Farro and Sulfer, by Arreana, took me off-guard. Despite some enthusiastic reviews, this book did not look promising. The cover art screams "self-published", and, for some reason, the first few pages just seemed overwrought to me. But, since I was reading the first chapter free anyway, I kept on reading to the next few pages and ended up totally hooked.
So, the story starts from the POV of a girl who has been tortured (literally and brutally) for some time, but she soon finds herself in a new circumstance. The first book is a bit of a palace intrigue, and the second book has a quest structure.
You soon find out that this is a fantasy with a clearly developed, but not cliched, setting. It felt a little ancient-Egypt-meets-medieval-Europe to me, and the author does a good job of unfolding the world without a lot of info-dumps.
It was not a perfect book. The dialog was reasonable, but not anything I'm going to quote or especially remember. Sometimes it seemed like smart bad guys ignored potentially effective manipulation/deceit tactics in favor of torture-and-violence just to make the heroine especially martyred. And I had to use some suspension of disbelief on the magic system.
But...but...despite its flaws, I had a fantastic time reading this story.
The world building was great - it was a large and nuanced. It was one of those settings where there are no clear good and bad sides, although there are definitely some good and bad people. The good people had flaws that were real and core and humanizing. The bad people had understandable motivations. And there were a lot of people that were neither clearly good or bad.
Something else the author did well is that she had a story where people on all sides had imperfect information. The POV character in particular often reasonably assumes something which later turns out to be mistaken (and not just in the cliched romance misunderstanding kind of way), so you get some good plot twists that way.
Another thing I appreciate was that it felt large, but not endless. Although I can see places where the author may want to pick up some a new story in this world, this one feels complete and self-contained.
It was a page-turner. The interactions were realistic and emotionally deep, and I loved the relationship between leads. It was one of the most effective antagonism-turns-to-love story lines I've read. The journey was understandably slow and ended up really sweet and deep.
I definitely recommend this new author to fantasy readers and am looking forward to what she writes next.