It’s always delightful to find a paranormal romance that embraces the tropes of historicals rather than the gritty noir of urban fantasy. M.A. Grant’s The Marked Prince tells an affecting, old-fashioned tale of love and redemption, taking place in the modern day but set in the immortal world of Faerie.
Grant cleverly reimagines Scottish folklore’s distinction between Seelie (light, friendly) and Unseelie (dark, violent) faeries as two separate courts. The Seelie court is ruled by Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania and is a more traditionally stratified but supposedly less violent realm. The Unseelie faeries are ruled by the more openly authoritarian Queen Mab, whose realm is more egalitarian despite its Machiavellian leader.
Sebastian is half-Seelie and half-Unseelie, unwelcome and distrusted by the people of both courts. But as Oberon’s nephew, Sebastian can infiltrate his court on behalf of the Unseelie royal family and kidnap Sláine, the eldest son, and take him back to his homeland.
Sláine supposedly defected to the Seelie court before the events of The Marked Prince, but Grant’s prologue reveals what truly happened. While taking part in negotiations between the two courts, Sláine was captured by the Seelie Princess, Aoife, and placed under a curse. He can’t tell anyone who he is or what happened to him, and one of Aoife’s henchmen has been magically transformed to look like him. Trapped under the spell and a magical mask that hides his face, Sláine is seemingly doomed to live out the rest of his days as Aoife’s slave, Duine.
Kind-hearted Sebastian is not a natural spy, having been emotionally blackmailed into undertaking his quest. But his impulsive mercy when he witnesses Aoife punishing Duine results in Oberon gifting the masked slave to him. It’s a tenuous chance at freedom for Sláine, but Sebastian has now unwittingly made both himself and Sláine targets of the vicious Aoife.
With all that external conflict already present, Grant wisely allows Sláine and Sebastian’s relationship to develop at a realistically slow pace. They evolve from master and servant, to uneasy allies, to friends, and finally to lovers, all while navigating the treacherous Seelie court. Sláine was taught to be ruthless and manipulative as the heir to his mother’s throne, and while he offers those skills in service of Sebastian, he also begins to see their limitations. Sebastian is able to gain influence simply by advocating for the lower classes and promoting peace, defying the lessons Mab drilled into Sláine from a young age. As the pair grow closer, Sláine is forced to come to terms with the fact that his previous cruelty was not the necessity he believed it was. And by following Sláine’s canny advice, Sebastian is able to see the benefit of his high status and the ways he can use it for good.
One would expect The Marked Prince to end with a showdown in a ballroom or council chamber, given all the political intrigue that takes up the majority of the story. But Grant goes to wilder, more primal places by the story’s end, tapping into the fairy tale roots of her world to give her deserving pair a suitably mythic happy ending.