This is the story of how I read something wildly out of my comfort zone and learned from the experience.
My reading goals for this year have been to a) read more female fantasy writers and b) don’t buy books but use the library (part of an ongoing frugality goal). I have been pretty successful in both–I don’t think I’ve read a book by a single non-academic male author (I don’t include academic books in my write-ups), and I have only purchased one book this year (I Have Always Lived in the Castle, because I read the sample and wanted it NOW but it wasn’t then available on my library’s Overdrive).
In order to work on these goals, I’ve been going through the fantasy list of my library’s e-books. I thrive on recommendations, so I’ve been a bit at a loss in going by descriptions. But Captive Prince seemed right up my alley: I adore reading about the political machinations and conflicts of made-up countries.
What the description did not say was that there is a whooooole lot of sex in this book. Now, I’d like to think I’m not a prude. I enjoy well-written sex scenes as much as anybody, but I also find that well-written is often not very graphic (the sex scene in Uprooted is literally the sexiest thing ever and it doesn’t have to name any parts or describe things as ‘masts’–side-eying you, MARTIN). I was turned off a little bit at the very beginning when the main character, Damen, is basically getting felt up by some hot blonde woman. It felt very male-gazey, which I was not really expecting in female-written fantasy, but hey, whatever; I was bored and needed something to read. But it also did not really prepare me for what I realized about halfway through, which was: huh, this is definitely M/M erotic fantasy. (I love that it took me about half the book to actually realize this, because I sort of thought all the sex was just… I dunno, world-building? More on that later.)
Now a few caveats. First, I realize that Captive Prince and its sequels is not strictly erotica. I have never read erotica so I cannot comment on it as a genre, but from what I gather, this does not belong to that genre. Therefore I have termed it ‘erotic fantasy’. The second caveat is that I realize many of you are probably rolling your eyes at me for my emphasis on not realizing it was M/M. Now, I was raised in a conservative family, so while this may have deeply shocked teenage me, adult me was just surprised because I was not expecting erotica of any kind. However, I also decided that it would be good for me to read some M/M romance–especially because part of my goals in reading more female-written fantasy is to read things that I would not ordinarily pick up, and I think that while I would maaaybe pick up something if the description said it was M/F erotic fantasy, I would probably (subconsciously or consciously) not choose a M/M. So, I was determined to stick with it and read something outside my bubble.
Hook for Book I:
Damianos, Prince of Akielos, is captured in a political coup when his father dies and his brother seizes the throne. Damianos is sold to the enemy nation of Vere as a slave… a sex slave (gasp!) but as his nickname ‘Damen’, not Damianos, as his brother wants him believed dead. Damen’s new owner is Prince Laurent of Vere, who hates Akielos because Damen killed Laurent’s older brother on the battlefield several years before. Laurent hates Damen for everything he represents but Damen cannot help but be fascinated even through his own hatred for the prince’s cruelty. Damen must escape Laurent without anyone finding out his true identity and save Akielos from his brother’s tyranny.
As for my thoughts, I’ll just do bullet points here because it has been a little while since I read them…
- Pacat does sexual tension REALLY well. Partly this is because of the innate conflict between the two characters, but also because she does not hesitate to add conflict after conflict to complicate things even more. In fact, the sexual tension is waaaay hotter than the actual sex scenes.
- In the introduction or acknowledgements to one of the books, the author revealed that this was apparently originally a serialized novel posted online. I am very much unsurprised by this, actually–not because of quality, but because the endings to the books seemed… rather arbitrary. The ending of Book II and beginning of Book III is particularly off.
- Characterization: Damen is basically a bland beefcake, but Laurent is actually very interesting and pretty much stays interesting as his character arc progresses. I did not, however, like the scenes from his POV in the third book; they were underwhelming because Laurent’s complications are best viewed from Damen’s POV, who is shockingly naive and not very bright.
- There are lots of political machinations on both sides, even though they mostly require Damen to be pretty dim in order to work. Most of the plot twists are telegraphed pretty far in advance and are easy to figure out–but hey, it’s not a mystery.
- There is a lot of sex. Most of it in the first book does not happen to the main character(s). The later books have less, but it is more immediate/intimate and more graphic as well. Not all of the sex scenes are M/M, by the way, but most of them are (and the non M/M ones have no impact on the plot).
- The world building is not particularly strong. Akielos, Damen’s country, is a very, very thinly veiled version of Ancient Greece. Vere seems kind of French but is basically just defined by the fact that they are luxurious, wear fancy clothing, and are debauched. They have a lot of sex outside marriage with their sex slaves–but the twist is that they hate the idea of bastardy to a ridiculous extent so every Veretian engages in same-sex relationships so nobody accidentally gets preggers. I mean, it’s a neat setup for the premise, but is just rather unbelievable overall.
- All in all it sort of felt like a budget version of Kushiel’s Dart, just M/M. (This may be completely because I do not read erotic fantasy much, as previously stated, so the failing may be mine.) But where all the sex made sense because of Phedre’s background and character, much of the sex here (especially in Book 1) is just window dressing.
- Literally the one female character who gets to speak more than three lines is an evil cheating bitch. And she’s not even in it really until Book 3. This wasn’t really what I was hoping for my in my quest to read more female-written fantasy…
Overall… they were fine. I’d probably give 2.5 stars rather than 2. I kept reading them and did enjoy them while I was reading (as I said, the sexual tension was great and definitely kept the books going). And I’m glad I read them, for the aforementioned reasons of expanding my horizons and going out of my immediate comfort zone. But I’m not sure I would recommend them to anybody unless I knew that they liked this sort of book. If I were looking for sexy times, I’d probably read more Jacqueline Carey… which I probably ought to do!