Why I read it: I read a post by the author on Anna Cowan’s blog a while back and that put the book on my radar. More recently, my tweetstream has been going wild for it so I had to read it.
ETA April 2015: I’ve updated the author’s name to her current penname: CS Pacat.
Note: Even though this is two books, I’m reviewing them together. Volume 1 isn’t a complete story and Volume 2 can’t be read as a stand alone. Volume 3 isn’t out yet (sadly) or I’d probably be reviewing that at the same time too.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) This was Vere, voluptuous and decadent, country of honeyed poison.”Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the rightful heir to the throne of Akielos, but when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity, and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.Beautiful, manipulative and deadly, his new master Prince Laurent epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is at it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reasons to hate him than anyone else…
“This was Vere’s most powerful lords unfurling their banners for war.”With their countries on the brink of war, Damen and his new master Prince Laurent must exchange the intrigues of the palace for the sweeping might of the battlefield as they travel to the border to avert a lethal plot.Forced to hide his identity, Damen finds himself drawn to the dangerous, charismatic Laurent. But as the fledgling trust between the two men deepens, the truth of secrets from both their pasts is poised to deal them the crowning death blow…
What worked for me (and what didn’t): I don’t suppose the basis of this story is terribly original. A stranger in a strange land learns to appreciate another society and experiences changes in himself from his exposure to difference. The concept is not new. But in romance, that is very common. There are only so many tropes after all. It is all in the delivery. And, here, we have a gem.
The first book tells the tale of Damen’s initial captivity, the hatred each man feels for the other, their reasons for it – all valid; the mutual enmity of their countries, albeit with a fragile peace treaty currently in place. I had been warned of brutality and viciousness in the first book so I think by the time I read it, I was expecting worse than I got. Perhaps that made it easier for me.
Both cultures own slaves (ETA: in one way or another – personally I saw the “pets” as slaves by another name, even though there it is a contractual arrangement). As Laurent points out to Damen later in the story, it is not the institution of slavery to which Damen objects – he just does not wish to be the slave. And, in being the slave, Damen develops new awareness – what he does with it is as yet unknown. Both cultures have flogging and capital punishment. While there are many differences in the cultures, there are many similarities also. I am by no means an expert in this area, but I didn’t see particularly fetishisation of slavery et al, and what judgement there was of it was perhaps subtle but, I think, given the dynamic of the story, those things fit. And, frankly, it’s not uncommon in fantasy. The setting further highlighted the barriers to be overcome and added to the emotional tension. Nevertheless, while it worked for me, it will not be for everyone. For some, slavery and the kind of physical and sexual brutality (either to Damen or others) are dealbreakers.
Damen comes to Vere, an alien, a slave – hating Vere and all it stands for. As the story is told from his deep 3rd person POV, the reader slowly sees Damen’s awareness change, his understanding deepen and develop. For this reader at least, sometimes I was ahead of Damen in picking things up, sometimes, woefully behind. Vere is a place of manipulation and ornamentation. Repeated through the story is the idea that “of course it has to be more ornate than just practical – it’s Vere“. It put me in mind of a grumpy old man (or woman) yelling at the television. I didn’t find the repetition bothersome – Vere pricks at Damen constantly, even as he comes to appreciate (some of) it and (some of, many of) its people.
I was struck by the juxtaposition of dark and light in this story. In Vere nothing is as it seems and in this too, things are turned around. It is Laurent, the puzzle-solver, the planner, the dark and twisty thinker who is golden and fair – the “light” one. It is Damen, the straight-forward man, intelligent yes, but tending to look on the surface of things, his powerfully built physicality who is brunet and tanned – the “dark” one. The set up of the story is that Vere is evil and Akielos is good. But, as is the case with most things, that is not true either and there are machinations and political sleights of hand in both Courts. Neither is Laurent physically incapable. Damen is big and broad – the perfect build for a warrior. While Laurent is more slightly built he is not small or weak. As Damen comes to think later, it is that people notice Laurent more for his mind and are then surprised when he can use his body as well.
