real; with Caethari, his third-person narration was solid and comforting, much like the character himself.

The worldbuilding is similarly understated but potent. While the world Foz Meadows has created—and the two cultures specifically that are in conversation with each other throughout the book—are incredibly complex and unique, it is never revelled in as worldbuilding can be in novels such as Saint Death’s Daughter by C. S. E. Cooney. Here, elements of worldbuilding or culture are instead only highlighted when important for the plot or character development, and aspects like specific fantasy names for the days are only referenced in passing. Moreover, since part of the plot is cultural exchange—that is, a person marrying into a vastly different culture than his—a situation is created in which important worldbuilding details can be narrated constantly without it feeling out of place. The magic system is fascinating: Velasin’s “un-gentlemanly” love of magic and studies, for example, comes in very handy several times. Having Velasin explain the nuances of his own culture, as well as that of his betrothed, allows the reader never to feel lost, while also advancing his own character. In fact, the author cleverly weaves together Velasin’s knowledge of the Tithenai language and culture with his identity as a gay man in a repressive country, as well as his status as a nobleman, to offer simultaneously detailed worldbuilding and extremely elegant characterisation.

In this way, Meadows ensures that the novel’s focus remains more on character growth, romance, and plotline, providing for a swift-moving narrative that is never bogged down with the weight of context. Character development and worldbuilding elements are consistently melded in this effective and organic way. Discussion about religion, for example, serves as a way to both reveal the faith aspects of the world while also allowing our two main characters to bond and to express their viewpoints. Similarly, I loved the way Meadows wrote about Tithenai food, having Velasin discover a love for it. These descriptions were rich and detailed (they were sufficient to make my mouth water several times), while also grounding the setting and making it feel realistic.

Most importantly, through the conceit of a character marrying into a different, less repressive culture, Meadows is able to create an inclusive society in Tithena, and also deconstruct strict, patriarchal gender roles and norms. Intolerance is treated scathingly, and Velasin’s insecurities and lack of self-worth are overwhelmingly shown to be a direct result of living in an oppressive society. Seeing him flourish in Tithena, especially toward the latter half of the book, and find such a welcoming and warm and kind home, was exactly the catharsis that I needed.

Fittingly, then, there is a wide and welcome level of diversity and representation in A Strange and Stubborn Endurance. There are multiple non-binary characters (identifying as Tithena’s third gender, kemi), who each play a key role, trans characters and a trans-inclusive society more generally, and a well-written disabled character. Markel, Velasin’s ostensible valet but friend in truth, is mute, and is one of the best drawn characters in the novel. Sign language plays an important role throughout, both in showcasing how difficult and ableist both Ralian and Tithenai society can be, but also in terms of plot. Meadows uses the fact that both Markel and Velasin know sign language (and that others tend to underestimate Markel) to allow them to communicate in fraught situations and spy on others to gather information, and signal to the reader important character-related information. Caethari, who is willing to learn sign language to properly communicate with Markel, is shown as trustworthy, and gains Markel’s trust and respect through this.

Of course, Markel himself is a fully fleshed-out character as well as a channel for the novel’s themes. While being a supportive friend to Velasin, he is also allowed his own interests, love life, and agency. He is competent, plays an important role in the plot’s denouement, and while there is ableism present in the book’s events, it is always denounced and used as a way to signal to the reader who is trustworthy or not. Furthermore, sign language is never italicized in the book, and is instead presented as regular dialogue—as it should be. I really appreciated this aspect of the book, and personally felt that it was very well done.

A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is simply chock-full of emotions. Velasin as a character is so kind and caring and willing to grow as a person. The book’s title is cleverly based on a key aspect of Velasin's character—that of his stubborn and kind nature—and it became a telling motif of his character development. As for Caethari, his honor and patience with Velasin was extremely touching. Their struggles, insecurities, and trust in each other was a joy to read. As well, the angst inherent in their situation (“I want this person romantically but I do not want to ruin our friendship and trust”) was exquisitely written.

Among all of this, there is also the overarching plot—a conspiracy to derail the marriage alliance between Velasin and Caethari—that is intriguing, and boasts a great twist: once it is revealed, all of the foreshadowing and clues render the reveal of who was behind the conspiracy extremely chilling. However, it was also the one aspect of the book that I heavily disliked. I felt that the introduction of the conspiracy was lackluster, and the continual deaths and mystery became very stressful and annoying. Something was always happening, and it was also hard to put the pieces together for oneself before the big reveal. Rather than being on tenterhooks and excited whenever Caethari or Velasin discovered a clue, or following the investigation closely, I was simply looking forward to the conspiracy’s resolution, to its going away: I simply wanted our two main leads to be able to spend time together without interruptions.

The plot’s themes, which highlight the dangers of treating people like pawns and dismissing their interests, as well as the importance of trust and of verbalizing one’s love for others, are nevertheless worthy and speak to the romance elements of the novel. Similarly, the entire conspiracy kept getting derailed because of the trust and kindness that Velasin and Caethari kept showing to each other. Despite my frustration at every death and new obstacle for our main characters, Meadows never treated any character death lightly. A funeral scene especially made me tear up, and the grief and injustice and determination of the characters came through clearly. In other words, the conspiracy plot isn’t quite a distraction—but it was perhaps at times a frustration.

Nevertheless, I truly loved A Strange and Stubborn Endurance. It was warm and kind with a fully realized and unique setting, great yet flawed characters, found family, and a beautiful romance. Foz Meadows handles so many topics with sensitivity and care, and provides a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the novel. Every part of the book—the tropes, the pairings, the thematic resonances—felt like they were written just for me, in the best way. Having introduced it, more resolution of the conspiracy plot would have been welcome; the full brunt of the fallout from this sometimes-intrusive plot-line was nevertheless left (intentionally) open-ended, which I understand from a stylistic point of view but which felt somewhat unsatisfying regardless. Nevertheless, I absolutely loved the conclusion of Caethari and Velasin’s emotional journeys. For anyone looking for a beautifully written standalone fantasy romance, look no further.

Safia (she/her) is an editor, book reviewer, and aspiring writer of speculative fiction. She loves chonky books, redemption stories, tea, and ballet. She lives in Canada, and her work has appeared in The Mitre, Canada’s oldest student-run literary journal. You can find her blog here, and other important links here.

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