Review: Oak King Holly King by Sebastian Nothwell (2022)

Heat Factor: It’s a lot of handies starting at 20%, with some other play mixed in, but the text is not especially focused on the sex

Character Chemistry: Insta affectionate and tender love

Plot: Shrike has to figure out how to survive being crowned Oak King; meanwhile, in the mortal realm, Wren is wound up in his employer’s guardianship drama probably more than he should be

Overall: If you like lush descriptions and the slower pacing of a historical faerie fantasy, I have a book for you.

We enter the tale with a violent scene (by no means the only graphically violent scene in the story, so squeamish readers be advised) of a tournament melee in which Shrike, the victor, is surprised to be awarded not a title or other valued reward for his display of skill, but with the death sentence of being crowned the Oak King. You see, in order for the seasons to continue as they should, the Oak King and Holly King duel at each solstice, with the victor bringing about the change (or, if the correct king doesn’t die, the lack of change) of season. Shrike, preferring to remain alive, seeks a remedy and finds in the mortal realm of London one Wren Lofthouse. After a brief few meetings, they begin to fall for each other, and as Wren seeks to keep Shrike alive so as not to lose his newly found beloved, Shrike is drawn into the intrigue surrounding Wren’s employer’s impecunious ward. 

Shrike and Wren are already intimate at the 20% mark, and this story is not sustained by the drama of “sex not feels” relationship deals, so with respect to the romantic relationship, the reader can expect a great deal of tenderness, affection, and support between the partners. They are drawn into each other’s troubles because neither wishes to allow his love to face any trials alone. So it’s totally sweet in that regard. The tension therefore stems from the two divergent storylines occurring separately in the mortal and faerie realms. It’s a lot to go through, which should be apparent given the length of the book, which is about 500 pages. The story also takes place over the better part of a year, so it’s not a fast-paced, action-packed story. 

As one might conclude, given the protagonists’ names are Shrike and Wren, Nothwell’s prose is super-de-duper descriptive. 

Side-bar: shrikes and wrens are both birds, and their behaviors give us an exceptional mindset for the personalities of both characters, but I am not a birder, and my first experience of “shrike” was in the Hyperion Cantos, in which the Shrike is absolutely terrifying, so that, combined with the opening scene, made my initial reaction to Shrike absurdly wary.

Anyway, back to the real conversation: I can’t visualize what’s written hardly at all, so really lush description is not great for me to read because my brain has to work really hard to parse it, but I think this is something that others would enjoy. Here’s a little sample of what I mean:

Her silvery hair spilled over her shoulders as she bent to receive it with hands whose fingertips hardly peeked out from beneath the lily-throated sleeves of her gown.

Okay, so that’s a side character who appears for about half a second twice in the story, but everything is described like that. English teachers trying to get their students to use similes and metaphors and symbolism and allusions would have wet dreams over this writing. I’m absolutely certain that there are folktale and fantasy references that I didn’t get. I’d like to read another of Nothwell’s books to see if he modified his writing style a little bit for the fantasy tone or if this is simply his writing style. It was a lovely story, but it definitely took me a long time to read it. So be aware of your reading preferences as you go forward with this book.

The secondary characters who are not causing trouble are really fun. In the fae realm Shrike has a great friendship, which was nice after he seemed so isolated early in the story, and even Wren makes an intriguing friend in the fae realm. I love that Wren’s employer, Mr Grigsby, is a genuinely nice man, albeit a bit spacey. Or deliberately obtuse. Either/or, but he was absolutely delightful. So the story is not heavily focused on uncomfortable situations in which the protagonists are alone in the world(s) against malicious foes. All in all, I’d absolutely recommend this book to fantasy lovers, even those who are not big on romance, with the aforementioned caveats that you should decide if you’ll mesh well with the writing style before diving in. 

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.

Buy Now: Amazon

Looking for something similar?

Fae, demons, and other assorted supernatural

The Land of Magic

The Victorian Era

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s