Show & Tell Without the Showing: A Review of “Prince of Air and Darkness” by M.A. Grant

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Prince of Air and Darkness by M.A. Grant
Official Summary

The only human student at Mather’s School of Magick, Phineas Smith has a target on his back. Born with the rare ability to tap into unlimited magick, he finds both Faerie Courts want his allegiance—and will do anything to get it.

They don’t realize he can’t levitate a feather, much less defend the Faerie Realm as it slips into civil war.

Unseelie Prince Roark Lyne, Phineas’s roommate—and self-proclaimed arch nemesis—is beautiful and brave and a pain in the ass. Phineas can’t begin to sort through their six years of sexual tension masquerading as mutual dislike. But Roark is also the only one able to help Finn tame his magick.

Trusting Roark’s mysterious motives may be foolish; not accepting his temporary protection would be deadly.

Caught in the middle of the impending war, Phineas and Roark forge a dangerous alliance. And as the walls between them crumble, Phineas realizes that Roark isn’t the monster he’d imagined. But their growing intimacy threatens to expose a secret that could either turn the tide of the war…or destroy them both.


My Thoughts

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

If I hadn’t felt honor-bound to finish this book, I would’ve DNF-ed it. According to Goodreads, it’s only 310 pages long. It should’ve only taken me 1-3 days to finish. It took me over a week because I hated it so much.

Since I had so many problems with this novel, I kept a list. I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget a single talking point. Because, trust me, there’s a lot. Like, an absurd amount.

Let’s begin with the issue that inspired this review’s title: Prince of Air and Darkness is all tell and no show. Instead of building up the inner conflicts and characterizations naturally, we’re constantly told who we’re to believe they are and what problems they have.

Phineas is a good person who can’t control his magic. He’s worried about his parents losing the farm on which he grew up. He’s about to graduate with his Master’s (even though he’s never mastered his magic abilities, pun intended). He has confusing and conflicting feelings for Roark.

Roark is a faerie prince secretly in love with his roommate. He doesn’t want to become the Winter Knight, but he will so Phineas doesn’t have to. He needs to push Phineas away to protect him, but keeps ignoring those instincts. He does what he has to in order to protect his people.

And Phineas and Roark will tell the reader these things over and over. As if we can’t intuit any of it on our own or we’ve forgotten since they reminded us one page ago. Everything about who these people are is shoved down the reader’s throat. There is no wiggle room to interpret anything.

This makes the characters really annoying. But they also have other irritating quirks, like Phineas apropos of nothing will remind the reader that he’s a jock who likes sports or Roark will point out when he’s acting “royal.”

Their romance is given basically no opportunity to develop on its own. Instead, they are forced together with little to no chemistry because that’s the story Grant wanted to tell. Why try to figure out a way to make their romance work organically when you can just have them tell you about it? It makes the whole thing feel unnatural and weird, like a high school play. Except with explicit sex scenes. So maybe community theater?

During the rare scenes when Grant takes the time to describe Phineas and Roark’s feelings and connections rather than just telling the reader about it, it really works. So why couldn’t she stick with that kind of writing throughout the whole novel?

Or course, the way she sets up the relationship is glaringly problematic. No, not in the “woke” sense. I’m speaking from a storytelling perspective. Roark has spent roughly six years effectively convincing Phineas to hate him, thereby keeping him safe (it’s a long story). But then, out of nowhere, he starts dropping his too-good-for-you act and spending time with Phineas.

They train together. They hook up multiple times. He tells Phineas he loves him more than once. He makes this huge grand gesture for Phineas. And then he turns around and acts surprised and devastated when Phineas falls in love with him?

Roark, you knew damn well what you were doing. You would tell yourself to distance yourself from Phineas and then immediately start bonding and hooking up with him. You did this. You didn’t even try to stop this from happening. Well, you did for five years and then gave up. But, uh, yeah. You did everything to woo the man short of take him on an actual date and you have the audacity to act surprised that he’s in love with you? Miss me with that shit.

When she’s not writing Roark to act contrary to his motives, Grant is writing whatever nonsense she wants to get the two into the same scene. This often comes across incredibly contrived. For example, there’s a scene where Roark follows Phineas to a greenhouse and sees him attacked by a monster. The two men fight the beast off and Phineas winds up with a head injury. And then, for no reason, he just… stares at Roark for a whole page.

It’s not even like the accidentally falls on top of Roark or some other understandable cliché. They’re not talking. Phineas just straight up stares at Roark and then Roark says Phineas probably has a concussion, to which Phineas asserts that he played football so he knows what a concussion feels like. Which… thanks?

As for the rest of the characters, they might as well not even exist. Herman, Gumba, Sue, Sebastian, Lugh, and Keiran are pretty much all just names to make the world feel fuller. The only other significant character is Mab, Roark’s mother and the Unseelie Queen. She is remarkably confusing. I don’t know what her motives are. I don’t know if she’s terrifying or just a mom. Is she the villain? Is there a villain in this book? I’m not sure those are questions that have answers.

The plot is frustrating because a looming war between the Seelie and Unseelie could be really interesting. Too bad it doesn’t happen. In fact, anything resembling a faerie battle occurs off-page. Politics also happen off-page, unless there’s a chance for Roark to worry about his mother suspecting his disloyalty or for Phineas to misunderstand a situation.

Despite Roark and Phineas fretting about their duties and fates, the real plot of this story is the romance. Which doesn’t explain why all the relationship development happens during time-skips.

