[rape tw, pedophilia tw, slavery tw, racism tw, the following review will also contain spoilers for this book]
I was initially very hesitant about giving this book a read. It seems to be making the rounds on the internet and everyone seems to be talking about it, either because it’s a well plotted tale of political intrigue with a hot power couple, or it’s a racist rape fest that glorifies slavery. I’ve long since learned to be suspicious of anything labelled as M/M romance or erotica because so much of it is rape masquerading as “dubcon”, personally not my cup of tea.
Prince Damianos (also known as Damen) is a hero to his people and rightful heir to the throne of Akielos. One fateful night, he is betrayed by his half brother, stripped of his identity, and sent to the foreign land of Vere to serve the crown prince as a pleasure slave. His new master, Prince Laurent, is as beautiful and deadly as his court, and soon Damen finds himself drawn into an intricate web of political intrigue that could cost both of them their lives. Forced to work with a man he hates to save his own country, Damen realizes he must never reveal his true identity, for the one man he needs most is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone at court.
This isn’t going to be a normal review, because it’s difficult for me to talk about how I feel about this book without discussing its more problematic elements. To save time, I’m mostly just going to post what I posted to tumblr and add some additional thoughts. Please be mindful of all content warnings as you read this.
First off, whoever is marketing this as erotica is wrong. This is not erotica. In fact, it’s closer to Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner (ie. fantasy but with no magic, closer to historical fiction). I wouldn’t even call it romance. If you’re going into this book expecting typical m/m romance or erotica, you’re going to be disappointed. The protagonists don’t have sex, Damen sort of says that Laurent is kind of hot but really they mostly just spend the whole book insulting each other.
There’s been a lot of fuss regarding the racial dynamics in this book. Put simply, Damen (the titular captive) is described as an olive-skinned man, Laurent (the master) is a white blond haired, blue eyed man. Obviously this is really problematic for many people for obvious reasons, and yet, I feel like Australian fans are right in that the author (who is an olive-skinned Italian woman and subject to ethnic prejudice in Australia) intended to write a hero that was like her (ie. a European man with “Mediterranean” colouring). Heck, I’m olive-skinned myself, and I’m white, and I feel like some American fans have jumped on this (and the fandom is not helping) by saying “a white dude enslaves a MOC!” That said, I wouldn’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to touch this book because of those unfortunate implications, at all.
Regarding tape, slavery, and pedophilia, let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: Damen is raped in the novel. There’s also another on screen rape, one off screen rape, and heavily implied pedophilia. What I did appreciate is that these acts (apart from one instance, but I’ll get to that) are treated as horrific. They’re not meant to titillate, especially not in the way that many m/m romances treat “dubcon”. That said, Laurent essentially sets Damen up to be raped in a fight (he gets out of it by knocking his opponent out) and okays Damen’s actual rape (he’s goaded into it by some courtiers) basically instructing the guy performing the act on how to suck Damen’s cock.
The main issue I have with this last scene is that it happens and then….no one brings it up again. Damen doesn’t seem traumatized by his experience at all. In fact, he seems madder at Laurent because he had him flogged than when he told a dude to suck him off. It just seems like there was really no reason for it to be in the book at all, like it could have been left out and nothing would have changed? It just seemed like an excuse to have Laurent (who doesn’t let anyone touch him in a sexual way) touch Damen by proxy, but the circumstances are just not okay. I hate that this is never discussed, because it just seems so, so, weird. And the thing is, right after this experience, it’s heavily implied that another slave (Erasmus, more on him in a bit) is raped and Damen recognizes it as being a Bad Thing but doesn’t seem to register that it just happened to him? It just seems so weird to have him clearly say no, recognize a Bad Thing is happening to another person, and just….sort of be okay with what happened to him? It’s this moment of cognitive dissonance and it almost seems out of character to me. IDK.
So um, the pedo stuff, long story short, the author heavily implies that Laurent’s uncle abused him, and once you figure that out, everything about Laurent makes sense, the problem is that Damen keeps telling the reader “Laurent is a spoiled brat” but Damen doesn’t know about any of this, heck, the reader doesn’t really know any of this, and once you know, everything, from Laurent’s petulant behaviour, to the way he reacts to Damen touching him in the baths, to the way the guards say he’s “frigid”, to the way he treats Nicaise, makes a ton of sense. In a way, it’s kind of brilliant? But it’s also frustrating because it’s never actually outright said (at least in this novel), and in no way does it excuse Laurent’s behaviour towards Damen.
I also feel like the author kind of fucked up regarding Erasmus (a slave from Damen’s home country), and the treatment of Akielon slaves in general. See, Akielos, where Damen is from, has slaves who are trained to be perfectly obedient in exchange for “perfect treatment” by their masters, but, they’re still slaves? They’re not in a position to consent and stuff? They aren’t free, and I feel like Damen going “We treat our slaves with honour and respect” is missing the point. Also I feel like I should point out that Damen’s had sex with slaves as well, so at the end of the day he’s no better than Laurent (although again, doesn’t mean he deserves what happens to him). And the thing is, Akielos is based on Greece, and I think the author could have easily made it the way slavery was practiced in some Greek city states (ie. a free person voluntarily giving up their freedom and then being released) and it would have been better than the whole “well they’re slaves but they’re treated well” and that’s what bugs me about Erasmus. The paperback edition comes with a story from his point of view. His mindset is very much like a submissive or slave in a kinky relationship. He wants to serve his master. He is happy when he thinks about serving his master. He fantasizes about having sex with his master. And honestly, I would be okay with this if there wasn’t a question of whether he’s free to be able to choose, which, AFAIK, he is not. Also, he ends up in a relationship with an older man and it’s implied they have sex and it’s seen as a good thing? Ew.
Also (and this is something I neglected to mention on tumblr) there aren’t very many women in this book. There’s one, Jokaste, who shows up in the beginning when Damen’s been enslaved, and there’s Vannes, a prominent Veretian noblewoman and her pet, Talik, who is a muscular warrior type who is really cool, as well as a mention of some female slaves. The absence of women is somewhat justified, as illegitimate children are so stigmatized in Vere that same-sex sexual activity between cisgender people is encouraged, but there isn’t really anything said about the status of women in general in either Akielos or Vere, and female courtiers seem to be just as powerful as their male counterparts.
Having said that, I can’t help but root for these trash bags. If you take out all the gross bits, it’s literally an enemies-to-lovers scenario featuring frosty Ice King Chessmaster and Snarky Proud Warrior Race guy, the way Laurent manipulates everyone around him is amazing, he’s a spoiled brat with an iron will. I want them to do well, but the book makes it so hard for me to love them for reasons above. Why won’t you just let me love them, book? Why?
Would I recommend this book to anyone? Honestly, I’m not sure. It’s not a bad book, from a stylistic standpoint. The writing and pacing are on point. The author shows rather than tells her readers, and the characters are, dare I say it, likeable. The issue is that its so mired in problematic tropes (while still not being a typical m/m romance) that it’s not something I’d unreservedly recommend to everyone. It’s certainly not the rapefest I was led to believe it was by its detractors, but it’s difficult to root for the characters as a couple when one nearly has the other one flogged to death and raped. I don’t blame anyone for having issues with the basic premise of these books. Heck, I have issues with the premise of this book, but at the same time, I liked it, problematic trash that it is, I liked it. I’m still trying to process my like and dislike of this book
For those wanting a more thorough analysis, I recommend Foz Meadows’ look at the entire trilogy (spoilers for the entire thing, obviously).