deceptionRating: 3.5 stars
Buy Links: 
 Amazon | All Romance
Length: Novel


Not long after his coronation, Malik Bathasar learns of rumors of a plotted assassination. While his security advisors think he should simply sequester himself and not give the assassin an opportunity to attack, Bathasar knows that doing so will only prevent the attack in the short term and allow the malicious forces behind the plot to remain unknown and therefore still dangerous. He decides instead to see if he can draw the assassin out by pretending nothing is amiss.

The problem with Bathasar’s plan is that since he is pretending nothing is going on, increasing security is out of the question. Teman is worried about his lover’s safety and they increase his presence at Bathasar’s side. Teman doesn’t leave his lover even during formal court appearances and meetings with his advisors, knowing that his skills as a former thief will help him protect Bathasar. Teman’s skills have already once prevented an attempt on Bathasar’s life, back before they’d even met. That event sparked their whirlwind romance all those months ago, but Teman fears this new threat is more serious and he worries that his own hyper-vigilance rooted in his personal stake in Bathasar’s safety will not be enough. He convinces Bathasar that their plan needs a few adjustments.

Bathasar decides that if one former-thief-turned-pleasure-slave is good covert protection, then three would be even better. Nadir and Cyrus are Teman’s friends from his time in the slave quarters before Bathasar claimed him and two of the only three other people he and Teman have been intimate with since he claimed Teman as his own. Before being arrested and becoming pleasure slaves, both men were orphaned thieves who worked together to make legitimate money protecting nobles when they could get the work and stealing from crooked merchants and other thieves when they couldn’t to survive. Bathasar offers them the opportunity to use those skills once again to help keep him safe by pretending that he has also fallen for them in addition to Teman and dragging all three around with him everywhere he goes, unable to part with them for even a short while.

Nadir and Cyrus’s relationship is already a complicated balancing act between their strong feelings for each other and their duties as slaves, but they’ve long since found a routine that allows them some measure of peace and acceptance of their lives even if the situation isn’t exactly perfect. This new proposition from Bathasar is scary and fraught with the possibility of upsetting the careful control they have on their feelings and destroying the measure of happiness they’ve managed to find when things like jealousy and confusing feelings for Teman and Bathasar are suddenly entered into the equation. Ultimately they decide that the risk to their comfortable routine is not worth Bathasar’s life and they agree.

Strong feelings do indeed arise between all four men as their playacting starts to fell less and less like a ruse. They must learn to navigate these new emotional waters all while making sure the attempted assassination and potential coup never come to fruition.

Yet again, this series leaves me with a really ambiguous feeling after reading. There were certainly a lot of things that I enjoyed about this story but there were a lot of things that really just left me disappointed and I’m having trouble reconciling those competing feelings and evaluating which ones have more weight. Please don’t ask me outright if I liked this book or not. I could tell you which parts I liked and which I didn’t but and overall opinion? A straight yes or no? That’s beyond me.

I’m still not really sure how I feel about the romance and the emotional connections between the characters here. At the beginning there is a lot of jealousy and confusion from both Nadir and Cyrus when they see each other with Teman and Bathasar and while that felt realistic, it was difficult to watch at times. It also made it really baffling how quickly the characters slipped from that into instalove. True to form with everything else about this series, on the one hand I thought the romantic feelings progressed in a really organic way the more time the characters spent together, but on the other I feel like it became rushed and jumbled somewhere along the way.

Also, I was really disappointed by the state of their relationships at the end of the story.  I felt like we spent the entire book building to something that seemed to be coming to fruition, just barely blossoming, and then just…went away.  And if I’m going to read a book that’s nothing but one long tease then I certainly don’t want it to be on that’s over three hundred pages.  [spoiler]  Throughout the story, we build toward an eventual permanent foursome. The characters even start telling the other partners they love them. There is a point where Bathasar offers to make the temporary arrangement permanent and Cyrus and Nadir both accept. And then out of nowhere, Bathasar promotes Cyrus and Nadir to keeper of the pleasure slaves and they go back to being separate couples and Cyrus ends up collaring Nadir as his own. It was like spending all your time blowing up a balloon thinking you’re going to end up with a nice balloon at the end only to have it pop on you last minute. [/spoiler]

