Okay, first let’s have a talk: Anyone who calls this series erotica is fooling themselves, or trying to fool someone else. This is some straight up fantasy adventure war spy tactics shit right here. That just happens to involve a m/m romance. So is that the erotica part because I’m confused. Is featuring a m/m romance taboo, so that’s why it’s “erotica”? The sole purpose of erotica is to titillate. It does nothing else. This is not that. At all. The ratio of sex to plot is entirely average in Prince’s Gambit (for a romance novel, which are yes, more explicit than general fiction, but not the same thing as erotica). It’s chock full of character development, though. And battles. And maneuverings and plot twists. And romance. Hiiiiii to the romance.
And I read the crap out of it.
This first book in this series was a really compelling read for me, but I wasn’t sure I actually liked it until I was about a third of the way through the second book. What I found in Prince’s Gambit was what I was expecting when I started the first one: two enemies gradually getting to know each other (and falling in love, against both of their wills, amid lots of exciting complications). It also has lots of stuff I wasn’t expecting, like a compelling political plot, lots of exciting twists and reversals, and some ridiculously good character work. And thankfully, it has bits that are directly designed to counteract a lot of what happened in the first book, with all of the obscene and sexually permissive (and rapey) atmosphere of the Veretian court, which I myself didn’t mind reading about as long as it was clear the author wasn’t trying to make it sexy.
But yes, even though all the stuff surrounding it is fantastic also, the main event here is the burgeoning relationship between Prince Laurent of Vere and his slave Damen, who is really his sworn enemy Prince Damianos of Akielos, as they prepare an unlikely group of soldiers for a conflict that is sure to come now that Laurent’s uncle has made his intentions towards Laurent clear. Damianos finds himself helping his rival to secure his throne, to take his place as the leader of his people.
The first time through, it’s fun to watch the two of them actually get to know one another and re-evaluate their previously held opinions and judgments, and a lot of the book is designed it seems solely to re-contextualize stuff they did in book one, or to shed light on their motivations. The more Damen and Laurent get to know one another, the more they begin to respect (and love) each other, despite their differences, and their history with one another.
And here is where I need to spoil the heck out of the plot in order to talk about this book and its place in the series as a whole, including the revelation that totally changes everything, so if you haven’t read book three yet, stop here and scroll to the bottom where it’s safe.
[SPOILERS] Prince’s Gambit ends with the intimation that not only might Laurent know that Damen is actually Prince Damianos, but that he’s known the whole fucking time. I could probably save this bit to talk about in Kings Rising when Damen learns about it, but I want to talk about it here because of what it means for this book, and for what happened in Captive Prince.
So the first time through this book, you watch these two yahoos falling in love, and you think it’s just swell because Laurent is coming to respect Damen despite their differences, which is a reversal from book one where Laurent was openly hostile and violent towards Damen, seemingly for no other reason than that he’s Akielon. This makes Laurent seem cold and vicious and calculating to both Damen and the reader. Damen, meanwhile, believes that Laurent only knows him as a warrior, not Damianos. But Laurent knowing the whole time explains so much, and removes a lot of the ick factor of Damen falling in love with the guy who flogged him in book one. Laurent is not cold and vicious and calculating. He is an abuse survivor, in a battle for his life and his throne with his uncle, who was given his most hated enemy as a present, and then forbidden to harm him. He’s lonely and damaged, and very very smart.
It explains Laurent’s immediate hatred of Damen. It explains the weird encounters Damen has with him and his uncle, that he clearly isn’t understanding the subtext to in the moment. It explains that bathroom scene in the first book, which was clearly a pre-text for Laurent to trap Damen into committing an infraction that would allow Laurent to flog him, and thus take his revenge on the man who killed his brother six years before. But Damen doesn’t die. And the more he sticks around, including an episode where he saves Laurent’s life, the more Laurent realizes that Damen is a good person, whom in another set of circumstances Laurent would have admired and sought friendship with, and so begins to forgive him.
So the fact that they fall in love is even more unlikely than we thought, and more gut-wrenching. The whole time Damen is worried about what will happen when Laurent realizes who he is, but it’s needless worry. They have bigger problems. [END SPOILERS]
The more I write about this book, the more I like it. I really, really seriously wish that more people who gave up after the first book would give the series another go. Probably a lot of you still wouldn’t like it, but I just know that a lot of you would end up loving it, because this book is night and day from the last one, and not only that, but it and the next book actually change your perception of what happened in that last book.
Bottom line: if it’s your particularly flavor, this book is excellent fantasy, and an excellent m/m romance, and while it’s certainly not without its flaws (there are some instances of purple prose, for one thing), I enjoyed the hell out of it.