ETA 4/21/16: Due to a boo-boo that I made (marking two reviews in a row as #46), this review is my actual Cannonball, even though I thought it was this one. Whoops!
I have sooooooo many thoughts about this series. I don’t even know where to start!
If you haven’t heard of it yet, this series is making the rounds as The Next Big Thing (I think, with good reason). It was originally published on LiveJournal user freece’s blog as an ongoing serial and gained a huge following, and she self-pubbed the first two books. When it became popular enough, Penguin came calling, and released new editions of the books. The final book in the series was released a couple of months ago.
There are a couple of things I think you should know going in to the series and in to this review:
1. It is impossible to separate the story of Captive Prince from its online origins, which are deeply rooted in the traditions of slave fics, m/m romance (also known as slash), and serialized fiction, although in the end I think the story plays against type for a lot of the stuff you’d normally expect if you are reading those kinds of stories. This book leans heavily into a lot of tropes, which is misleading and a little off-putting at first, especially if you don’t make it to books two and three to see them upended.
2. Captive Prince really suffers when compared to the second two books, Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising. Especially since if you’ve made it to book three, you realize you don’t have all the information necessary to judge this one, and that Damen is a verrry unreliable narrator. This hurts the series overall, because by having this book stand on its own as a singular entity, it makes it easy for readers to just walk away before they have all of the information, and on top of that, it also happens to be the shakiest book in terms of the writing and plot. If you’ve only read this book, you’re missing out on the core of the story.
3. This series really works best as one long story, and that’s how it should be read, with no breaks in between. I hope one day there will be a version of this series that combines all three books into one. That would be ideal, and they’re short enough individually for it not to be cumbersome.
So the basic plot of this book is that Prince Damianos of Akielos (a sort of stand-in for ancient Greece) is betrayed by his bastard half-brother and given to the prince of a neighboring (enemy) country as a pleasure slave. STAY WITH ME. So that neighboring country is Vere, a sort of renaissance France look-alike, except soooo much more hedonistic. Damianos (who goes by Damen) killed Prince Laurent’s brother in the last battle of a war between their countries six years before. So yeah, not great that he’s been given to this guy. He’s in danger pretty much from the moment he enters Vere, and while he also has to learn to navigate Veretian society (which is very different from his own), he also has to learn how to get along with Laurent (he’s presented to the Veretians not as the Prince Damianos, but as a slave who’s been called Damen in honor of the Prince, so no one knows who he really is), and find a way to escape and take back his throne, because yeah his brother is now the King.
The problem here is that Pacat has to navigate her character being a slave without giving in to the temptation to romanticize or eroticize slavery (and the things like rape that accompany it), and she walks a verrrry fine line. Ultimately having read the whole thing, it’s clear to me she wasn’t intending to romanticize either of those things, but because she portrays some things in vivid detail that aren’t very pleasant (including rape, master/slave violence, and pedophilia) and doesn’t come down strongly condemning it, it’s touch and go there for a while. The problem is that her narrator, Damen, is very unreliable and so up in his own head and unaware of a lot of things that would also change our minds as readers.
What I did like right away about this series is that it doesn’t just give in to the “one prince serving as a pleasure slave to another” thing right away. She develops a world where the political intrigue, espionage, and warfare are just as interesting as the characters. Laurent is a fascinating character even before you realize what his motivations are, and especially once you do. Actually, there is very little sex in this from what I was expecting. If you’re uncomfortable reading about this kind of stuff no matter the context, you might have a hard time with this book, but ultimately I do believe it has a purpose in the narrative. Especially since once they leave the Veretian court at the end of the book we’re removed from the site of most of the uncomfortable transgressions, and it becomes a much more comfortable reading experience. And then you realize why you had to see all those terrible things, but again, this comes back to my point that the book should be able to stand on its own and it doesn’t. UGH SO MANY CONFLICTING THOUGHTS.
I do have to note that I liked the way this book dealt with sexuality. Both cultures have attitudes toward it that I’ve never really seen in fantasy books before. The culture of Akielos does not discriminate about its citizens’ sexual proclivities, and though our hero admittedly prefers women most of the time, he is also very clearly bisexual. The culture of Vere takes it even farther. As a culture, they fear bastardy so much that outside of marriage it’s actually taboo to take a lover of the opposite sex, so homosexual sex is extremely common. And not just in terms of the sex, I thought Pacat did a nice job overall delineating the two cultures, and I found it really interesting to sink into the world when it wasn’t making me uncomfortable (ultimately, for a reason).
I originally rated this book four stars because I found myself utterly compelled to finish it, despite the uncomfortable nature of some of the events, and because I wasn’t quite sure how the author wanted me to respond to parts of the book. Now that I’ve read the rest of the series, it’s clear that this book can’t really stand on its own, which I think is a pretty big flaw. Not to mention it’s just as likely to turn off new readers as it is to hook them.
Ultimately, though, in the light of what we learn in future books, this first installment sets up the story pretty well. It’s just, you shouldn’t have to read the second and third books to be fully okay with the first book in a series. It should stand on its own and not scare off readers who might potentially love it.
Reviews of books two and three coming soon, in which I actually talk about the story. Something to look forward to!