Wednesday, 14 September 2016
#CBR8 Books 95-97: "The Captive Prince trilogy" by C.S. Pacat
Rating of series as a whole: 4 stars
I'm going to review this whole trilogy in one review. As such, there is bound to be some spoilers, and if you want to go in completely cold, you may want to skip this review and just trust me that while the first book is a bit slow, and not the most engaging of reads on its own, the trilogy as a whole is mighty compelling reading, and well worth your time. At least if you like well-written fantasy, tons of political intrigue and plots that twist and turn repeatedly.
Volume one: Captive Prince - 3 stars
Prince Damianos of Aikelos, better known as "Damen" to most close to him, is a war hero and utterly beloved by his people. When his long-ailing father dies, Damen's older half-brother Kastor seizes power, and Damen finds himself overpowered, cast in chains and sent as a pleasure slave to the court of the rival neighbour nation of Vere. Everyone in Aikelos is told that Damianos was killed by his rebelling slaves after the king's death, and to add to the betrayal, Damen's mistress Jokaste makes it clear to him before he is subdued and sent from the country that she is aiding Kastor in his coup.
In Vere, a decadent and indolent court, Damen is given to Prince Laurent, the young heir to the throne, whose older brother Auguste Damen killed in single combat during a war six years ago. Even if he could reveal his true identity and be believed, he's in the one place where he is truly hated, under the control of a man who has sworn revenge on Prince Damianos for the actions nearly a decade ago. Laurent doesn't really seem interested in a pleasure slave, in fact, there are rumours that he is frigid. The crown prince, nearly of age, is locked in some sort of complex power struggle with his uncle, the current Regent, and seems like he may in fact, be both immature and unstable. The Regent seems to think that Damen may be used to influence his nephew in a positive manner, but the seemingly spoiled Laurent trusts no one, certainly not a lowly slave from the country he hates the most.
Both Aikelos and Vere are nations that support slavery, although in Vere, it seems that slaves have the opportunity to buy their freedom if able to collect enough gifts and favours. In Aikelos, like in ancient Greece or Rome, slaves seem to be captured during wartime, but also bred to serve. They have no way of gaining their freedom and are completely dependent on the benevolence of their masters. In both Aikelos and Vere, slaves seem to be used for sex, although in Vere, there are strong taboos about heterosexual couplings outside of marriage, as illegitimacy is frowned upon and sex between men and women should be for procreation, first and foremost. At least among the elite, marriages seem to be mainly political alliances, with no one batting an eyelid if both parties have pleasure slaves on the side for enjoyment. Hence in Vere, men have and support male pleasure slaves, while women have female slaves.
The author doesn't really spend a whole lot of time giving details about the setting. As most of the books take place in Vere, we only really get information about Aikelos through Damen's recollections and the way he's constantly comparing Vere and his own country. Then there is the fact that most of the book takes place at court, so it's difficult to get a full picture of what the country as a whole is like. I pretty much pictured Vere like late Medieaval France, while Aikelos was more like the Roman Republic.
It's difficult to get a feel for any of the characters other than Damen in this book, and he's really a rather unreliable narrator throughout, as it's revealed in book two and three that he is unaware of so much of the plots and alliances bubbling under the surface in Vere and his initial judgement of the Regent and Laurent are formed without having enough information to understand the situation. Damen's only goal is to escape, get back to his own country and claim back his throne. He needs to be careful that his identity is not revealed to Laurent, as the young man wouldn't hesitate to kill him. Of course, despite his humiliation at being kept as a slave, and his disgust at the decadent ways of the Vere court, Damen finds himself both attracted and repelled by Laurent. Their relationship is certainly a strange one.
At the end of the first book, Laurent is manipulated by his uncle into taking a troupe of men to patrol along the border of Vere and Aikelos. By this point, he has revealed to Damen that his uncle was behind the assassination attempt Damen helped foil, and Laurent takes his slave with him, as he has realised that the man is a highly skilled soldier and he needs his expertise to get his ragtag bunch of soldiers into shape, and survive his scouting mission. It's obvious that the Regent doesn't want his nephew to succeed, that they are likely riding towards a trap, and the men they have at their disposal are in no way fit to fight anyone.
Because Laurent is dangerously clever (he'd have to be to survive to adulthood), he uses the resources at his disposal. Together with Jord, the captain of his guard and Damen, he's actually able to turn the men assigned to him into a passable fighting force, but only after some very public demonstrations of his authority and some creative detours to give them more time to drill before they get to the border. Damen is in the incredibly unenviable position of having to help the man who currently OWNS him, and would probably straight up murder him if he were to discover his true identity, help secure his throne, despite the high likelihood of Laurent then turning right around and declaring war on Aikelos, Damen's home country.
