TL;DR version: I broke several of my usual rules when I started reading this one, and I'm very glad I did!
In general, I avoid reading anything with subadult protagonists or magical schools, because the former often bore me and I have never read one of the latter before that I liked (yes, including that one). I will generally start disconnecting and consider abandoning a story in which the protagonist is persistently unsure who to trust.
There are exceptions to most rules, and The Cursed Heart is a major one.
The style is light and enjoyable, easy to read. Everything comes across very clearly, and it's easy to visualize events, but it doesn't bog down in excessive detail. The dialogue is smooth and believable and appropriate to the character speaking, always.
In a word, fascinating. It builds beautifully, from the initial dilemma, through Kayden's first days at school, to the gradual immersion in an increasingly-complex and potentially dangerous situation. It's not a high-action, combat-every-chapter kind of story, but there is no shortage of tense moments that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Also no shortage of vivid emotion, which is what you'd expect from a group of adolescents under varying kinds of pressure, but it never tips over into angst.
The world-building is intriguing, and I love the contrast of what amounts to official vs unofficial magic. So much our own world, and yet all the little changes because of the reality of curses (including info and misinfo how to handle those) and of known, trained magic-users. If the magic in question were different, those cultural changes would have to be larger to be plausible, but with this system... the changes are believable.
Flawless. I'm fussy about grammar, spelling, inaccurate use of expressions, wrong words that probably sounded right. I'll sometimes ignore it for a good reason, but I'm always aware of it. I'm not seeing any of that here. Nothing jolts the reader out of the flow.
The MC and narrator Kayden is wonderful. He's in a difficult situation that would be hard for an adult to cope with, let alone a teenager. A 14-year-old in this situation is going to have some chaotic emotions, and they're there, but balanced perfectly against the action and interaction. Kayden is more the impulsive type, doing what seems like a good idea at the time, than the mopy type who overthinks everything. This inevitably gets him into trouble, especially when he starts trying to put together the available pieces of info about the events around him and comes up with inaccurate conclusions.
The other characters balance and contrast with Kayden's impulsiveness and are very much 3D individuals in their own right, not just mirrors of Kayden or figures present purely to keep the plot moving. They all have flaws, no saints here, but also, no over-the-top sinister mastermind villain twirling his mustache. Relationships build over time, naturally and organically, and family relationships are human and believable.
There are other things that I love about this, but if I keep ranting, I'm going to start getting into spoilers. Finding well-written and highly-original fantasy that has important LGBT+ elements handled with such a light touch is a treat. In this case, it was so good I couldn't bear to wait any longer for the next chapter and headed to the author's website so I could binge-read to the end of the first volume - and I'm going back for the rest.
I found this very difficult to review, because I'm badly torn. I made it through the end of "Meetings" and I'm stopping here.
It's technically fine, and there are sure to be readers who will enjoy it. The grammar and spelling are pretty much flawless. However, to me, the characters and story feel like someone read a book, or several books, on how to write a fantasy novel, and then followed all the key points.
The text is highly readable. I removed a star for three reasons:
a) The dialogue feels slightly stilted, always very formal and lacking emotion or personal expression.
b) The accents on many names are leaving me wondering whether my mental pronunciation is even vaguely correct - adding some sort of quick guide for Westerners who aren't used to these accents would be helpful.
c) Unexplained name-drops. There are names of places and people and, I think, a non-human species sprinkled in with little or no context or description, and I have no idea what they are or why I should care. I have no idea what a "deerborn" looks like to make them instantly identifiable to characters, or why they appear to be superhuman. I have no idea what it means that a character is from a particular island.
As I said, it has all the standard ingredients. We have a mysterious prophecy, a mysterious key, a mysterious scary empire in the frozen north, a trio of unwitting heroes of different classes, the beginnings of a romantic interest between two of them... all the usual. The early structure similarly feels formulaic: MC on a business journey for his family, gets a mysterious message, the sender is already dead (not much of a spoiler, since that happens in the prologue), others got the same message, their lives are threatened as a result of being there, and they team up. It's not bad, exactly - tropes exist for a good reason. If I could actually care about the characters, I might even have accepted it enough to keep reading and see where it goes. But, well... see below.
