Review: Captive Prince by C.S. Pacat

Review: Captive Prince by C.S. PacatCaptive Prince (Captive Prince, #1) by C.S. Pacat
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, fantasy romance, M/M romance
Series: Captive Prince #1
Pages: 270
Published by Berkley on April 7th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

From global phenomenon C. S. Pacat comes the first in her critically acclaimed trilogy—with a bonus story.
Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the rightful heir to the throne of Akielos. But when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity, and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.
Beautiful, manipulative, and deadly, his new master, Prince Laurent, epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is as it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.
For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone else…
Includes an exclusive extra story! 

My Review:

I picked up the opportunity to review the Captive Prince trilogy because my friends at The Book Pushers raved about it – especially those Book Pushers who were outside the U.S. and couldn’t take advantage of the publisher’s offer of review copies.

I’m glad I did.

Captive Prince is fantasy, but not in the sense that there is magic operating in this world, at least not so far. It’s fantasy because this decadent quasi-Renaissance society is manifestly not the world we know from our history.

The countries of Akielos and Vere are at war, and seemingly have been for decades. Or possibly centuries. They each think of the other as decadent and corrupt, but to our 21st century eyes, that decadence and corruption is only a matter of degree.

The economies of both countries include slave labor, from the lowest levels to the highest. Slaves perform menial labor. Slaves are also trained as pleasure-slaves, meaning sex slaves. While it seems that slaves in Akielos are treated better than they are in Vere, it is all somewhat relative, as they are still slaves and can still be bought and sold, even away from their country and home.

The institution of slavery plays an important part in this story, because when we first meet our hero, Damen, he is being informed that his half-brother has killed all of Damen’s supporters, friends, and slaves, and Damen is being sent to Vere as a pleasure slave. Until that moment, Damen was the Crown Prince of Akielos and the rightful heir to the throne. In one move, his bastard half-brother has stripped him of his identity and his future.

And he has sent him to the one place where Damen cannot reveal his true identity and drum up support for retaking his kingdom. Not just because Vere is an enemy, but because Damen killed the Crown Prince of Vere in battle, and no one in Vere will ever forgive him for it.

Tortured, beaten, drugged and raped, Damen is better off as a slave in Vere than in revealing his true identity among people who will kill him on sight. If they recognize him. As punishment, as revenge, his bastard half brother has guaranteed that this revenge is not only served cold but will keep on chilling for as long as Damen lives.

If he can manage to adapt and keep his mouth shut, that is. Damen is used to giving commands and having them obeyed. Swallowing enough of his pride to keep himself alive is a challenge. We see this story entirely from Damen’s perspective, and we watch his struggle to piece together a way to submit enough to bend but not break.

His punishment is compounded by his half-brother’s diabolical choice of just whom to give Damen to. His owner is Laurent, the second son of the late King of Vere. Laurent is blond, cold and 20 years old. His uncle, who is possibly the equal of Damen’s half-brother in evil, is Regent. It is clear to Laurent, and to the reader, that his uncle does not intend Laurent to survive the ten months needed for him o turn 21 and achieve his majority and his throne.

Damen and Laurent should be allies, but they can’t be. If Laurent ever discovers that Damen is the man who killed his beloved brother, Damen’s life is forfeit. But if they don’t stick together, they are both dead.

princes gambit by cs pacatThe horns of this dilemma sweep them, and us, into the next book in the trilogy, Prince’s Gambit.

Escape Rating B: It took me a while to get into this story, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.

So far, at least, this is fantasy of the “it isn’t real history so it must be fantasy” school. So far, there’s no magic.

What there is, however, is dense political corruption along with a level of sexual decadence that reminds me a bit of Kushiel’s Dart. It’s not that, at least so far, anyone derives direct sexual pleasure from torture, so much as everyone has 16 layers of agendas, and most of those in power derive a lot of pleasure, including sexual, from forcing their will on everyone they can.

And public sex and public rape seems to be a spectator sport among the upper crust. I can’t manage to call them noble, even in context.

Writing the story strictly from Damen’s point of view was an absolutely brilliant choice. As readers, we are lost in this world, and Damen is also lost in his new role. As he picks up the pieces, so do we. Having him gather his intel slowly and carefully worked much better for this reader than vast infodumps.

Howsomever, there are multiple vectors that make the reader uncomfortable. Damen’s forced immersion in slavery is cruel enough, and his exploration and survival of his new circumstances is not for the faint of heart or stomach. He is beaten and abused, but the way that slaves are treated in general, not just Damen, does cause the gorge to rise. In other stories I have said that slavery dehumanizes the masters more than the slaves, and that is certainly true here. This world is ugly.

A different discomfort arose for this reader at Damen’s situation. In fantasy, we’ve seen this trope before. The heir is presumed dead and either enslaved or hidden. It’s not uncommon. And Damen’s journey does follow the trope. The description of his dehumanizing circumstances went on just a bit too long for this reader. I got the point and wanted to get on with the story.

Speaking of getting to the point, it felt obvious to this reader that Laurent’s debauched postures were just that, postures. He knows he’s slated to be killed, and that his uncle is setting him up. Everything we see him display is so blatantly a mask, I’m amazed that no one in the story sees it. I’m not saying he isn’t as much a cold bitch as he pretends to be, but it is also very clearly a mask. Whoever or whatever Laurent is under that mask is something we haven’t seen a glimpse of yet.

This is also a very slow-burning male/male romance between Damen and Laurent. Very, very slow, and that’s appropriate. They are on opposite sides of so many divides, that anything other than an extremely slow buildup of trust would seem fake.

But their society’s approach to love and sex is fascinaating. It’s also a big twist from the world we know. There is a very large stigma attached to illegitimate births, and the stigma seems to fall equally on both the man and the woman. Male/female sex is almost taboo because of its potential for procreation. But the prohibition is on procreative sex, not on sex. Therefore, romantic relationships seem to be almost exclusively same-sex, both men with men and women with women. These relationships are public and accepted, even celebrated in some cases. It’s a very different take on sexual mores and sexual equality, and I’m curious to how this will fit into the next parts of the story.

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