Passion Marked is a fantasy novel set in a magical world where people’s lives are constrained by whether they have light magic, dark magic, or neither. The worldbuilding inelegantly parallels modern-day racism, and I found it a frustrating read.
Ellie is an aspiring horse trainer who has been working her whole life towards joining a horse training association. Ellie doesn’t have any magic, but she finds the Diurne, light, golden-haired beings with daytime magic, beautiful and compelling. Unfortunately, Ellie’s career plans are cut short when she stumbles into a black-colored centaur escaping an illegal racetrack.
Nadine is a Nocturne centaur who hides a sensitive soul behind her bitter, bad girl demeanor. Nocturnes have dark coloring and magic, and Nadine is used to people assuming she’s a demon, and dismissing her. She’s shaken after her rescue from being trafficked, and her easy flirtation with Ellie quickly turns to sex. Nadine thinks this is just another of her many one-night stands. But both women are surprised when their liaison leaves them with a magic bond, called a passion mark, that usually only occurs in an intense relationship between long-bonded mates. The mark requires them to stay physically close to one another, which throws a wrench in Ellie’s career plans since Nocturnes are not allowed near the horses.
Ellie’s angry at losing her dream job, Nadine feels rejected, and these two have a long road to learn to trust one another, while trying to find a way for Ellie to work with horses again. Since Ellie’s job is the major conflict between them, I wish there had been more explanation of why she doesn’t have other employment options. However, there is a lot of time spent with horses and stable staff in this book, which I think would appeal to horse-loving queers.
As a romance fan, I thought the pacing of Nadine and Ellie’s relationship was abrupt and confusing. We don’t learn much about them before they get together, and I felt little emotional connection between them until late in the book. Ellie and Nadine’s brief first sex scene was insufficiently fabulous to convince me that it would cause a magic passion spell. While the book includes many sex scenes, I found them lackluster at best, and largely focused on Ellie’s pleasure. Only the human parts of Nadine’s body are involved, which I appreciated, but it added to the lopsidedness. I was left with many questions about the logistics of a romance with a centaur. Horses are big: do these two need a special bed? How do they spoon?
Much of the plot is woven around the politics of dark and light magic. Passion Marked uses the plight of the socially inferior Nocturnes to offer some very heavy handed social commentary on racism. In this world, most Nocturnes live in ghettos, and most wealthy people are Diurnes; both are assumed by most people to be the result of a meritocracy, despite obvious discrimination against Nocturnes. Dark people are exoticized, and their food and magic is emphasized as different, and lesser. As a Black reader, I was uncomfortable with the way these elements were depicted. First, It felt simplistic and clumsy. For example, Nadine has internalized a sense of extreme inferiority, believing that no one couldn’t possibly want to be in a relationship with her because she’s a Nocturne. Instead of being angry at the prejudice she’s received, she berates herself for her worthlessness. Her insecurity is directly due to her darkness, and since the book implies that its dark people equals People of Color in the real world, I was distracted by how inappropriate it felt to have a marginalized person torturing themselves over not being good enough for a privileged love interest.
Second, I didn’t appreciate some of the stereotypes woven into the worldbuilding. For example, Nadine’s loves sex, and was very promiscuous beore meeting Ellie. The way this is described felt straight out of jezebel stereotypes about Black people.
I like that Passion Marked tries to use classic dark/light magic fantasy tropes to tell a story about racism, but I didn’t enjoy how the book handled those elements. The world building didn’t always make sense to me, which made it hard for me to invest in the romantic story.