Today I am delighted to be reviewing Once Stolen by D.N. Bryn. A steampunk-inspired world? Mer-snake/Nagas? And that cover…? To be honest, I was sold on this book the moment the author reached out to see if I would like to review it – and they were kind enough to send me a physical copy. I’d heard of Our Bloody Pearl which is the author’s previous book in this world, although they can be read separately – and it is on the TBR – and the sample and premise was more than a little intriguing and I wasn’t disappointed!
*Disclaimer: ‘I was given a copy this book in exchange for an honest review, all views are my own.’*
No one with half a brain would rob the jungle’s most notorious energy cartel. The vibrations of their power-producing stones are the only thing that calms the mer-snake Cacao’s agonizing sensory condition though—and after being banished from his homeland swamps for similar thefts, he’s desperate.
When his attempt fails stunningly, a chaotic escape leaves him chained to a cartel prisoner: a self-proclaimed hero with a hidden stash of ignits so large, Cacao would never need to steal again. He’s determined to get his hands on it, even if it means guiding her home straight through the mist-laden and monster-filled swamp that exhaled him, with scheming poachers and a desperate cartel leader on their tail.
But the selfish and the self-righteous can only flee together for so long before something snaps…
Return to Our Bloody Pearl’s steampunk-inspired world of merfolk in this fun, fast-paced adventure with a hate-to-love romance, a boat-load of sass, and even more heart.
.I have to start off the review by saying I absolutely adore the cover. I love the simplicity of it, and yet it represents the story so well – and green is my favourite colour so it really ticks all the boxes for me.
Once Stolen is a short read, and fast-paced so you find yourself devouring it in one go, but it packs one hell of a punch for its length.
It is the characters that are the stars of this book. Cacao is our main character, and right from the beginning, he was a fascinating character – firstly because he is a mer-snake (one of the reasons why I wanted to read this book at the start), and then because he is not a heroic figure, nor would I say that he falls completely into the morally grey category – although there are certainly points when he skirts the edges or even steps into that grey, and I think that’s why he was such a compelling character. He was flawed. He was human (well, as much as a mer-snake can be) and that plays into his decisions and interactions with others. What I also enjoyed is that he’s never a static character, he’s always learning and growing, whether from positive or negative experiences, and Bryn does a fantastic job of bringing that out throughout the story. Cacao is also autistic and struggles with sensory perception disorder, and what I liked here was that Bryn looks at both sides – from how it influences his interactions, and how it feeds his need and obsession with ignits to the point of conflict, but also looking at how his own people did not understand him and how that, in turn, shaped him, and how both sides grow and learn to confront those failings.
Thais is our other main character and is a wonderful foil to Cacao’s character. This was a partnership of chance, becoming something more under duress, and yet time is taken to see that relationship develop – from two people at almost polar opposites, bound by need and nothing else, through bickering and learning to become a team. It was wonderful to see it unfold and to see that it was a two-way street, with each opening the other’s eyes and helping to shape their choices and path forwards.
This characterisation certainly wasn’t limited to the main characters, and Bryn created a rich, varied cast of secondary characters – from the antagonistic forces of those making a livelihood from the Murk and hunting down Cacao and his people, to the those living within the Murk themselves, and the people caught between the Murk and the cartel.
The Murk itself was almost a character in and of itself, and that is down to the careful world-building, and how it is integrated into the story and the characters themselves. In a short book like this, there is always the danger of the worldbuilding being either too info-dump based, or too light, but Bryn has created a living, breathing world that is brought to life through the characters. Cacao is our gateway to the true depths of the Murk, and it’s through him that we get to explore the ecosystem and society, and he also helps us to forge an emotional connection with the setting – because we get to experience his almost begrudging connection and affection to the Murk, and journey along with him and Thais as they travel deep into the Murk, and Cacao reforges connections and comes to understand the Murk and his place within it in a different way. It is that emotional depth that really makes this world shine, because you care for the world, you live and breathe it in with the characters, and the natural way we are exposed to the Murk is very fitting for such a nature-based world.
Another aspect, and the reason I included Once Stolen on the Six Recs: Diversity is more than a Buzzword post last week, is that there is a wonderful amount of representation in this book that is built into the very fabric of the world. Building onto the worldbuilding, is the fact that communication is done through signing as Mersnakes such as Cacao are deaf – although it is not limited to them, and is part of many who live in the murk – and therefore signing, vibrations and scent are all key parts of dialogue and interaction in general, and that immediately set this book apart, as well as the fact that Bryn just launches us into this world and way communicating, unapologetic and accepting, and honestly I want more books like this. The LGBTQIA+ representation is also strong within this book, and I am honestly so delighted to see it not only so naturally part of the world, but also to see non-binary characters featured so prominently – and honestly, that has made this book special in ways that I really can’t put into words.
Once Stolen is a fantastic book, and my only complaint is that I would have liked it to be longer because I want to spend more time in the Murk and with Cacao and Thais. There is honestly so much to love within this book, from the characters to the worldbuilding and representation, and also just the sheer sassiness -which had me laughing at more than one point. I will be keeping an eager eye out for what D.N. Bryn does in the future – and I will be picking up Our Bloody Pearl as soon as I can.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.