Book Review

The Stormbringer by Isabel Cooper

Once I got past the quite misleading blurb, I found The Stormbringer to be a lot of heartwarming fantasy fun with a hefty pour of romance. The story also contains some pretty bold character choices that I (mostly) appreciated. While I enjoyed it thoroughly, I think primarily due to the boldness of said choices, this is a book that will either really work for people or really not work for them. Let’s get into it!

The Stormbringer is, genre-wise, pretty straightforwardly a fantasy romance (although the balance between fantasy and romance may be tipped slightly too far towards fantasy for some readers to consider it a true fantasy romance). This was a little surprising to me as the blurb describes this as a paranormal romance, and it is definitely not. It takes place in a secondary fantasy world, not our own, and it deals almost exclusively in fantasy and fantasy romance tropes.

The plot is set up as follows: Darya is a Sentinel, a supernatural warrior who has been enhanced by the power of the gods. As a Sentinel, she hunts down evil monsters in a world that was ravaged by a war with a necromancer followed by a bunch of magical apocalyptic-level storms about a century ago. So the fantasy world here is a post-apocalyptic one that is only starting to rebuild after decades of people just trying to survive.

On one of her monster hunts, Darya finds a warrior frozen by magic in an abandoned city that was destroyed in the aforementioned apocalypse. With the help of her magical sword, which has the spirit of a wizard named Gerant in it, she wakes up this warrior, who is named Amris. It’s all a little convoluted to explain but basically the fact that Amris is awake means the evil necromancer from a century ago, Thyran, is ALSO now awake. (This is another area where the blurb is misleading; Amris is not an “ancient warrior” and he has not been asleep for “centuries” as the blurb describes. He’s been asleep for one single century plus a few years.) This means Amris, Darya, and Gerant-in-the-sword have to go warn the rest of humanity that Thyran is back and probably going to try to finish what he started in terms of deadly world domination. The first half of the story is a Very Important Road Trip and the second half is essentially one extended battle between the people at the nearest human settlement and Thyran’s forces.

First I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed both Darya and Amris as main characters. Darya is basically a typical action hero, except she’s a woman. She’s a foundling raised by the Order, the group in charge of the Sentinels. She’s hyper-competent in combat, loyal, rash, brave, full of quips, and into drinking and sex as extracurricular activities. I loved this inversion of typical gendered tropes. Another fun trope inversion is that Darya remains significantly more mysterious than Amris through the course of the book. So often in M/F romance its the opposite–every facet of the heroine’s psyche is fleshed out, while the hero remains shrouded in his own mystique. In Stormbringer, Darya gets to be the badass without too much exploration of her past or inner life, while Amris is the one who has to struggle through a fully rendered emotional crisis through the course of the story.

I did also love Amris, who is a warrior and leader with a sensitive soul. His character arc is centered on him coming to terms with the fact that over 100 years passed in a blink of an eye for him and the new present is significantly different from the old one (mostly worse)! The interplay between the urgency of his and Darya’s task to warn and help defend humanity and his intense grief over the world he’s suddenly left behind was handled deftly and makes his character feel very alive. Also, huge shout-out to the fact that he is an openly bisexual man and a romantic hero, which is incredibly rare in M/F romance. In short, Amris is my new king and I want to pat his armored shoulder and say “there, there” while he tells me about his farmboy upbringing.

Within what is generally a straightforward, not-at-all-twisty fantasy plot, The Stormbringer sets up a number of intriguing interpersonal and character dynamics. These dynamics mostly worked for me but I think could potentially turn off some readers. Chief among these is the three-way dynamic between Darya, Amris, and Gerant (the wizard-spirit in Darya’s sword). Darya and Gerant are essentially work partners and close friends; though he is noncorporeal, Gerant and Darya communicate telepathically and Gerant protects Darya with his magic. Amris and Darya share an attraction that is undoubtedly heightened by the high stakes nature of the situation.

And Amris and Gerant? Well, before Gerant used magic to put himself in the sword, he lived a whole-ass life. A century ago, back when he was a hot young corporeal being, Gerant and Amris were lovers. And not just lovers, like, life partners. In fact, it was Gerant’s spell that put Thyran and Amris to sleep. Gerant thought Amris was dead after the big battle, which is why he never went looking for his sleeping boyfriend and just kept living his life. And now a century later he’s found him by accident!

I thought the story did, overall, a pretty good job threading the needle here in making the romance between Amris and Darya not feel super weird considering Amris’ ex is hanging out in Darya’s sword for the entirety of the plot. This is primarily accomplished by the story really emphasizing that Gerant already lived an entire life (complete with a husband after Amris) and, lacking a body, is fairly distant from the full force of human emotion and sensation. Basically, Gerant believably does not care that Darya and Amris want to go to the bone zone. In fact, he is supportive.

I’m not sure that I fully bought that Amris would be able to move on so quickly, though. (I like…80% bought it). For Amris, it’s as though literally no time has passed. Last week, he had a life partner and he lived in a fairly sophisticated fantasy society under threat from an evil necromancer. This week, his life partner already lived a hundred years and married someone else and is now semi-dead/semi-alive inside a sword, the world he knew has been basically destroyed, and society (such as it is) is once again under threat from the same evil necromancer. Admittedly, as I alluded to above, all of the high stakes, adrenaline, and stress probably mitigate in favor of wanting to sex up a friendly, attractive stranger. Also, Gerant connects Darya and Amris with a spell so he can communicate telepathically with and protect both of them, which seems to deepen the connection between Darya and Amris. However, I still found the speed with which Amris’ interest in Darya grew to be a teeny, tiny bit weird.

