Notes on Captive Prince (Volume 1, first half)
[ALERT ALERT: There are massive spoilers for Volume 2 in the comments thread. There are no spoilers in the post, and you will not see spoilers when you scroll down to the bottom of the post. You have to read through the first few comments before you get to them, and the first ones are marked. ]
This story showed up in my corner of Romlandia through two separate channels: First, it is quite popular in the m/m community and there has been a thread on it at GR for years. Second, Supacat (S.U. Pacat, get it?) is friends with a writer who is friends with friends of mine who are in my tweetstream and whose blogs I follow. That’s two degrees of separation, but all it takes is a couple of blog posts and tweets and soon it’s all over my part of Twitter. I tried the Kindle sample and found the writing and the premise weren’t enough to make me immediately download the first volume, but the chatter on Twitter didn’t subside and the enthusiasm from such disparate reader communities made me wonder if this might not be the Next Big Thing. So I gave it another shot.
I made it through the first four chapters of the online version, thought for a while, and then downloaded Volume 1 of Captive Prince to my Kindle.
Please note: This is not a review. These comments are from my reading of the first half of the book only.
Things could change later on, and I’ll certainly read to the end of this installment. I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me. I’ll post again once I’m done with Volume 1.
I’m still having trouble seeing what readers are so taken with. It’s decently written, although I’ve discovered that the adverb abuse is accompanied by rampant comma abuse. I need Liz Mc2 to tell me what the proper names are for the sentence clauses and constructions; all I know is that Supacat has an inordinate love for the split subject/verb. She splits them with clauses, she splits them with commas, and she likes to break up the flow of a sentence with extra (optional?) commas. I itched to remove the commas and rearrange the sentences. I’m a fan of dividing subject and verb with a modifying clause, but I think the technique is a bit like truffle oil: delicious when used sparingly but annoying in quantity.
OK, so the plot and characters. Damen is a prince/heir to the throne from Sparta I mean Akielos who is sold as a slave to the ruler of Byzantium/France I mean Vere. In the original fanfic B/F is called Rabat, but in the ebook the name is changed to Vere. Vere is full of people and places with French-sounding names but it also has arches and tiles and lots of gold and jewels and a harem, so hello Byzantium.
One of the frequent observations about the book that intrigued me is that it reminds readers of Dunnett, and that Laurent in particular recalls Lymond. I don’t see it in the early chapters. How is he like Lymond, except for being blond and handsome and outwardly nasty? Lymond took his traumatic past and made himself a force to be reckoned with. Laurent took his traumatic past and became sulky, resentful, and nasty to people who are in his power. Lymond was respected by the men he commanded and loved by those he befriended. Maybe Laurent will get there, but when I compare the opening introductions to both men, I have trouble seeing any similarities beyond the superficial. [Update: I've been reliably informed on Twitter that the Dunnett- and Lymond-esque bits emerge toward the end of this book.]
The settings are evocatively rendered but juxtaposed in troubling ways. Akielos is Sparta, what with the emphasis on rugged masculinity, minimalist clothing, etc. etc. Akielos is a land of forthrightness and truth (though also fraught with evildoers who intrigue), and the sex is discreet. Vere is lavish, ornamented, and bejeweled, and the sex is in your face all the time. This opposition is not exactly masculine v. feminine, together with the distinctive power that each would imply, but rather masculine v. effeminate, with the pejorative implications thereof.
Damen is given as a slave to Vere’s rulers by the new King, presumably to get him out of the way; this dishonorable act is committed jointly by Damen’s half-brother, the new King, and Damen’s (female) former lover. The half-brother, Kastor, is a bastard and therefore of Akielos but not entirely legitimately (heh). Jocaste is the traitorous ex-lover who abandons Damen for immediate power via Kastor. It struck me that the bad things happening in Akielos are done by specific people who are bad, but the bad things that go on in Vere are done by everyone.
The depiction of Vere as effete and decadent is conveyed through the emphasis on ornamentation, from the way the slaves are made up with gold cosmetics to the architecture. Perhaps this is meant only to be Damen’s view, and I hope it changes as the book progresses, because in these early chapters it feels uncomfortably Orientalist. I should note here that I grew up with lots of ornamentation, arches, marble floors, bejewellment, and the equivalent of makeup for children, but sadly there was no decadence that I can remember. Or public sex.*
Damen’s scorn at the finery and the embellishments is understandable given his backstory and present circumstance, but the book is in close 3rd POV and the constant repetition of how decadent Vere is becomes tiring. The blurb describes Vere as “voluptuous and decadent, the country of honeyed poison,” a phrasing that recalls depictions of the devious Oriental. (As an aside: I find the wording a bit odd, since if you’re going to poison someone you presumably don’t want them to figure it out from the first taste. Honeyed poison seems smart, not devious.)
As I read, I was struck by how completely drenched in sex the book is. Not so much explicit acts of sex, although there are those too, but off-page events, implicit and explicit penetration, implicit and explicit arousal, and so on. It’s all about power so there’s definitely a point to it, but it’s relentless and it’s a bit one-note so far. There is also a back and forth in the descriptions of these events: sometimes they’re referred to as rape, sometimes they’re not, and sometimes the same event moves from rape to “performance.” Given that we’re talking about slaves for the most part (every sexual interaction so far has had at least one slave as participant) my instinct would be to call it all rape unless explicitly shown otherwise. But maybe that would be too discomfiting for the reader. Or more likely I’m missing something.
The main characters are obviously in a master-slave relationship as part of the initial story setup, but all three societies introduced so far include the institution of slavery as an unquestioned given. Sexual slaves are called “pets” and they are almost all slight, long-lashed, and young. There are women and men slaves, but up to this point we only encounter the men. The book’s treatment of slavery deserves a post of its own, but this one is already long enough, and I want to refresh my memory about different types of slavery before I post on that.
*Well, yes, there are the temples at Khajuraho but I didn’t see them until I was an adult and I didn’t read the Kama Sutra until I was in the US and honestly, we were very very not-talky about the sexytimes. It makes me blush just thinking about thinking about that while in the same room with my grandmother.
[Note: Comments are now closed on this post. There is a second post on the rest of Volume 1 and the beginning of Volume 2 here.]