reviews

Book review: Captive Prince by C.S. Pacat, Volumes 1 and 2

Here are some things I have strong feelings about:

  • slavery and dehumanization of people
  • romanticization of any aspects of the former two things
  • rape in any form
  • unhealthy power-play relationships that are purely about sex with no emotional depth (why yes I am staying the hell away from 50 Shades of Gray)

So I was a little leery starting Captive Prince, with the little I knew about it. Especially when the opening scene featured a couple characters walking down a hallway lined with slaves with their foreheads bowed to the floor. That is not an image I enjoy, at all, no matter how happy the slaves in question profess themselves to be.

Fortunately, my initial uneasiness did not prove to be wholly warranted. Yes, there are some rough scenes, particularly in the first half of Volume 1 — scenes of attempted and successful rape, and references to pedophilia (never actually seen) — which not everyone may be up for reading. But what I was initially fearing (BDSM power-play sex scenes that start off in an undeniably non-consensual situation, but magically transition to a consensual one based on the physical pleasure alone) did not come to pass.

Instead, I found one of my favorite things: slow, realistic development of a relationship from ground zero, without shortcuts, even through what looks like an impossibly tangled thicket of obstacles between them. I would rate it right along with Flowers in the Storm for top-notch quality and success in hooking me.

And there is so much to enjoy in these books completely outside of the sexual/romantic relationship between the leads! If, like me, you enjoy reading about:

  • political struggles
  • culture shock/differences
  • studies of how different societies function
  •  situations involving hidden identities that are realistically complicated and raise the stakes higher and higher as the story progress

Also there’s well-crafted portrayals of war games and nifty battle tricks, which I thought were cool even though they aren’t normally things I seek out.

Now I’m going to get into spoiler territory, so I’ll finish this section just by saying I do wholeheartedly recommend these books IF you’re able to handle scenes of attempted sexual violence and (in more moderation) forced sex. There’s actually just a few of them — less than five, I think — that occur in the first half of Volume One, and they aren’t the focus for the rest of that volume or the next one. Far from gratuitous.

Volume 3 hasn’t been published yet, and I have no idea what’ll happen in that one, but I trust the author now that for whatever happens (God forbid, a tragic ending), it’ll be true to the characters.

SPOILER TERRITORY BEGINS NOW.

From pretty early on, I formed two theories, one I’m dead-certain about, the other I’m only mostly sure and now have new doubts.

The dead-certain one is that Laurent was also one of his uncle’s victims. I can’t imagine that readers were supposed to interpret it any other way when the regent touched him on the head and reminisced about how he was a “lovely boy.” And of course it explains so much, with why Laurent is the way he is, and also the tension during their first night in bed together.

Now the one I’m less certain about, though I don’t know how else to interpret this moment in their first meeting:

Laurent had stopped dead the moment he had seen Damen, his face turning white as though in reaction to a slap, or an insult. Damen’s view, half-truncated by the short chain at his neck, had been enough to see that. But Laurent’s expression had shuttered quickly.

I immediately understood that as an indication that Laurent did recognize Damen. That belief was supported through the rest of that volume and the majority of Volume 2, and strengthened as Laurent witnessed Damen perform such impressive, one-of-a-kind feats like throwing his sword to kill an opponent. How could Laurent possibly think Damen an ordinary soldier, or anyone but with the skill to take down his brother? My confidence was only shaken shortly before the end of Volume 2, with Jort’s reaction to learning Damen’s identity.

It made me question — wouldn’t Laurent have had a stronger reaction if he’d recognized the killer of his brother and father? Could he have possibly let his defenses down, let his feelings warm so much, that they had the night they had in bed? Speaking of that: A+ amazing first sex scene for characters in a new relationship, with tricky history to boot (even just considering what’s acknowledged between them).

And would the author have let a situation with so much suspense build like this, without intending any payoff? But I think that twist of “I already know” would still be powerful — and a blessed relief, considering what’s at stake now, and how easily the regent might triumph after all if Laurent is destroyed that way.

Of course, I’m on tenterhooks now for how the next events in Volume 3 will play out. The last scene of Volume 2 was such a glorious scene, the kind well deserving a fist pump, but it also makes me very afraid for the next scene between Laurent and Damen. If Laurent didn’t know who Damen actually is — he’s going to now, before they meet again. And there’s no possible explanation that’s going to make it better. The only thing that might hold Laurent together is if Damen warns him that this is what his uncle wants. But still, I don’t know how they’d ever come around to intimacy again, and of course I want that.

I’m more and more impressed, looking back, at how the author built this Jenga tower of complications while keeping true to the characters’ distinct personalities — how even straight-forward and honest Damen, with his contempt for Vere’s pretenses and treachery, is keeping a secret that now has the potential to destroy Laurent.

Have I mentioned this is a good story? It’s a damn good story.

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