Review: The High King’s Golden Tongue

[The following contains mentions of pregnancy, particularly in regards to trans men being pregnant.]

This book was obtained via NetGalley.

While browsing NetGalley, I was initially drawn in by the cover of The Pirate of Fathoms Deep, but as often happens with fantasy novels in particular, this one has a predecessor, and I’m one of those people who needs to read a series in order even if the books are basically standalone stories, so I sent a request to the author.

As you probably know, M/M romance is one of those genres I’ve tried very hard to like but often features certain tropes I find personally distasteful, notably the frequent dub-con (IMO actually just a prettier term for non-con) in relationships and the shitty treatment of female characters. I can understand the appeal of the former for some, but the latter is, well, misogyny, pure and simple. I admit that I was skeptical at first despite reading reviews that said this was “pure fluff”.

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Prince Allen has been training to be consort to the High King for years. When the day that he is to be presented to the High King finally comes, however; High King Sarrica, still grieving the death of the previous consort, declares him useless and has him thrown out of court, with his empire currently in danger of collapse, Sarrica believes that what he needs is a warrior by his side, not a foppish polyglot. Can Allen convince him otherwise before war destroys the empire from within?

I would like to start this off by saying that I love the relationship dynamic between Allen and Sarrica. For most of the book, neither of them really know what they’re doing, particularly Sarrica, who just doesn’t know how to deal with a diplomat like Allen when he’s used to dealing with soldiers who know how to use a blade. A good chunk of the book is dedicated to the two of them just trying to figure out how the hell they’re going to make things work. Well, in Sarrica’s case, it’s mostly him trying to be nice and actually saying something thoughtless and Allen moping because Sarrica doesn’t like them. They have a relationship that very much reminds me of Demnor and Kelahnus from Fiona Patton’s The Stone Prince if Kelahnus actually displayed a degree of competence (sorry, any Kel fans reading this, I just thought he was a waste of an interesting character concept). There are also some interesting secondary characters: Lesto, one of the late High Consort’s brothers, who is constantly teasing Sarrica, Lord Tara, the man who seems to know everything going on at court, and Jac, one of the few prominent women in the story and member of the Three Headed Dragons, a badass mercenary band.

The world is interesting enough, although not as fleshed out as it could be (given the length of the book). The many nations in this world all speak different languages, so naturally Allen finds himself having to sort out language issues among the palace staff (who can’t seem to get anything done because of language barriers) to acting as a translator. Derr never quite goes so far as writing out words and phrases in these languages (which would have been a feat!) but she does give us an idea of what they sound like.

As much as I love this book, I wish there had been more prominent female characters. Sarrica’s court seems to be mostly made up of men, although women are ambassadors and soldiers. Apart from Jac, there are two noblewomen who show up for one scene and then disappear. There’s Allen’s mother, who he admires greatly but never appears in the story proper. A second issue that I had with the book is that as much as I knew it was going to happen, when Allen and Sarrica do finally “click” it feels as if they go from zero to fifty in a hot minute. One minute Sarrica is confused, the next he wants to have sex with Allen on a table. Some people understandably would have been frustrated after such a slow burn, but I actually preferred it when they were trying awkwardly to make things work. A third issue I had is that I found the chapters that were from Sarrica’s POV mostly involved Sarrica whining to Lesto and then the two of them exchanging friendly threats of violence (it makes sense in context). Considering Sarrica is a widower, his melancholy makes sense, but I still found it kind of irritating.

In terms of diversity, there are some unambiguous people of colour, like Lord Tara, others, like Allen himself, or like Sarrica, Lesto, and Rene, are more ambiguous. It’s mentioned that Allen has “golden” skin, but also blond hair. I was under the impression that out of the three brothers (Lesto, Sarrica, and Rene) Lesto at least was dark-skinned. There’s one prominent f/f couple, one half of that couple is black, IIRC, but they disappear for a good chunk of the story. There’s a brief mention of a poly relationship. While it’s not explicitly spelled out in the narrative, there is mention of Allen’s mother “siring” him and numerous mentions of High Consort Nyle’s pregnancy. There is also the suggestion that Lord Tara is trans (in a nutshell, when someone asks him about having children with his boyfriend, he replies that they don’t need to worry about having the right parts). Unfortunately this has been lost on some reviewers, who can’t seem to figure out how men can be pregnant without some magical explanation. In case one of them is reading this: some men have vulvae, that is one way a cis man like Sarrica can have babies with another man. While it would have been nice to see some trans representation that didn’t somehow revolve around pregnancy or what they’re doing with their genitals, I didn’t feel as if any of these characters were being fetishized and High Consort Nyle’s pregnancy doesn’t raise any eyebrows or seem at all strange to his people.

The only potential triggers I can think of are the pregnancy discussions, mentioned above, some violence, and one sex scene that I would rate as semi-explicit. The sex in the book that is shown or hinted at is entirely consensual, none of this “it’s rape but we’ll call it dub-con to make it more palatable” bullshit, at all.

A brief personal note before I begin. I was having some trouble getting this to load on my ereader, and the author was very responsive and even sent me a fresh copy of the ebook when I couldn’t get it to work (which was right after I actually got it to work). I believe in rewarding authors who are great people.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It probably won’t win any best novel of the century awards, but it’s a nice bit of fluff and unexpectedly diverse. It’s an easy recommendation if you’re looking for a little gay fluff and you’re tired of waiting until I actually publish something.

 

 

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