When I began this trilogy, which consists of Captive Prince, Prince’s Gambit, and King’s Rising, all I really knew about it was that it was Australian fantasy fiction and had an ecstatic fanbase. The author first published the story on her own web site, and received a gazillion hits. After a critic from “USA Today” noticed, the author got offers from American publishers, and signed with Penguin US.
I came to see the point of all the fans, but almost got derailed by the beginning, which has a shocking amount of cruelty, rape, violence, and pedophilia, just to name a few of the off-putting features. It was almost a challenge: make it through this beginning, and you get access to the real rewards. And indeed, that was the case. In addition, you eventually come to learn that much of the awfulness laid out at the beginning of the first book is not for shock value; it is part of the overarching drama you only learn about much later. In any event, it is only one of the plot lines in this very byzantine political saga.
As an interesting difference from much fiction, in this fantasy world, homosexuality is the norm, and sexual activity is practiced openly, whether with slaves (who are trained to do sexual bidding) or with consensual partners. The normalcy of relationships between men allows the author to build her narrative around this premise.
The main plot line is about two princes in neighboring and warring kingdoms who have been denied their thrones. The author has created unforgettable characters in the princes: Damianos (“Damen”) of Akielos, and Laurent of Vere. Damen, the true heir in Akielos, is betrayed by his throne-seeking half-brother and given as a slave to Laurent of Vere, whose uncle is serving as his regent. When the two princes meet, they hate each other for very good reasons, but over the course of the saga they get to know and appreciate each other and each other’s cultures, even as they struggle with the prejudices ingrained into them. Their relationship evolves into something quite complicated and wonderful that makes you avid to keep reading – not out of prurience but out of the beauty of their awakening knowledge of themselves and of each other.
But the pressures driving them apart are strong and unrelenting. The resolution is both clever and gratifying.
Evaluation: I loved this series. If you start it, stick it out through the very distasteful scenes at the beginning in Book One, because soon the focus will change. While “Publishers Weekly” called the books “a blend of intense erotica and political fantasy,” for me the appeal was the strong characterizations, nuanced relationships, and the depiction of the considerate and delicate growth of a romance in a setting in which cruelty and force are the norm. This series will grab your heart.
Captive Prince published by Berkley, 2014
Prince’s Gambit published by Berkley, 2014
King’s Rising published by Berkley, 2016