Bonds of Brass by Emily Skrutskie is a forthcoming space opera published by Del Rey with a gorgeous cover by Merilliza Chan. The Umber Empire brutally conquered the Archon Empire in a War of Expansion and now, former Archon subjects like Ettian Nassum serve as pilots in the army of their conquerors. Everything changes though when Ettian’s best friend Gal is revealed to be the heir to the Umber throne. When Archon loyalists and would-be Umber usurpers make simultaneous attempts on Gal’s life, Ettian makes no hesitation in saving him and fleeing to a neutral neighboring Empire. Afterall, Ettian is in love with Gal and would do absolutely anything to keep him safe.
The universe that Bonds of Brass inhabits is very well realized. I quickly came to understand the history of the world and the stakes the plot’s resolution had for everybody in it. I could completely empathize with every character and their position in galactic affairs both because and in spite of the often repetitive reiteration of the war’s history and people’s places in it.
On the surface alone, Bonds of Brass is a great best friends to lovers tale with two hot messes for main characters. The constant wishing for them get over their inhibitions and kiss already is a sure sign of a strongly written relationship. Their tenuous love is written with beautiful delicacy. Most importantly, their hesitations are not based on any of the tropes that often plague gay relationships; they’re not afraid of how things would look to others or anything like that. Ettian tries to rationalize it in all sorts of ways, but ultimately, he is just understandably afraid of fully expressing his feelings and leaning into loving somebody.
Palpable tension inevitably arises over Ettian’s conflicted loyalties. He spends most of his energy trying to suppress both his long-forgotten attachment to Archon and his love for the heir of the empress who ravaged his home in the first place. Meanwhile, Gal seems to be stuck on a one-track mindset geared towards finding their way back home at any cost. Frustratingly, they never really stop to discuss any of this, but in the midst of a deadly crisis and romantic tension, I completely believe this critical gap in their communication.
The most masterful aspect of Bonds of Brass is its use of first-person narration. We spend the whole book in the head of Ettrian. This means that all of the narration, all of the attempted explanation of how others are feeling, and all of the self-reflection is coming from a single, unreliable source. All throughout the book, it is evident that Ettian is clueless about how Gal is feeling about most things. Ettian never tries to ask, in the kind of way that teenage boys are simply inept at sharing their feelings that, while frustrating, makes their relationship feel that much more real.
Being stuck in Ettian’s head came with some downsides for me though. Because of the boys’ inadequate communication, their relationship, or lack thereof, is not always particularly healthy. Gal, for example, shows a lot of jealousy towards Ettian when he makes a new friend, Wen. Jealousy is a natural feeling, but it led in Bonds of Brass to a lot of lashing out at both Ettian and Wen that left me with flashbacks to unhealthy relationships of my own. Only seeing the communication breakdown from Ettian’s gave me a bad taste about Gal that was maybe underserved and wouldn’t have existed if I understood Gal’s perspective on things.
Throughout the book, we’re just never able to understand what Gal’s motivations and goals actually are. Ettian makes educated guesses based on how deeply he thinks he understands Gal, but at the end of the day, they are only guesses. Ettian never stops to ask Gal any of the questions he makes assumptions about. This is especially frustrating around the question of what kind of ruler Gal would be if he can return home and eventually ascend to the Umber crown?
For most of the book, I was waiting for one of a few scenarios I predicted to come true. All of those predictions were predicated on assumptions I made about Gal’s personality based on Ettian’s idolization of him. When the book was nearly over and I still had absolutely no clue whether my questions would even be answered, I initially grew frustrated with the pacing of the book.
However, once the book hit its true boiling point, I forgot all about my hangups with its pacing. It turned out, I was completely wrong in virtually every way about Gal, about Ettian, and about the way the plot of this first book in a planned trilogy would end. Frankly, I have no idea how to feel about either of them anymore or about the direction their journey will go. Yet, I’m completely impressed by Skrutskie’s utter decimation of my expectations.
The ending may have left me emotionally compromised, but the realization that the unreliable narrator had intentionally led my expectations astray was so impressive that I can’t be even a little bit upset about it. Gal and Ettian are two teenagers going through the pains of being teenagers in love. They are depicted in a completely realistic way, even if their poor communication is often unhealthy and delaying their deserved happiness. While I wish I had more resolution to some of the character developments and could understand a little better some other characters’ motivations, I thoroughly enjoyed having my socks shocked off and coming to appreciate the narrative choice of locking the reader into Ettian’s understanding of the people and events around him.
Bonds of Brass will release on April 7th wherever books are sold.
Bonds of Brass
While I wish I had more resolution to some of the character developments and could understand a little better some other characters’ motivations, I thoroughly enjoyed having my socks shocked off and coming to appreciate the narrative choice of locking the reader into Ettian’s understanding of the people and events around him.