On top of that, there is the growing trust between them, a much closer understanding and absolutely, mutual attraction developing between the two sworn enemies. Damen has to reevaluate everything he observed or experienced in the first book as he comes to learn more about the incredibly messed up power games between Laurent and his uncle. Damen is naturally constantly worried about what might happen if Laurent actually discovers his true identity, and more intimate their relationship becomes, the more uncomfortable he is about it. He killed Laurent's beloved older brother, and to a certain extent feels responsible for the lonely and f-ed up adolescence that Laurent has had, in the clutches of his seemingly benevolent, but in true fact super evil, uncle.
Damen keeps being torn between his wish to escape and go back to Aikelos to reclaim his own throne, and his growing affection for Laurent, that keeps him at his side, keeping him safe and aiding him in securing his own throne. Their growing romance seems impossible, and there is a fair amount of anguish on the part of the reader (at least there was for me), because how could the two of them ever really make it work. They are potential rulers of rival nations that have been at war countless times, and let's not forget - Damen killed Laurent's brother! It's difficult to forgive and forget that sort of thing.
At the end of the book, Aikelos seems on the verge of full out war with Vere, and Damen, instead of escaping, promises to hold an important border fort while Laurent rides into what is clearly an ambush orchestrated by his uncle. Then there are some revelations that made my mind literally boggle and forced me to start volume three as soon as I was able.
Damen's secret is out, and everyone knows he is in fact Prince Damianos of Aikelos. Vere and Aikelos are on the brink of war, with Prince Laurent's uncle, the Regent, amassing his forces, and Kastor, Damen's usurping and treacherous half-brother also on the war-path. The only way Damen is going to be able to reclaim his throne is with the aid of Laurent, the man who swore to kill him. Can Damen convince Laurent to set aside his enmity to face the bigger threat, his uncle?
Can the hesitant trust and growing love between the men be rekindled, even with Laurent being fully aware of Damen's true identity? Will they survive to enact revenge on their usurpers and can they have any future together, with full knowledge of the terrible actions of their pasts?
Here's where it gets hella spoilery, people. Seriously, do not read this if you haven't already finished books one and two. So yeah, Laurent knew about Damen, from the beginning. Having grown up in the viper pit that is the court of Vere, fighting the influence of his wicked uncle (who it's clear sexually abused him shortly after Crown Prince Auguste and his father died), Laurent is presented with his worst enemy as a slave, and told he's not allowed to harm him, or risk diplomatic relations with Aikelos. Of course he twists the situation so he can flog the living daylights out of Damen. Of course he mentally tortures him. This is the man that killed his brother! It makes the trust that builds between them, the friendship that turns to romance so much more remarkable, because while Damen didn't know that he knew, Laurent went to bed with Damen, despite his many (understandable) sexual hang-ups, even knowing exactly who he was.
He trusted him with an army and gave him control over one of his border forts, even knowing that he was the Prince Killer from Aikelos. The uneasy truce they form in the beginning of this book is an uncomfortable one, because you just want them to kiss (and more) and make up and turn the combined might of their brawn and intellects towards pummelling their enemies.
While the first book is slow and a bit confusing, because we don't have all the cards yet, and the second book is full of espionage, double-crosses, intrigue and romance, this book starts out well, but sort of collapses a bit towards the end. The stakes are oh so very high, but then the ending is sorted out oh so neatly, almost depressingly so. Everything falls into place just that little bit too conveniently and it all happens a bit too quickly to be entirely satisfying.
Not that the book before that isn't extremely enjoyable. Damen is back in the northern reaches of Aikelos, needing to muster support from the powerful lords of the country, all the while convincing them to support him against his treacherous half-brother, despite the fact that he's in open alliance with the true ruler of their enemy neighbour state. Damen and Laurent make an uneasy truce and have to prove themselves worthy of support, and outsmart the men who have taken what is rightfully theirs. This bit was a lot of fun, even if the angry tension between Damen and Laurent got on my nerves. I totally understand it, it would be massively unrealistic if they just jumped into each other's arms and let bygones be bygones, but still. I wanted my HEA.
And yet I complain when in the end, I did get a HEA for my dudes, but it just seemed to come a bit too easily. Still, in its entirety this trilogy is excellent, and I had such a fun time reading it.
Judging a book by its cover: These books have had a variety of covers, depending on the release. The newer, wide-release editions of these books are not exactly all that exciting, but play in rather well to the fantasy and political intrigue aspects of the trilogy, rather than the "two dudes are gay for each other and have some sex, but that is really a very small part of the whole". Various pastelly colours, with a brick wall, battlements or a tower in the background. A fancy font. A rearing lion. I think the marketing department has done a good job making really very neutral covers.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.