As far as the plot goes, this story was much smoother in terms of external conflict than the previous book, Choices. From the very beginning it’s clear the direction the story is going to take instead of simply meandering along for about a hundred pages like book one did. The only problem was it just wasn’t very interesting. I had pretty much figured out the whole assassination plot in the beginning because every time some important detail happened it was like the narrative shouted “hey look at me! I’m going to be important later!” and there weren’t any interesting twists in the way it wrapped up to provide some interest. I honestly found myself not caring at all that Bathasar’s life was in danger for the entirety of the plot.

As I mentioned the pace of this story was much better than the last and I think if you felt like the first story dragged a little you’ll enjoy this story arc much better. That being said “better” is still not fixed. There were still so many scenes that just didn’t need to be there or should be cut down significantly. I found myself reading scenes that really spoke to me in between other scenes I could absolutely not care any less about. Specifically the flashback scenes. I have a love/hate relationship with flashback scenes anyway because I feel they are extremely hard to do well and most times they detract from the narrative rather than add to it. While it was interesting to see the beginning of Nadir and Cyrus’ relationship and how they first fell in love, I was far more invested in what was going on in the present story and every time that story really got rolling I was jerked out of the narrative to read an overlong flashback. I think they did add something to the story and there was one scene in particular—the depiction of Nadir and Cyrus’ first meeting—that touched me deeply. Like I mention in my review of Coronation below, that scene was so powerful on its own, and had the flashback simply ended there it would have been so much more powerful in its impact, but instead the flashback continued on through several other scenes that didn’t matter nearly as much and really diluted the whole effect.

Once again we’ve come to the point in the review where I feel I need to address the sex scenes head on. The last book was absolutely stuffed to the gills with intimate scenes and one could really take away the impression that these men thought about nothing but sex. A good portion of those scenes also had no bearing on the story and could have been cut to tighten the narrative. While there is still a ton of sex in this story, it’s not nearly as overwhelming and almost all of the scenes directly inform you about the developing relationships between characters. There was also somehow both more and less kink in this story. I guess a better way of saying that would be that the kink was a little more varied or creative. Most of the scenes in the previous story felt very similar and often went the exact same way as the scene before it, but that’s not the case here. There is a lot more variety but yet I think the scenes also show some much needed restraint in comparison to the first book. I will say though that one of the things that kept me hooked in the first book was the almost one hundred pages dedicated to body conditioning, a favorite kink of mine and one I don’t see often and we don’t get that here since all parties involved with the exception of Bathasar are already trained slaves so I did mourn that loss, but the scenes were still hot.

As far as the writing style goes, it’s quite clear that Duncan matured in her voice considerably from one book to the next and it was gratifying to see. I hate to keep beating the dead horse, but this area was another that was a story of conflicting feelings—a tale of equaled pros and cons. The descriptions of the setting are still stunning. So vivid and visceral and lovingly detailed in all five senses, I could close my eyes and transport myself to the world Duncan created here with ease. Yet this trips the story up at times too. The people in this story were described with just as much painstaking detail, and while I admire the dedication to visual writing, at the same time it was just too much. I don’t need ten pages describing the nobles assembled in Bathasar’s court. In fact, I probably don’t even need one page; a few paragraphs would have sufficed. There was page after page of nothing but description in the middle of several scenes and I found myself no longer enjoying the vivid imagery but urging the narrator to just get on with it.

I hate that my next compliment must also be tainted by a slight criticism because I think this was one thing that made this book a vastly easier book to read than the first. I hate to be a POV Nazi, but I’m sort of a stickler for authors making smart choices about POV changes and all of the issues from book one are gone. There is no head hopping and no muddled POV. At no time was I confused whose inner monologue I was getting and it was refreshing. Although I feel I can’t not mention this because it’s one of my biggest personal pet peeves, but the narrative featured several scenes from the villain’s POV. I absolutely hate that under ideal conditions, but I really don’t think it worked here. Similar to the overlong flashbacks, it really pulled you out of the narrative and offered nothing at all to advance the plot. I also think those scenes were instrumental in making the assassination plot completely transparent and therefore leaching any sense of suspense from it. It would have been way more fun to not know what the assassin was thinking and have it all unfold at the end, but oh well.

