Formats available: ebook, mass market paperback
Genre: Paranormal romance
Series: The Dragon Kings, #1
Length: 404 pages
Publisher: Pocket Books
Date Released: June 25, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Ten years ago, Audrey MacLaren chose to marry her human lover, making her an exile from the Dragon Kings, an ancient race of demons once worshiped as earthly gods. Audrey and her husband managed to conceive, and their son is the first natural-born Dragon King in a generation—which makes him irresistible to the sadistic scientist whose mafia-funded technology allows demon procreation. In the year since her husband was murdered, Audrey and her little boy have endured hideous experiments.
Shackled with a collar and bound for life, Leto Garnis is a Cage warrior. Only through combat can Dragon Kings earn the privilege of conceiving children. Leto uses his superhuman speed and reflexes to secure the right for his two sisters to start families. After torture reveals Audrey’s astonishing pyrokenesis, she is sent to fight in the Cages. If she survives a year, she will be reunited with her son. Leto is charged with her training. Initially, he has no sympathy for her plight. But if natural conception is possible, what has he been fighting for? As enemies, sparring partners, lovers, and eventual allies, Leto and Audrey learn that in a violent underground world, love is the only prize worth winning.
I think it probably helps to read Silent Warrior (reviewed here) first. Not just because the same characters show up later in Caged Warrior, but because you get a fuller picture of the way the world works.
The Dragon Kings are not dragons or dragon shifters. They do have demonic or paranormal powers, but exactly what kind of powers varies from clan to clan, and from person to person.
They also have a terrible infertility problem. Their race is dying out. Human science claims to have a solution, and many of the Dragon Kings have sold themselves into slavery for the right to have access to that science. Some just sell themselves for stupider reasons, and some criminals end up as slaves.
Slaves become cage fighters. Think of the Roman gladiatorial combats run by something like the Russian mafia, but with the gladiators’ willing consent. I think it’s more complicated, but the backstory is still murky.
In the front of this story we have two of the cage fighters one very willing, and one a kidnapped prisoner. That’s where we begin.
Leto of Garnis has been Champion for years. He thinks being a cage fighter is the best deal he can get, not just for himself, but also for his family. He doesn’t even think of himself as a slave. He truly believes that the Aster crime family values his service and has dealt honestly with him.
Then Audrey MacLaren is literally dropped into his world. She was born Nynn of Tigony, but was exiled and married a human. That should have been the end, but instead, something marvelous happened. She gave birth to a Dragon King without any of the special treatments that the Aster family laboratories had created. So they murdered her human husband and captured her and her son.
Then they tortured and experimented on her. (If you ever watched the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, think of the labs where the Cylons experimented on human women and you’ll get the idea, with the added bonus that the Doctor in charge of the lab in this case was a sadist with a special interest in Audrey/Nynn. Serious squick.)
Leto is tasked with training Nynn to become a cage warrior, and he has three weeks. If she survives three matches, his reward will be the long-term care of his sister, who is in a permanent coma. Audrey’s reward for surviving a year will be to see her son.
In order to train Audrey in this compressed time frame, Leto has to break her down, and then build her up. But he can’t break her so far that she can’t be built up again. (This is the concept behind the way drill sergeants treat recruits at boot camp.) She fights back from the very first second and some of what Leto does seems quite cruel.
This is a very dark, cruel, world. In order to survive and get her son back, Audrey has to go back to being Nynn, and learn what she needs to learn so she can fight back. Leto is her best choice, and she calculates that decision. She isn’t sure she likes herself when she does.
Leto isn’t sure what he’s been forced into. He’s never fought with a partner. Training Nynn, working with her, has also made him spend time with someone who has had a whole different experience from his own. The more he learns, the more he realizes that what he’s always believed might not be the whole truth.
And when the Asters send someone to remove her memories of her son, he knows that he’s been deceived all along.
Escape Rating B: For a romance, this is extremely dark. Not just because the world that Lindsey Piper has created is literally underground, but because truly awful things have happened to every character. Even at the end it’s not HEA or HFN, but together and still fighting for the light as the best outcome. Evil is still out there.
In fact, I think we’re still wondering who the big evil is. I bet we’ve only seen the little faces of evil, not that they weren’t sick enough.
I want to know how things came to this pass. The Dragon Kings are more powerful than humans. They used to be gods. How did they become enslaved? I can guess, there are multiple historic parallels. But which one (if any) is this one?
Speaking of which, I sincerely hope there was a reason the doctor needed to be sadistic on top of being the paranormal equivalent of Dr. Mengele. The bwahaha sexual sadism seemed over the top.
About Leto and Nynn. He starts out the story having big holes in his personality. She starts out the story having huge gaps in her memory. I did like the parallel that they both got their blank spots filled in during the course of the story. In effect, they each got un-brainwashed.