In an ideal world, I’d use long journeys to finally read that second volume of Proust, catch up on some Herodotus, or focus on foreign-language exhibition catalogues. Instead, my brain cheerfully clocks out and I end up reading stuff like this. That isn’t to say C.S. Pacat’s trilogy is bad: on the contrary, it’s an engaging tale of political skulduggery and brooding romance. But I wasn’t going to own up to it until I saw a photo that Kerstin posted on Facebook, while lazing in the garden with her Kindle, and noticed that she was reading it too. At that point I decided that everyone’s entitled to a bit of froth once in a while, and thought I’d do a quick post on the trilogy – if only because, as Kerstin’s interest indicates, there’s more here for Dunnett readers than you might initially expect.
The three books are each relatively short and feel like separate parts of the same story, rather than distinct volumes: hence my decision to deal with them all together. Funnily enough, I read the first part immediately after Half a King and found myself in déjà vu territory of murdered kings, wicked relatives, and princes sold into slavery. But there the similarities end. Oh, that they do. While Abercrombie’s hero Yarvi ends up as a galley slave, Pacat’s Damianos of Akielos (known as Damen) has an even worse fate in store. Stripped of his identity, shackled and chained, this noble warrior is sent by his usurping half-brother Kastor as a gift to the prince of the enemy kingdom of Vere. The very prince whose brother Damen killed in battle some years earlier. The wretched situation does have two silver linings, though. First, the notoriously cruel and cold Prince Laurent of Vere hasn’t been told the identity of his new slave. Second, he shows absolutely no interest in treating Damen as the Veretians usually treat slaves.
This would be a good place to stress that you must know what you’re letting yourself in for. Had I not been assured that it gets better, I would have put the first book aside in the manner of a nervous maiden aunt. It is occasionally more explicit than I am comfortable with, and there are some unpleasant scenes which account for the scattering of 1-star reviews on Amazon. I’ve read reviews that say the first book feels more like fan-fiction than a novel and I can see what they mean. But persevere. Because, towards the end of the first part, something suddenly happens: the book clicks into gear; the interaction between Laurent and Damen becomes more nuanced; and we begin to see that both their fates are bound up with larger political machinations. For me, things became much more interesting once we were able to escape the decadent hothouse of Vere.
Let’s ignore for the moment that a predictable romantic tension develops between our two protagonists. What’s interesting is to see how they gradually become aware of the other’s complementary strengths. The trilogy hinges on the question of whether it’s best to trust a relative, assuming that blood-relation makes him loyal, or to trust an enemy who has proven himself honourable? The developing trust between master and servant becomes the focus of the second book, which was my firm favourite of the three. Prince’s Gambit shrugs off the dodginess of the first book, and avoids the angst of the third (taking refuge, when it has to, in smouldering eroticism). It’s an almost Dunnettesque tale of double-bluffing, villainous schemes, secret negotiations, ambushes and disguise, with a rooftop escape thrown in for good measure. Of course I enjoyed it.
Kerstin commented that Pacat has surely read the Lymond Chronicles and I agree. The blond hair and blue eyes could have been coincidence, but the languid, self-contained, sharp-tongued Laurent also has a familiar gift for politics: chess, if you like, on a grand scale, with an ability to foresee his opponent’s next move and to create wildly inventive blocks. He also initially seems like a complete swine. I didn’t always believe his blend of viciousness and vulnerability, but he’s one of the more interesting characters I’ve come across in fantasy novels this year, even if he sometimes does seem too good to be true. Fortunately, perhaps, there is no evident Dunnettesque parallel for Damen.* Yet Pacat’s Laurent seems to be a tribute rather than a derivation: he exists firmly within a world of his own, full of social and political complexities. Both Vere and Akielos have carefully-constructed cultures (French-sounding personal and place names in the former; ancient Greek flavours in the latter), with contrasting traditions and costume.
In some romance novels, you can tell that the plot is merely an obstacle on the way to the bedroom and fortunately that isn’t quite the case here. Nevertheless, the trilogy is increasingly highly-charged: nothing is as erotic as the discreet, the understated, a hint, like the flash of bare skin on the back of a geisha’s neck. And that’s where Pacat does do very well. As we come to know her characters better, a glance or a hesitation come to have immense power. She also takes the time to give her world a context: Once you’ve got past the sensationalist tendencies of the first book, it’s a good, character-driven read.
This was recommended to me automatically by Amazon, presumably because it’s of the same ilk as Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series or her co-authored Companion to Wolves. If you’ve enjoyed those, I think it’s safe to say you’ll like this. Having said that, a few cunning plots don’t take away from the fact that the trilogy is essentially romantic fluff at heart. Interestingly, ratings on Amazon seem to be almost entirely split between five stars and one star, which is always the sign of a book worth reading to make up your own mind. It’s best summed up by a phrase coined by Heloise: ‘tasty, but not particularly nutritious’. But, now and then, there’s a time and place for that.
Next journey, Proust. I promise. *Uncrosses fingers*
* I suppose if he had to be anyone, he’d be Jerott, but that’s a debate and a mental image we probably don’t want to get into.**
** Or do we?