Buy Link: Concubine
Author: Jill Knowles
Publisher: Loose Id
I read Concubine as another one of my Goodreads Bingo Challenge books. The category was “Best Gay Fantasy Romance,” something I don’t read very often. I am not that familiar with fantasy, this author, or the master/slave trope of this book. But I had read some good reviews and it sounded interesting so I figured I’d give it a shot.
Kael is a military commander and royal prince of Korai, a country at war with Zandria to the north. Korai initiated the aggression, but Zandria is bigger and stronger and soundly defeated them. As part of the settlement agreement to end the war, Kael’s father agrees to give Kael to the Zandrian warlord Taren as a concubine. Although Kael legally has the right to refuse, he doesn’t want to cause his country further bloodshed or his own dishonor by not taking actions that will end the war. So although he is terrified and furious at his father, he agrees to the service.
Kael is very out of his element when he arrives in Zandria. The country is much larger and wealthier than Korai. They are also much more open sexually, with same sex couples well accepted and concubines and even public sex fairly commonplace. Taren is kind and considerate of Kael, sensitive to the fact that he is new to the role of concubine as well as to sex with a man. He takes some time to get Kael used to things (although still it is only a day or so before they have sex) and he seems to genuinely care about Kael’s happiness. But the bottom line is Kael is now a sex slave and expected to accommodate all of Taren’s sexual whims. I am not sure if this is common to other books of this trope, but in addition to sexual submission, Taren expects substantial power exchange as well. He dresses Kael, hand feeds him, expects him to sit on the floor at his feet, and refers to himself as Kael’s owner and master. Taren is also a sexual dominant, using harnesses, handcuffs, and other elements of control over Kael during sex.
I enjoyed this first part of the story the most as we see Kael adjusting to his new life. Knowles does a good job of showing the internal conflict between how scared and freaked out Kael feels and how he fights those feelings in order to preserve his honor and that of his country.
However, as much as we see his inner turmoil, it still felt to me that Kael’s acceptance comes really quickly. One major issue is that Kael has never experienced a gay relationship, yet he has been given as a sex slave to a man. He is definitely anxious during their first sexual encounters, although we get the sense that he is more concerned about the idea of having gay sex than he is by the actual experience. I could actually buy the fact that Kael accepts a male sexual partner relatively easily because it is clear from the start that he is more open to and interested in these relationships than most of his countrymen. So this part worked fine for me and I thought it was handled well.
There were two other areas I found harder to accept. First, Zandria is a country populated by half demons along with humans. We are told early on that the original reason that the countries didn’t have an alliance is because secular and religious laws in Korai prevent any kind of alliance with the demons. They are looked upon negatively by the people of Korai, yet Kael seems to have no trouble having sex with one of them (as well as interacting with other half demons there). I wish this had at least been addressed in some way, even if only to say that Kael didn’t share the feelings of his countrymen.
The biggest hurdle for me was Kael’s seemingly easy acceptance of his new role as a submissive. He is not just a sexual submissive, but also living virtually a complete power exchange. This is a man who not only was previously free, he was a member of the royal family and a military leader. He is used to having ultimate freedom and enormous personal responsibility over others. And suddenly in the blink of an eye he becomes a possession, something completely under the control and ownership of someone else. We have no indication that he has ever had submissive tendencies before. Although it is clear that Kael comes to enjoy this type of sexual relationship, and to accept the lifestyle part of things, it just seemed so fast as to be difficult to believe. I realize that this is a power dynamic that works for some people, it just seemed so out of nowhere that I had trouble believing Kael’s relatively easy comfort with the situation.
The second half of the book shifts direction a bit to focus more on threats against Kael by the concubine’s guild. They are mad because Kael shows true passion with his master and the other nobles are envious, whereas the guild concubines are boring and no one wants them. This was sort of meh for me in terms of conflicts. Jealous concubines? It’s not that I like major hurdles in my romance, but this seemed sort of weak for some reason and made this part of the book not as exciting for me as it might have been. I also think that the resolution of issues between Kael and his father didn’t come together as well as I wanted. Kael has sort of an “aha” moment where he comes to understand and accept what is going on with his father, but as a reader I didn’t feel like it resolved the issue as well as Kael did.
I did really like both Kael and Taren and I could see how they grew to love one another over the course of the book. I like that Taren was portrayed as a good guy who truly cares for Kael and is willing to risk his life for him. And I enjoyed Kael as well and his steadfast dedication to Taren and his commitment to the life he has agreed to take on. I am not sure how many of my issues with the book come from my unfamiliarity with this type of trope or just from this particular story. I enjoyed it (especially the first half), but it just didn’t completely come together for me.