No, instead of letting the reader watch these two fall in love, we’re treated to the same plotline twice. Roark punishes a faerie. Phineas misunderstands and lashes out at Roark. Roark takes it because he thinks he deserves it and needs Phineas to hate him anyway. Phineas finds out he was wrong and makes up with Roark. They hook up and express their feelings. Yes, this happens twice.

The second time, however, is the one that really gets me. And, since I can’t thoroughly critique this plot without spoilers, I’m just going to drop some. Phineas calls Roark while his mother is torturing a Seelie for information. Mab once tortured Phineas so it’s a Sensitive Subject. But that’s not what really bothers Phineas. Phineas is upset because Roark was supposed to come with him to his parents’ farm to help with the harvest and he didn’t. He explicitly states multiple times that he’s heartbroken because Roark chose torture over him.

How petty can you get? I mean, priorities, my dude. But it’s okay in the end, because what happened to Phineas is different than what happened to the Seelie. You see, Phineas didn’t deserve it and Roark would never hurt him. So it’s fine.

In a similar vein, the narrative contradicts itself constantly. The reader can’t take anything for granted because every established fact is later stated to be false. For example, Roark says he is his mother’s favorite. Then a few pages later, he says she wouldn’t care if he died. A similar example is when Roark is injured and Mab visits him in his apartment. Many chapters later, the same thing happens but this time it’s surprising that she cares for some reason. As if she’s never done this before. Despite doing it earlier in the novel.

In the Seelie torture scene, Roark talks about how he can’t bear to use knives to torture anyone after Mab tortured Phineas. I guess the trauma of his roommate being tortured while he wasn’t even there was just too much. Anyway, now he can only use magic to torture. I don’t know if that counts as a contradiction, but it’s wild and thought it was worth noting.

Grant withholds information from the reader for no reason. Slaine, Roark’s elder brother, defected to the Summer Court prior to the start of the novel and the reader doesn’t find out why until 75% into the book. It’s not like it’s a plot twist. Grant just doesn’t tell the reader why Grant betrayed his family and Court.

Even worse, it isn’t until about halfway through the book that Roark finally shares with the reader why he’s protecting Phineas and why he needs Phineas to dislike him. There’s absolutely no reason for the reader not to know that. It doesn’t add tension to the relationship. It just makes Roark’s motives confusing.

This withholding of information extends to the world-building. Grant will suddenly throw new pieces of lore and mythos into the plot when she needs a new threat. I don’t even just mean physical threats. I mean “if you can’t do it, I’ll get this other tough being we never mentioned before to do it.”

Grant waits to explain how the world works until later in the novel. It seems like she’s trying to avoid info-dumping, but keeping your reader in the dark about how your world functions is not the way.

What’s more, even the characters don’t even seem to understand how their world works. When two Unseelie start a fight with some Seelie, Roark takes one’s eye and the other’s wing. The Seelie consider this retribution and Phineas considers it torture. Except the creature who lost his eye will grow it back and the faerie who lost his wings was about to shed them anyway. You expect me to believe no one outside the Unseelie Court knows that? I call bullshit.

The lore of faeries is quite muddled and confusing. They can be tricky and look for loopholes, but they have no apparent restrictions against lying. The two Courts seemingly have seasonal nature magic. Roark can do fire magic and apparently has auburn hair under his glamour, which is unique in his family. I thought Grant was gearing up for a plot twist where he’s actually from the summer Court, but nope. He’s just a special snowflake.

Moreover, there’s a lot of talk about the Pantheons. Apparently the main faerie courts are Summer and Winter, but there are others that are never explained. One Pantheon is briefly described as the Greek muses or something, so Grant is apparently muddling lore. And I just can’t stand it.

Earlier I mentioned time jumps. Well, they’re a bit of a problem in this book. Time jumps and pacing. It’s incredibly jarring when the characters decide to do something and then suddenly it’s a month later and all they have to report is that things are going well. As I said before, that’s where all the development is so it just comes as a disservice to the book to write it this way.

Besides, it removes so much story. A chapter will end on a cliffhanger and the next chapter will take place a week later and one of them will narrate “Well, we got out of that jam.” Yeah, but how? The pacing of this book almost gave me whiplash.

The most confusing scene is when Roark goes into a flashback with absolutely no indication. Based on the way time jumps functioned previously in this book, I thought that’s what had happened and was baffled. It took me several pages before I realized it was a flashback. It was, hands down, the worst execution of a flashback I’ve ever seen.

There are a couple funny lines that Grant ruins by explaining the joke. She also misuses words. Well, she misuses one word, but she does it twice. Phineas describes Roark’s relaxed, regal glamour as his “ennui.” I get what she’s going for, but she’s not getting the desired effect. Ennui isn’t just a synonym for bored, it’s just an utter and profound sense of boredom that mere “chillness” does not and cannot even begin to convey it. This isn’t a major issue, but it really grinds my gears. It’s the cherry on top of the shit sundae.

Why is it so hard to find a good faerie story? They’re such interesting creatures in theory. How come they always seem to falter in practice? You may wonder what I expected from a paranormal romance. I expect all books to be good, no matter their genre. I expect writers to try their best. And I just don’t believe that this is Grant’s best. Not after seeing the glimpses of something good in all this mess. But maybe I’m just being optimistic. Maybe this author, like her book, is just full of hot air.


My Rating

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2 thoughts on “Show & Tell Without the Showing: A Review of “Prince of Air and Darkness” by M.A. Grant

  1. Pingback: February 2019 Wrap-Up – Strangely Pop Cultured

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