Both princes are captive – slowly, slowly, Damen sees that in many ways, Laurent is as alone in hostile territory as he himself is. Slowly, slowly, Damen sees the hidden pathways which led Laurent to decisions Damen did not, could not understand. As Laurent was revealed throughout the pages, I fell for him, just like Damen did.
Damen and Laurent learn from one another and cautiously develop mutual trust and something deeper. The romance is understated and slow to develop. As it should be – these two men have no reason to trust or care for the other at first. The opposite in fact. But all is not as it seems and as things are revealed (there is much still unknown even at the end of Volume 2), both their commonality and the differences draw them together. So much of the interaction between the two men could be considered foreplay even when there is nothing overtly sexual about the activity. Their connection is both subtle and overt, with layers of subtext I’m sure I haven’t yet fully appreciated.
The second volume is more action packed and, for the most part, the two men are working (more or less) together. And, things are starting to become clearer – another reason why I thought Volume 2 was stronger. But to get to the second volume, one must first traverse the first. I didn’t find it a hardship but it does have some confronting things in it which some readers may not be able to get past.
Even though things are slowly revealed, neither book is slow. Both books are full of tension and intrigue and compelled this reader to stay up way past her bedtime to finish them. Having read the books I understand the author’s post at Anna Cowan’s blog on tension so much better too. I can see how she’s ratcheted me taut, only to release the lines just a little, to twist and turn again so I can take a little more.
What else? There were a few editing things I noticed: metal instead of mettle, bicep instead of biceps (as @JorrieSpencer pointed out, biceps is both singular and plural). And, there were some parts of the book which were too subtle for me. I read over and over those sentences and I couldn’t parse what was being said. That’s probably on me though.
I did like the addition of the Vaskian clans, who were largely led by women, who were treated by Laurent and Damen both with all the respect due to fellow warriors. There were not many females in the story at all (sadly) but at least there was this.
I also learned a whole pile of new words – it got to the point where I had the iPad next to me with an online dictionary loaded so I could look up words like esurient.
It’s They’re not a perfect book 2 books, Volume 1 isn’t as strong as Volume 2, partly because a lot of it is setting the scene and partly because there is violence between Lauren and Damen and it is not comfortable. I believe reasons for it will be revealed in the future which may make things more understandable, if not more palatable.
Still, for me the books had a swashbuckling adventure feel to them (even though there were no pirates) and the development of the enemies to friends to lovers plot was compelling. Added to my general enjoyment of the story, I thought a lot of the plotting was very clever. There were twists I hadn’t seen coming and the ending of Volume 2 was kind of breathtaking. Even after 2 volumes, I’m sure neither I nor Damen fully appreciate the virtuoso complexity of Laurent’s mind.
It does end in a kind of cliffhanger. But for a romance reader, it’s okay. It’s not a “who shot JR” thing and it’s not a Fever series thing. I’m a person who DOES NOT LIKE cliffhangers. I waited until Shadowfever was released before reading any of the earlier books. Brie told me it would be okay and it was. If you’re thinking about reading but hanging off for Volume 3, I don’t think you will be scarred for life by reading now.
I’m curious, anticipatory and half-worried about Volume 3. Can the tension be maintained and the story be resolved in ways that satisfy? The author, in response to my tweet, has said that the 3rd (and final) book has already been planned out so the plot is already clearly in her mind – which is good. I’d be really worried if she hadn’t decided what was going to happen yet. As it seems that she has had exactly this story arc in mind from the beginning, I am hopeful Volume 3 will be a fitting end to the series.
There are various spoiler-filled discussions over at Dear Author, Vacuous Minx and other blogs. Mandi at Smexy Books will have her review up later this week and I believe Jorrie Spencer has one too. [ETA: Mandi’s review is up now. go here.] Apart from skimming Brie’s review (link above) and reading part of Sunita’s first post, I have avoided them all – but now I’m going to play in the sandbox with the other Captive Prince converts (and not-so-much-converts too, I gather). Maybe I’ll see you there?