Arrian’s Lion by the debut author A.J. Cullen begins with a tender but tentative scene:

“His eyes met mine lovingly … I also knew if Kit were to inherit his father’s title, he had to keep his reputation spotless. If I wanted to gain enough respect from the nobles so as not to be ousted from court the second the King died and my brother took the throne, I needed to be a saint. Kit didn’t understand that. Or, perhaps he did but didn’t care. That was the even bigger problem.”

This narrator, Jay, is Commander of the Arrian King’s Guard, and, in fact, the King’s son. He isn’t, however, the queen’s son, and therein lies the problem. His father had a mistress, making him a “bastard” child and earning him the derision of much of the kingdom as well as a very, very fine line to walk as he struggles to prove his worth in spite of his birth. This weight on his shoulders influences his ability to be open about his feelings for a man, his childhood friend Kit.

Meanwhile, Jay has some half-siblings who are decidedly more legitimate than himself; a cheery and clever sister named Daphne, who’s always got a trick up her sleeve, a king-in-training brother named Sam, and a mysterious missing brother, Atlas. The bonds between family become increasingly imperative as the bonds between countries deteriorate and war looms on the horizon. 

A QUEST TO REDEEM MORE THAN JUST A KINGDOM

Confused and conflicted on many levels, Jay gives a tour of the castle to a handsome stranger, all the while haunted by thoughts of the man he really loves. The next day he discovers a horrific and life-changing scene … for which he is responsible. Personal and political stakes have never been higher as Jay, along with Kit and stowaway Daphne, begins a quest to find the lost Prince Atlas. 

Their journey takes them across land and sea as they piece together clues and even investigate a cursed mark (which leads to a sneaky espionage-fueled plot to enact some righteous revenge). There’s plenty of romantic and political angst, too, though nothing beats the relationships between siblings in this book. In that department, our author is on top of her game.

Cullen often launches into pertinent flashbacks that are both poignant and precise. The protagonist thinks often about his missing brother and familial complications; those reflections are soulfully depicted and provide some beautifully drawn sentences. The interactions and banter between siblings are fun to read, and when they turn somber and tense, they’re riveting and heartbreaking. 

Naturally, LGBTQ+ struggles permeate the book. Also up for discussion are additional biases and prejudices: “Kit” is technically a Lord, Marquess, and future Duke, but despite the impressive titles the fact that he isn’t of pure Arrian bloodlines sometimes causes the more snobby members of society to look down their noses at him. Likewise, Jay’s “bastard” status does him no favors. 

WRESTLING WITH DEFINITIONS 

Things hurtle to a head by the end, and secrets abound. While the tension is high and swords fly, thematically, there’s something deeper going on here; the author asks readers to consider who gets to define you, and why should you bend to their definition?  

On her blog, Cullen sheds some light on the themes in the book: “Arrian’s Lion begins with two epigraphs, one from Machiavelli’s The Prince, and the other from Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II. In The Prince, Machiavelli references the importance of leading as both a fox and a lion in what I would describe as the world’s most famous job application (he wrote the book as a guide for new princes and royals, prefacing the work with a letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici as if to say ‘please let me be your advisor’). This, of course, is where I found inspiration for my own lions — my characters who struggle with taking control of their own lives, who have yet to master the art of politics in a world of royals and rogues, who struggle to tame the beast inside.”

It’s no great struggle to read this book, however; Arrian’s Lion deftly combines historically-minded fiction with romance, family relationships, and timeless questions about identity and empowerment.

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A.J. Cullen is an avid reader, hopeful writer, usual introvert, sometimes crafter, and history devotee. When not scribbling yet another novel idea on whatever loose paper she can find, A.J. spends her time pursuing a master’s degree in history while also growing her progressive teaching philosophy inside early childhood and secondary education classrooms. Currently, she resides in Massachusetts with her loving mother and the leaning tower of books by her bedside. Stacked with classic literature, the history books you’d only find on your grandfather’s shelves, and plenty of YA, you can bet that her “to be read” list keeps her light on and the neighbors awake well into the night.