Hi everyone! Today I am so excited to welcome the second of our two new reviewers! Angi will be joining us as a regular reviewer and we are so excited to have her. Check out more about Angi at the end of the post and be sure to give her a big welcome!
Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy Links: Amazon | All Romance
Teman and his best friend Jasim are thieves for hire, willing to retrieve any item, from anyone, for the right price. The anyone part proves problematic when a client sets them up to be captured by the palace guards. The arresting officers present the two gypsies to the Captain of the guard who gives them a choice: go to the dungeons or serve as a palace pleasure slave. It may seem like a choice, but really it’s not; both men choose the lesser of two evils and take up the chains of sexual servitude rather than the dungeon chains.
The training is brutal, their bodies pushed to their limits as they are conditioned to be constantly aroused, always ready to serve, and to only achieve climax when commanded. They learn how to pleasure men and women, learn how to accept pain and denial, and ultimately learn that their bodies are no longer their own to control.
Despite the intense training, life as a pleasure slave isn’t all that awful once training is completed. They make friends with some of the other slaves, the master of the slaves is kind and takes good care of them, and most of the nobles they are asked to service treat them well. All except Mukesh, the malik—the local ruler. Mukesh is a cruel sadist who wields both pain and pleasure to break the slaves he plays with, leaving them battered and sexually frustrated when he’s done with them.
Teman and Jasim settle into a routine of serving, spending as much time as possible with their new friends, and attempting to avoid drawing the malik’s attention. When an assassin attempts to murder both the malik and his oldest son, Bathasar, Teman’s street-smart instinct kicks in and he single-handedly foils the attempt and he can no longer escape extra attention. Including attention from Bathasar.
Bathasar is fascinated with Teman and though he has never requested the company of a pleasure slave, he requests Teman’s services for the night. This sparks a whirlwind romance and our heroes must navigate their growing feelings in between figuring out how to make a relationship work when one is royalty and one is a slave, planning a government coup, and keeping their friends safe.
Okay, so I’m just going to lay this out here right now: it’s been a long time since I’ve been this confused over how I felt about a book when I was done reading it. I think most of that has to do with the fact that this story is long and there’s a lot going on and while parts of this story really, really worked for me, other parts just fell flat. Through the first ¼ of the book I was fully prepared to tell all of you to run—don’t walk—to pick this one up, and then we hit the next hundred pages or so and got into the beginning of Teman and Bathasar’s romance and the whole story just stalled. It picked back up again, but to be honest, I’m still not quite sure exactly if I liked or disliked this book in its entirety.
I think the biggest concern for me with this story is the characters. Both of the main characters were portrayed in a rather vague and in some ways contradictory manner and it made it really hard to connect with either of them. It also made some of their motivations and reactions to events in the story seem wildly unrealistic or hollow, like this was how a character of this type was supposed to react, so that’s why they are instead of that character actually feeling that way. Like the author had these character molds in mind—kind master and slave surprised by his need for submission—and created characters that didn’t fit those molds, but instead of just going with it, tried to force those characters into the molds. The first glimpse we see of Bathasar is fascinating, as a prince under the thumb of his father who is a terrible ruler and Bathasar is just trying to hold his kingdom together with subtle plays and moves in the shadows, not willing to risk his country or his younger brother in the crossfire if he openly opposes the malik. And then he shows up for real and he comes across as naïve at best and outright stupid at worst, suddenly totally unaware of the depths of his father’s maliciousness and the lengths that he would go to just to wound his eldest son, allowing Teman to be brutalized when the malik learns of Bathasar’s affections for him.
Teman is no better. In the beginning he’s the street-smart gypsy thief with an uncanny ability to weasel out of trouble, and then he and Jasim are captured and it takes him virtually no time to settle into the life of a pleasure slave. There’s a token nod to the thought of escape, but it never felt genuine. I found it really hard to believe that a man who made his living as a thief, who is a self-professed gypsy street-rat, wouldn’t have at least attempted an escape or at the very least been plotting and absorbing every detail he could about the palace, picking out nobles who might be sympathetic, detailing possible exit points, trying to get information about guard schedules, evaluating risk versus reward for certain scenarios—something. This is a man who thwarted an assassination attempt while naked and adorned with a cock ring and a butt plug because he saw a shifting shadow and yet he can’t figure out the layout of the palace after being there for weeks? Something there just didn’t add up for me.