At the same time, I definitely respected the sheer audacity of The Stormbringer in setting up such a bananapants situation between Darya, Amris, and Gerant. Just for engaging in this two-people-in-a-quasi-throuple-with-a-magic-sword concept I am willing to forgive a significant amount of awkwardness in the execution. And the execution was only slightly awkward here. Overall, color me impressed. With that said, I know “past lover remains significant presence in the current romance” is something a lot of people hate so if that’s you, this is probably not the book for you.

The Stormbringer has kind of a unique approach to romance in general. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the story treats friendship as the most important kind of relationship. Within this paradigm, romantic relationships are just friendships with a little something extra, (hint: the something extra is SEX) and it does not diminish the relationship for it to turn back into just a friendship. So Amris is able to appreciate that he can have a continued friendship sans romance with the noncorporeal Gerant. Furthermore, entering into a romance with Darya does not fundamentally change the nature of Amris and Darya’s relationship, which is a warm, respectful friendship at its core. And Darya does not view her relationship with Amris as taking priority over her friendship with Gerant even once they become romantically involved.

I think for some readers this approach to romance may not work; it does not exactly endorse the idea of sweeping, once-in-a-lifetime passion. But I found it quite refreshing, actually, as I find often romances give friendship kind of short shrift. This approach to romance allows Darya, Amris, and Gerant to form this sort of found family/three-way unbreakable friendship without the various past and present romantic entanglements making this feel unworkable. (I want to note that this could also work with a more explicitly polyamorous bent, but the general paradigm for sexual relationships for both the main characters seems to be monogamy or at least monogam-ish).

I feel like I’ve spent a considerable amount of this review just trying to explain a lot of what is going on with the major premises of The Stormbringer and so far I haven’t spent enough time talking about what I found enjoyable. In addition to having engaging main characters and interesting relationship/romance dynamics, this book is simply a lot of fun. There is basically nonstop fantasy action from beginning to end and it is all exciting and well-paced. At no point did the plot drag or sag. There are also a lot of creepy/weird monsters for Darya, Amris, and company to fight. The story gave me kind of campy, pulpy fantasy vibes in the best way, complete with a final conflict that is resolved using the Magic of Friendship. While the evil depicted in this book is often gross in an eldritch body horror way, this is fundamentally a story imbued with a lot of brightness and hope. It feels like classic adventure fantasy without any of the super problematic elements of fantasy from the 80s. The Stormbringer is just a good time! One might even call it a ROLLICKING good time.

While Gerant-the-sword-spirit did not make a huge impression on me character-wise, a lot of cool secondary characters are introduced in the latter half of the book, including several other Sentinels and a handsome cleric. One of these Sentinels will be the heroine of the next series entry, which makes me very excited.

Overall, The Stormbringer brings a lot of fun magical action to life with compelling characters and a well-rendered world reminiscent of fantasy classics. I would not necessarily pick up this book looking for a romance for the ages, but as a fantasy book with a pleasant if unusual romantic subplot I think it is very successful and has a lot to recommend it. If you like action-y fantasy that is not too dark and you are interested in the inversion of some gendered classic genre tropes, The Stormbringer is a great way to spend a cozy afternoon.

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The Stormbringer by Isabel Cooper

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  1. 1
    LisaA says:
    +16

    This sounds really intriguing, and I like your point about centering friendship. Luckily my library has this, though there’s a hold queue (there must be other SBTB readers in Houston because every time I read a review and click over to the library site, there’s a line already).

  2. 2
    Star says:
    +12

    Thank you so much for this review, Ellen! I had completely passed over this because of the blurb, and without your review, I don’t think I’d ever have discovered that the actual story sounds like something I might like.

  3. 3
    FashionablyEvil says:
    +13

    LisaA—I have noticed the same thing at my library! Although I remain grateful that romance readers are such voracious readers—I rarely have to wait anything like the initial hold estimates because I think people tear through them so quickly! (Either that or my library sees the increased demand and gets more copies.)

  4. 4
    Ren Benton says:
    +17

    I am extremely here for friends to lovers-who-are-still-friends-just-naked-now. Does away with the entire “I don’t even like you but you’re hot so we should be together forever” plot that I unlove so much. *wish lists*

  5. 5
    MaryK says:
    +8

    @LisaA – Same library issue here! Sometimes it’s not a review just comment discussion.

    This book was already on my radar, but after this review, I need it now! I’ve been really interested in fantasy with strong friendships lately.

  6. 6
    Lisa F says:
    +4

    On my TBR pile for sure!

  7. 7
    KatiM says:
    +7

    Well I’m sold. This book sounds like a lot of fun. And since my husband neglected to buy me any books for Christmas, I guess I’ll have to remedy that oversight.

  8. 8
    Jazzlet says:
    +11

    Who’d have thought friendship was a good basis for a romantic relationship? /sarc, while glancing at friend-who-turned-into-lover some thirty-four years ago.

  9. 9
    chacha1 says:
    +4

    ‘a rollicking good time’ sounds like exactly the book to start a new year with. 🙂

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