I’m not going to be able to write a real review of this. It would just come out garbled with enthusiasm. Instead, I’m going to do a real spoilery bullet point thing and see what comes out. Absolutely do not read any further unless you’ve already read all three books.
*If Laurent didn’t already know that Damen was Damianos, he would know by the end of the book. Damen is TERRIBLE at keeping his identity secret. He acts, fights, and speaks like a prince. He has zero duplicitous bones in his body. In the one instance he is forced to wear a disguise, he is literally physically pained by it. He is adorable. (It also makes for a fun reading experience because you’re constantly having to reinterpret things that Damen notices but doesn’t really understand the full significance of.)
*Damen’s genuineness is one of the reasons the dynamic between he and Laurent works so well. Laurent has grown up in a culture steeped in secrecy, backstabbing, and maneuvering. Damen couldn’t maneuver his way out of a paper bag. This isn’t to say he’s stupid; he’s not. He’s just up front, and he tends to be blind to the disingenuous of others, except in hindsight, because he assumes as a baseline that everyone else is as up front as he is (unless you’re an enemy).
*Laurent on the other hand not only grew up in Veretian culture, but after the death of his father and brother, spent his formative years being abused by his uncle, which transitioned into a political game where his uncle (a grown man) held nearly all the cards. Laurent had to use every tool available to him just to keep himself sane. This has resulted in the existence of person who keeps himself tightly controlled in every aspect of his life, who uses his intelligence as a weapon, and who can’t bring himself to trust anyone.
*On top of that, Laurent loved and admired his brother very much. They were very close. It’s no wonder he’s so angry and cruel to Damen when he first meets him (on top of Damen being a “gift” from his uncle). But as he gets to know Damen, he finds that same quality in Damen that he loved so much in his brother. Damen’s strength is tempered by kindness and honesty. He’s hyper-competent yet straightforward. He’s a good man.
*Damen steadies Laurent. He provides a solid foundation from which Laurent can practice his complicated scheming. He gives him perspective, and someone to trust. He also is extremely practical, and sees what needs to be done in the now, whereas Laurent often gets caught up in the what might be. Sometimes its better to just kick out the closed window than to plot ways to go around it.
*Laurent isn’t the only one to grow in this book. Damen does too. Through their partnership, where they shore up each other’s weaknesses, they both independently realize the kinds of kings they want to be. Damen for the first time, while still loving and respecting the memory of his father, acknowledges that he doesn’t want to warmonger and conquer and own and destroy. He sees the killing of Auguste as something he regrets now, something that didn’t have to happen. He even fantasizes at one point about what could have happened if they would have met in parlay instead, had become friends, and Damen could have courted Laurent formally. It’s a rosy, unrealistic fantasy, but it says a lot about Damen that he could think such a thing might have been possible under any kind of circumstances.
*There’s a scene at the end of the book, where Laurent is lashing out at Damen, and he yells that Damen is blind to things that are right in front of his face. And that’s true! If Damen thought about it at all, he would realize it’s incredibly obvious that Laurent was abused by his uncle. There are SO MANY clues littered around the book. It’s almost like Laurent is wanting him to make the connection. His affinity for Nicaise is the biggest clue, but he’s constantly talking as if he has personal experience with his uncle’s sexual proclivities, especially in the scene where he’s taunting the traitorous Aimeric. He knows exactly what to say because he’s been there himself. He knows what will hurt. It’s all right there. Of course the sexual predator would take advantage of his young, beautiful, grieving and innocent nephew. Who would be there to stop him?
*The sex scene is so good, and not just because it’s hot, but because of what it reveals about both of their characters. This is exactly what I love about a good sex scene. It’s not about pleasure. It’s about two people connecting not just physically but emotionally. And this is such a good example of that, because that the sex is even happening at all is a sign that Laurent has fallen for Damen. No one but someone who Laurent truly loved and trusted would be allowed to get half as close as Damen does. And the scene itself tells us such lovely things about not only their dynamic, but about them as people. Damen notices (he always notices, just doesn’t always interpret) that Laurent is a strange mix of sexually knowledgeable and innocent, but he doesn’t put together that Laurent knows only the kind of sex taught to him by his abuser. He doesn’t know love or affection or tenderness. He can’t fathom why Damen would want to kiss him, or fellate him, if Laurent isn’t going to “reciprocate”. He doesn’t understand the kind of person who would give pleasure because giving pleasure to someone he loves, as Damen does, is a kind of pleasure in itself.
If you haven’t fallen for Laurent by the end of this scene, I don’t even want to talk to you. He’s clearly terrified, despite his initial bravado, to give up control. But his desire to be with Damen just for one night is greater than his fear. Damen kills me here, because he has no idea the complicated emotions that are in Laurent’s head during all of this, so he just zeroes in on two things: making sure it’s what Laurent really wants (consent!) and making Laurent feel good. He just is this nurturing sex bear who can’t tell exactly what’s wrong but is going to fix it anyway. I don’t know what a nurturing sex bear is exactly, but it’s Damen. I could go on about this scene for 1,000 more words, or more.
Also, all caps warning, THIS IS STILL NOT EROTICA.
*The end scene!!! Damen’s secret identity is out. And I had forgotten that Laurent had made his move to ally with Akielos not even halfway through the book. He foresaw Damen as his political ally even as far back as their first week on the road, though he didn’t foresee the affect trusting Damen would have on his military and political situation with his own men. But we’re not supposed to know that yet, because as far as the plot goes, the reader is only supposed to think at this point that Jord and the others at Ravenel know who he is.
*I already want to re-read and make notes this time of all the things that read differently the second (or more) time through. Because the alliance with Nikandros plays very differently if you just think that Laurent believes Damen is only a soldier, if a very talented one. But if you actually stop to think about any of it, all of Laurent’s actions make the most sense if he knows he’s got Prince Damianos up his sleeve.
*I’m not going to go read any of the negative reviews for a long time because I can’t fathom how anyone could dislike this book.
*Such good enemies to lovers. Such great political machinations. Plot twists galore. Treachery! Murder!
*Hey, is the audiobook any good?
*I always forget about this, but I wonder how many Damen babies will be wandering around the Vaskian camp in nine months. And it’s so cute that Laurent is just amused by this as well. He’s probably pleased by the idea.
*Upping this to five stars.