Conversely, I absolutely adored the side characters in this and Mukesh, the villain, was actually probably my favorite character in the whole story; I loved to hate him and when he finally got his comeuppance I squealed in delight. They were all portrayed consistently, the good guys were sympathetic, and they felt way more genuine than either of the MCs, but even that led to a little confusion. Teman appears to connect far more with about three or four other side characters than he does to Bathasar and I think it really muddies the romance. It seems odd that Teman would fall so easily for Bathasar when he was developing such strong feelings for his new friends and his connection to Jasim is deepening by virtue of being the only familiar thing in his life. I loved all of the side characters, but they felt more developed than both of the MCs and consequently I found myself rooting for Teman to end up with one of them at first instead of Bathasar since the chemistry between Teman and Bathasar was noticeably absent at the beginning of their love affair. So while the side characters were great, I definitely think this is a case where less might have been more.
Which I actually think can be said about this entire plot. There was probably about a hundred pages that could go. Not that any of it was boring, but I think the insta-love romance felt forced and so much time was devoted to it. I think this plot would have been much better served if most of that was cut and the relationship had simply developed more naturally during their trip to a foreign kingdom. I think that would have seemed far more realistic and less out of character for Teman and Bathasar. And probably would have cemented them as right for each other for me rather than give me the wishy-washy feeling I had about their love affair.
Other than that, I think the story moved along at a pretty good clip despite being almost four hundred pages. What I really enjoyed was the time spent focusing on the conditioning that Teman and Jasim went through. It wasn’t simply glossed over and while it was primarily just hot, it also made everything that came after it that much more believable and enjoyable. I also have to say the psychological aspect of that entire sequence of scenes was a delight. The same can be said for the ending. There was no instant fix to their—I’m going to call it a “dilemma” since it really isn’t much of a conflict—dilemma, and there shouldn’t have been. If you’re going to try to transition a master/slave relationship into something more equal and healthy, then you can’t just wave a magic wand and have all the power-imbalance issues with that go away. I’m grateful that this wasn’t done here; it makes for a much more enjoyable story and I was left feeling confident that these two characters actually could make a relationship work despite the difficulties.
I feel like it’s time to address the kink in this story. Make no mistake about it, this is not the story to choose if you’re just dipping your toe into the master/slave genre or the kinks of orgasm denial, service submission, and body conditioning. These kinks are not just featured, but the central focus of the story and the sex happens often, like every chapter. There is also more than one scene with explicit non-con (although consent is a touchy thing in a maser/slave story to begin with). For readers wary about the intensity of the kink, you may want to give this one a pass, but I loved it; this book found every single one of my kink buttons and mashed them relentlessly. This was a hot, hot book if you enjoy service submission and prolonged orgasm delay.
As far as the writing style goes, there were a lot of plusses here, but a few concerns as well. The descriptions we get of the palace and the people and the city and the culture are stunning and it’s clear that the author did quite a bit of homework for this. It comes across wonderfully and adds a really decadent layer of texture to the story. But unfortunately, what started off as a very cohesive and enjoyable narrative dissolved into head-hopping and stiffness as soon as Teman and Bathasar get in the same room together. The stiffness smoothed out as the story moved along and I think it occurred largely because the author was trying to force the relationship aspect of this too early, but the head-hopping never goes away and it often made the narrative confusing or difficult to follow. There are still a few paragraphs where I’m not sure whose POV we were in, so I’m not sure whose thoughts I was getting.
Overall I’d say that if service submission, master/slave, or extreme orgasm denial is your thing, then this book delivers hugely on those aspects and it’s worth overlooking the issues with plot holes and characterization for some really fantastic kink scenes. But if that’s not your thing, you should probably give this one a pass.
Angi shares a home with a husband, a son and two rescue animals—one dog and one cat. Most of her free time is spent curled up with a good book, (usually of the m/m variety) a cup of tea, and her kitty. Her main goal in life is to create more of that illusive free time since her list of finished books never seems to be at all in reasonable proportion to her list to read.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.