I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
There was never any question that I was going to buy this book. I've liked or loved just about everything of Hogarth's that I've read. I enjoyed the development of the romance in Hogarth's Her Instruments trilogy, and I still think Mindtouch could have made a fabulous asexual romance novel had the ending been different. Thief of Songs is Hogarth's first book she explicitly wrote and marketed as a romance novel, and I was excited to see what it would be like.
That said, I don't know that I'd have purchased it if I hadn't already been familiar with Hogarth's writing. “Multiple partner” romances rarely work well for me, and I was concerned that the cover only showed two of the three characters I knew would be involved. If the asexual neuter character ended up feeling like a third wheel, I was going to be depressed. I also wondered how distracting Hogarth's pronoun choices (“en” for the hermaphrodite characters, “it” for the neuter characters) would be. FYI, from here on out, I'll be using the same pronouns for the characters that were used in the book.
Dancer and Amet, the book's main characters, are basically brought together by intellectual property infringement. Dancer, the royal composer, has just gotten back from a trip to the west and has a wonderful new arrangement of a western folk song to share. Dancer mistakes Amet for a brooding admirer and is shocked when Amet calls en a thief and slaps en. The song, as it turns out, was not a folk song, but rather one of Amet's original creations. Amet broke the law and allowed his song to be played by common minstrels in taverns in order to hurt his ex-fiancee, the person for whom he had composed it. Amet realizes pretty quickly that assaulting the royal composer was a bad idea. He apologizes, and he and Dancer soon learn that they not only share a passion for music, but also a powerful attraction to each other.
One of the things I liked about this book was the world-building. I still have a ton of unanswered questions, but here's how things essentially worked. Two hundred years ago, the easterners/lowlanders benefited from having greater access to magic, an important natural resource. I don't know whether the magic resulted in the creation of the thirds (hermaphrodites) and fourths (neuters), or if the thirds and fourths were engineered to make better use of the magic. Either way, they and the magic gave the easterners greater stamina and faster healing abilities, and the westerners lost against them. In the book's present, some westerners have integrated into eastern society better than others, but patriots like Amet still exist.
Some of the relationship conflicts were directly due to Dancer being a lowland third (thirds and fourths are rare in the west) and Amet being a highland patriot. Amet had only ever been with women, and only knew a bit about eastern culture. It also didn't help that the person his fiancee left him for was an eastern third (who Amet amusingly nicknamed Obnoxious Poem).
I'd have liked this book more if Hogarth had made things harder on her characters. Nearly every source of conflict was as weak as wet tissue paper. Amet adjusted to loving a third remarkably easily. His highland patriotism was barely in evidence. Always Falling, Dancer's neuter lover, accepted Amet almost immediately upon meeting him. Although the possibility of being executed or whipped was brought up every single time someone did something that might offend the Divine (the ruler), en turned out to be extremely understanding and even-handed. Haizea, Amet's ex-fiancee, was probably Amet and Dancer's biggest hurdle, but by the time she showed up I'd lost the ability to worry about the fate of their relationship. I figured she'd be dealt with as easily as all their other problems had been.
I liked most of the characters, although Amet never quite gelled for me. The sections from his POV were a little too much like the ones from Dancer's POV, just a little less breathlessly melodramatic. He didn't always react in ways I expected. For example, I found the progression of his and Dancer's relationship to be extremely disconcerting.
Dancer was very open with Always Falling – it knew about everything, from Dancer's attraction to Amet, to Amet slapping Dancer (something it was not happy about), to Amet and Dancer suddenly kissing while working on a composition. However, Amet had no idea what, if anything, Dancer was telling Always Falling. Here was a guy whose heart was broken when his fiancee began a relationship with a third without talking to him first – I'd have expected him to make sure he wasn't doing something similar to Always Falling before ending up in bed with Dancer, but that wasn't the case. The first time Amet and Always Falling met was after Amet slept with Dancer. It didn't react as badly as Amet expected (another possible source of conflict that evaporated almost immediately), but that didn't matter. I was still left feeling that Amet was an enormous hypocrite.
Although this book was primarily about Amet and Dancer, I appreciated that, once they finally met, Amet made an effort to be on good terms with Always Falling. The ending was more HFN (Happy For Now) than HEA (Happily Ever After), because at some point Dancer would either have to give up on en's desire to have children or Amet would have to overcome his discomfort at the idea of having a child with a surrogate. However, I don't think I'd have been able to believe in even a HFN ending if Amet had ignored or been neutral towards Always Falling.
This wasn't a bad book, but I was left feeling disappointed. I think Hogarth writes better romance when she's not actively trying to write a romance novel. There were still some of the lovely scenes I'm used to seeing in her books - for example, I loved Always Falling's attempt to make a western breakfast for Amet, and the banter between Dancer, Amet, and the members of Dancer's orchestra was fun, even for a non-musician like myself. However, I think Amet and Dancer's relationship progressed too quickly. “Fast” fit Dancer better than it did Amet, and it didn't help that nearly every single thing that should have created obstacles and conflict just...didn't. Even Jahir and Vasiht'h faced more obstacles in their relationship than Amet and Dancer did.
I struggled with rating this. I finally settled on 3-stars, because my overall impression of this book was more "meh" than "dislike." I still can't help but wonder if my enjoyment of some of Hogarth's other books is affecting my rating of this one.
(Original review, with read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)