Without giving away the entire ending my next comments might not make much sense, but I thought overall the ending was sweet and completely satisfying in one way and utterly disappointing in another. It’s clear that the characters are happy at the conclusion of the book and I’m happy they’re happy as I found them all much more likable in this book than the previous one. Yet at the same time the way the story ended is not at all what I wanted for these characters and not at all what the entire preceding story builds toward. While it’s probably a more realistic and reasonable ending, it was sort of a hollow victory.

I think overall this story suffered from just giving the reader too much. Too much description, too much emotion between characters that eventually led nowhere, too many scenes that in some cases were amusing or interesting but didn’t advance the plot in any way. Sometimes a story is more about what’s not there than what is. I’m perfectly capable of filling in a lot of blanks when information is presented effectively, I don’t need to be inundated with a deluge of data. It leaves me processing things that don’t matter and takes my focus away from the things that do. This story would have benefited greatly from an editor willing to cut anything that wasn’t absolutely vital to the plot.

If you loved the first book, this is a more mature and cleaner version of just more of the same, so it should be right up your alley. If you were like me and cautiously enjoyed the first book despite its rocky presentation of the narrative and clear issues, this one is worth the read for getting some closure for Nadir and Cyrus who were in my opinion one of the best things about book one. Otherwise this one just might not be for you.


Coronation

3.5 stars

coronationCoronation is the free short that goes between Choices and Deception.

Several months after the death of his father, Bathasar is finally being crowned as malik. Added to the stress of the day to day running of his kingdom, the planning for the ceremony is leaving him worn rather thin and with little time to dote on his lover, Teman, as he once did. The change in Bathasar’s official standing, as well as the added stress of the coronation ceremony, has Teman questioning Bathasar’s feelings for him. After learning of his lover’s fears, Bathasar uses the ceremony as an opportunity to prove his commitment to Teman.

This was an interesting little piece. One the one hand I was fascinated by the coronation ceremony itself and while I found some of the preparations a little boring to read about, once we got to the ceremony I was riveted. Duncan does such an excellent job of describing this world which seems so exotic and outrageous and the coronation ceremony was, in my opinion, the absolute pinnacle of the author’s aptitude for that. I also thought that character development wise, this story provided an important look at the growth of their relationship since the end of Choices and filled in a few things that I felt were missing from their romance in the first story. The poignancy of the moment they share during the ceremony is beautiful and powerful without being overblown and caricatured into something candy-floss sweet.

The problem is that just like with the first book, I felt like this story suffered from just being too much. It’s forty pages long, but really could have been about twenty and not only not suffered from the cuts, but actually flourish because of them. Conversely to the way I felt about the ceremony itself, all of the preparations beforehand really dragged the story down. I’m sure that the point of hashing through all of that was to highlight Teman’s building worry, but in my mind the value of that is far less than the value that would have been provided by tightening up the narrative.

I also felt like similar to the first book this story also suffered from some inconsistency in characterization. The beginning of the book depicts Teman and Bathasar’s interactions with saccharine sweetness and it just about gave me diabetes. I much preferred the more subtle quality the romance took on in the second half. Duncan is quite skilled at wielding a light touch and simply leading a reader to the conclusions that are intended in some cases, yet in others I felt like I was being hit over the head with what this author was trying to convey. It was quite frankly baffling.

Despite the lumbering pace at the beginning and the flaky relationship these characters seem to have with consistency, this story is a great bridge between the events in Choices and Deception or can be read as simply an epilogue of sorts for Choices putting a neat little bow on Teman and Bathasar’s relationship. I recommend anyone planning to continue with this series or who loved the first book and felt that Teman and Bathasar’s relationship just wasn’t quite at the point of HEA effort their way through the beginning of this. The coronation ceremony is worth it.

A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.

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