The Captive Prince trilogy has been gaining steam on the internet for many years now — at first quietly, as a free serial posted by the author on her LiveJournal, and then less so as Penguin picked it up for official publication in paperback form. And, really, it’s very good. A capable balance of slow-burn romance — which I am ALWAYS here for — with classic historical fantasy elements and political intrigue, the series is mature, clever, complex, and, above all, utterly engrossing. Across nearly all of the oodles of positive reviews, one of the main accolades is that it’s unputdownable.
That’s not to say that the series doesn’t have weaknesses, but to be perfectly honest, in my view it’s in the same caliber of a behemoth like Game of Thrones. The comparison may sound crazy, but they’re kind of both working with the same fundamental fantasy trope of warring enemy kingdoms, and the hidden alliances and betrayals within and between them that shape and re-shape power structures. That GoT does this on a larger (and longer) scale makes it seem more immediately epic, but I challenge anyone who has read the second volume of Captive Prince to dispute the idea that C.S. Pacat has more than enough chops to fashion a similarly tangled web of lies, subterfuge, and clues, to those that have earned GoT its place in the classic epic fantasy pantheon.
Of course, few series will ever blow up to the extent that GoT has, and I will be wholly unshocked if Captive Prince never reaches the proper mainstream. At best, it could maybe hope for Outlander-level notoriety, which would be quite a feat but would still mean it has been relegated to the ghetto of “Women’s Fiction” for bullshit (read: sexist) reasons. Reasons that are simple and two-fold: first, the romance plot is prominent, and second, it’s between two men. Any other controversial elements, like its inclusion of risque dialogue, or the initial worldbuilding that includes plenty o’ slavery and rape (to which I have admitted discomfort), should no more disqualify it from seriousness than GoT or Outlander are.
I read the three books rapidly in succession over a period of about five days. Personally, reading them in this fashion worked very well for me. The first two volumes in particular benefit from a quick turnover, and all three have complex enough plot intricacies and subtle enough details that as a whole, not giving myself time to forget any of said details was beneficial. But I’m also impatient in general and don’t like gaps between volumes if I can avoid it, so YMMV. I’m going to be doing something of a group review here, so avoid the summaries for the second two books if you are wary of spoilers. I’m going to try to keep it vague, but better safe than sorry.
Captive Prince (3 stars), the first book, does, admittedly, have the potential to be off-putting. We jump right in to a set of societies where slavery, sexual and otherwise, is normalized. Brutal things can, and do, happen to these slaves when they get caught in political cross-fire, and the main character, Damen, offers weak rationalizations of slavery by way of comparison between his own country’s “civilized” version and rival country Vere’s less polished take. While I don’t believe for a second that author C.S. Pacat is actually romanticizing slavery, there is an Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty-lite vibe that permeates the book and mines some of the sexual slavery situations for titillation. Fortunately, these situations arise mostly in their contribution to the world-building and portraying the excesses of the Veretian court. As the narrative moves away from that and more into exploring the personal and political relationships between Vere’s young Prince Laurent, his uncle the Regent of Vere, and our narrator, who is himself the ousted would-be King of neighboring country Akielos, we get more into the meat of the story and fewer graphic scenes to provide background dressing. The basic set-up is this: we open with Damen being unwillingly, not to mention outrageously, conscripted into slavery for the personal service of Laurent. Damen is the first legitimate son of the recently deceased King of Akielos and therefore directly in line for the throne, but in a power play, his half-brother Kastor ships him off to Vere, a longtime rival with which Akielos currently maintains an uneasy treaty of peace. Meanwhile, Damen is pronounced dead in Akielos by way of a treasonous plot against him. Kastor plays sad and gets the King’s seat. With me so far?
Akielos is known for their slave training, which renders the slaves completely submissive in all things. Obviously combative and possessing the physicality of a soldier moreso than of a non-dominating slave, Damen draws the wrong kind of attention in Vere. Suffice it to say that he doesn’t get along at all with his new “master,” Laurent, who hadn’t before taken a personal slave, but was now in the position of being unable to refuse a diplomatic “gift” from a shaky ally country that he despises. For his part, Damen himself is critical of Laurent’s seemingly cavalier and duplicitous nature, and even if he liked Laurent personally, for obvious reasons he wants nothing more than to get back to his home country. It’s a seeming recipe for disaster that’s also being set up as a romance, and if that makes you uncomfortable, well, keep reading.
Prince’s Gambit (Captive Prince, Vol 2) (4.5 stars) starts right on the heels of the first book, where Damen, Laurent, and a company of men are setting off for the Vere-Akielos border on what should be a routine patrol and observation mission. Almost right away, things start going awry, and it’s clear that someone is trying to sabotage the cohesion of the group, incite tension between the two countries, and lay the blame for all of it at the feet of Laurent. Damen and Laurent, therefore, find themselves working very closely together, as the two find that they can benefit from the others’ expertise and that they actually have the same desired outcome. As such, Laurent promises Damen his freedom if Damen can help Laurent secure his position on the throne without undue bloodshed and the looming threat of war with Akielos.
This is a very short description of a book that is, in essence, a fascinating game of chess between several players. That Damen and Laurent’s relationship progresses toward the romantic is the earned product of a growing respect for the other, unexpected trust, and a necessary dismantling of their original power structure. The tension between them is a powder keg, and it’s just as dependent on their personal feelings as the political stability of their respective kingdoms.
King’s Rising (3.5 stars) has me begging for half-star ratings. On paper, I rate both this and the previous book four stars, but in truth I consider the final book to be noticeably less sophisticated. I won’t get into the specifics of the plot at all, but right after the considerable depth of the layers of planning and counter-measures on exhibit in Prince’s Gambit, the plans that were concocted to tie up the story at the end seemed a little too simple, a little too reliant on luck and prayer, and a little too tied-up in the readership suspending their disbelief that Damen and Laurent aren’t literal superheroes. I accept a bit of prenatural strength or talent in my fantasy heroes, but in the final book these two are just simply wearing plot armor, and no injury or insurmountable odds can prevent them from doing something conveniently heroic. That said, one’s perception of King’s Rising largely depends on what one wanted out of King’s Rising. My criticism of it stems from a kind of modern cynicism that applauds certain fantasy tropes while deriding others, and which tropes get which treatment change from person to person. In one sense, there’s not really anything wrong with the ending of the series. It’s emotionally resonant and basically successful in giving the audience what it wants without being super cloying and fan-servicey. As I said, for me, it’s only in comparison to the difficulty of game-play established in the prior book that I offer snarky criticism that the end was less about the good guys truly progressing through the game and outmaneouvering the opponent than it was that the good guys prevail just because they’re good and the world will come together to allow that. But did I enjoy the book? Absolutely! Was it a satisfactory ending to an excellent series? Definitely!
I may be venting frustration prematurely, because time will tell how the popularity of this series plays out, I am suspicious that these books (not for awhile, at least) won’t get the widespread readership they deserve because of the audacity to prominently feature a romance between two men. And that makes me sad. And some other feelings. Because they’re just good books, and because the stigma against romance and, in particular, LGBTQ romance, is so pervasive that people just simply won’t read them. I hope that changes, and, when it does, I hope Captive Prince gets the credit it deserves for being a classic fantasy trilogy.