Pro quality. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, word usage, are all beyond any complaint. Even typos are scarce.
In short, to me they feel two-dimensional. Despite several chapters following the MC, I know virtually nothing about his personality, only that he's the son of a powerful and famous merchant prince. He develops a crush on a bard who is, apparently, beautiful, and forming a crush on an attractive talented entertainer isn't exactly the kind of thing to tell me anything about who he is. She apparently reciprocates, but I had no sense of emotion or chemistry, so it feels like this is there simply to provide the MC with a love interest, as per the formula. For that matter, I have no idea what any character in this looks like at all. I can't even figure out whether several actions are consistent or plausible for the characters who take them, because I have no sense of who they are or what they should be able to do.
Any work needs to include, at a minimum, either a strong, interesting, original story or characters that are vivid and compelling. Unfortunately, Midnight Torches is lacking either. Maybe it gets better later. I'm reluctant to give this a low rating, because it really is technically fine, but I can't give it a high rating because, well, I'm dropping it. I just don't really care what happens to these characters and I suspect that their quest will follow a standard route.
And yet, I don't want to be harsh or discouraging. It's possibly better to see this as an early attempt, and hope that later writing projects have more passion and personality and genuine originality. There is certainly a lot of potential there.
The grammar and spelling towards the beginning are not bad at all, and despite some imagery I found a bit distracting, I thought it had potential, and I do think there might be the seed of a good story in it.
The problem is, not only do the grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, and word choice deteriorate quickly over the course of this very short story, but I find the MC a problem. He is presented as heroic and self-sacrificing, courageous and determined. I spent the entire story with the growing impression that he is in fact ineffectual, careless, and not inclined to think through what he's doing.
So much of this story is taking place in the hottest part of the day for no obvious reason other than apparently trying to increase the tension, even though that would be the most illogical time for any of these events to be happening, and I couldn't stop that thought from constantly crossing my mind. It led to a lot of "But why...?" questions that never get even an implied answer. I don't do well with situations that are artificially complicated with no reason offered.
As far as grammar and spelling, this story's well above average and generally very smooth and clean. There are some places where the phrasing is a bit awkward and occasionally a similar but wrong word has been substituted. A couple of places had notable punctuation issues. Nothing that I found to be major.
When it comes to the content... well, it's a short story of less than 3K words, so I'm taking that into account. The setting is a fairly standard post-nuclear world, but it's described very well. We don't get much sense of the two characters, beyond the basic goal of scavenging for stuff they can sell. I'd have liked at least a little more depth.
The core premise, which I can't discuss without spoilers, isn't a new one, and I saw it coming halfway through. It wasn't approached from a novel angle or atypical perspective, and didn't otherwise offer anything thought-provoking about the subject.
Possibly because I was expecting it, the ending lacked any emotional impact for me.
So, not bad, but sadly, I can't rate it any higher.
At less than 1.5K words, this story goes fast. I can't find anything to fault in it. The grammar and spelling are great and the flow suits the story. The predicament of the MC is described vividly and ruthlessly without the story revelling in misery or hopelessness. That ghostly appearance mentioned in the synopsis simply fits. Nothing else I can say.
I would really like to give this a better score. Despite the spelling error in the title, the actual writing style is surprisingly good - although I started wishing fervently for some synonyms to the word "dry."
The low score is due to the lack of basic research. Without offering any spoilers, a story called "The Eclipse" and based on events that happen during solar eclipses was apparently written with a complete lack of comprehension of the predictability and frequency and physics of those same eclipses. This completely destroyed any immersion for me. A few minutes of research could have changed that, although admittedly it would be narratively less convenient.
If you can ignore that, and you like grimdark, it's not a bad little story, though.
It's hard to know what to say about the content that isn't a spoiler. This story is beautifully written - the pacing and build-up are great, the characters are believable and sympathetic, the prose flows easily and comfortably. I noticed a handful of what were obviously just typoes, but who doesn't have a few of those? There is a lot of story packed into less than 13K words!
I identify more or less as non-binary. This is the first thing here I've read to my trans roommate, who also enjoyed it thoroughly for the intensity and realism of how the author handled gender as well as the excellent writing.