This has been the most enjoyable June I’ve had since I’ve started my sci-fi/fantasy annual tradition. Through no more reason that pure word of mouth, this year I elected to read Melbourne writer C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy. And I’m so glad that I did, as I really enjoyed it!
Following his half-brother Kastor’s seizure of the throne of Akielos following the death of the king, the rightful heir Damianos (Damen) has been sold to the enemy state of Vere as a pleasure slave. Stripped of his identity and forced to serve the prince of Vere, Laurent, Damen must quickly learn to adjust to his new surroundings, his new master, and the new consequences with which he must deal.
The trilogy primarily is told through the lens of Damen. We are just as shocked and appalled as he is when we learn of the customs of Vere, as well as the colourful cast of characters we encounter along the way.
Be warned: Captive Prince, book one of the trilogy, contains confronting and incendiary scenes aplenty. It is certainly not for the faint of heart. This occurs right from the opening scenes of the book. It is important for readers to remind themselves that they are not only reading a work of fiction, but also a work of fantastic fiction (in both sense of the word). I found that this was the easiest way to deal with the nature of the scenes of rape, torture and paedophilia that are contained within this first book.
In spite of all of this, I found the book to be utterly captivating…no pun intended. I found it to be engaging, complex and interesting, and nothing at all like any of the fantasy I had ever read before. I was truly championing Damen and found myself intrigued by the nature of his new master, the ice-cold Laurent. The relationship between the two men finds its fruit particularly in the latter half of book one, and it takes on a whole new level of meaning in the second installation of the trilogy.
Prince’s Gambit sees the location of the action change drastically. Whereas Captive Prince was primarily set within the walls of Vere, Prince’s Gambit takes us to the battlefield. Their homelands of Vere and Akielos on the brink of war, Damen’s concealed identity takes on a whole new meaning as the tactics of battle infiltrate the relationship between he and Laurent.
For good chunks of time through my reading of Prince’s Gambit, I was worried that my love for the first instalment of the trilogy was not going to carry through to its successor. Not being a huge fan of traditional elements of fantasy novels, I worried that it was going to be too heavy for me to gain any sense of enjoyment from it. With lots of battle strategy, war antics and loyalty tactics throughout this book, it is certainly the most fantastical of the three books in the series. Although it did lose me at certain points, what maintained my interest and kept me enraptured was the simmering tension between Laurent and Damen.
Thrust into a whole new world, their relationship dynamic changes. With Vere falling to the might of Akielos in the past, Laurent relies heavily upon the battle-tested Damen to prove his own tactics in wartime. This cleverly subverts the dominance of the relationship between the two to having the power on Damen’s side, in spite of his lower social standing – as far as the rest of the characters as concerned, at least.
An added intrigue that is at play throughout Prince’s Gambit is just when or if Damen’s true identity is going to be revealed, and just how Laurent will react. Perhaps the most important element of the relationship between the two is that Prince Damianos of Akielos was responsible for the death of the former Prince of Vere and Laurent’s brother, Auguste, on the battlefield prior to the commencement of the novel. If Laurent were aware of Damen’s true identity, it casts a shadow over whether or not he would allow Damen to become so entrenched in Vere’s campaign against his Regent uncle. (Side note: the depiction of the Regent is splendidly written, his true evil nature slowly forming piece by piece throughout the three novels is masterful).
Perhaps the most interesting action of Prince’s Gambit, however, happens towards the end of the book (warning! From this point on, there may be spoilers. Read at your own risk!). The ever-tense and fascinating relationship between Laurent and Damen finally reaches the point which was seemingly inevitable throughout the course of both of the books. But perhaps even more intrigue is to be found in the final sentences of book two, which propel the course of action for the conclusion of the trilogy.
“And as Damen looked out, the army was dropping to its knees, until the courtyard was a sea of bowed heads, and silence replaced the murmur of voices, the words spoken over and over again. ‘He lives. The King’s son lives. Damianos.’”
(Unfortunately it was inevitable that I read this sentence prematurely as I flicked ahead through the pages to see how long this book was. Curses!)
This sets the stage wonderfully well for the third and final instalment, King’s Rising. In my and many other’s opinions the finest of the three books (high praise indeed), the epic conclusion beautifully melds the personal and the political, the violence and the love and the epic and the delicate. Damen’s true identity revealed, he and Laurent must face both of the countries uncertain futures. With both Kastor’s and the Regent’s armies mobilising for war, Laurent and Damen must unite their armies if they are to stand any chance against their opposition’s might.
Laurent now intimately familiar with Damen’s superior battle tactics, he must reconcile that this is the man he has sworn to kill for the death of his beloved brother. As they journey deep into Akielos, there are shocks, twists and turns as they face dangers unforeseen. But the true question lingers over their relationship’s strength, and whether or not this can not only survive the duration of their quest, but also the plays for the throne that their enemies have cast.
What follows through King’s Rising is some of the most beautiful scenes of the series. We are tense, wary and simultaneously frustrated – but, without ruining the ending of the entire series, we are ultimately satisfied. The conclusion to this series is utterly perfect, and makes the whole trilogy sing in turn. Upon consideration, it could only have possibly ended in this one way, but nonetheless it is startling just how much planning must have gone into this by Pacat to make it this perfect. The development of the characters, their relationships and their fates were just some of what made this series one my favourite June fantasy month ever. Thank you, C.S. Pacat – I look forward to seeing what you come up with next.