As a young man, King Arend Tollemach was forced to give up his engagement to a neighboring prince and do his royal duty by marrying a woman and siring heirs. Losing Darien broke Arend’s heart, but his domineering father gave him no other choice. Arend lived in a loveless marriage for years, doing his duty to his country. Now with Cordelia dead and his son grown and married, Arend is finally ready to start living for himself.
Arend decides to do as many high born men have done before him and purchase a concubine from Temple Sapphor. The Temple is known for its discretion and its beautiful men, and this seems like the perfect way to be with a man without having to deal with the messiness of publicly courting a nobleman. Arend desperately wants to experience being with a man and this is the perfect opportunity to be with someone who is sensually trained, but yet will require no emotional commitment. After losing his young love and living in a horrible marriage, Arend isn’t interested in marrying again, so this seems the perfect compromise.
When Arend meets Julian, he seems like a wonderful match. In fact, Arend has had visions of Julian’s beautiful eyes in his dreams. Julian seems to be the perfect man to lead Arend along his journey of experiencing sex and pleasure with another man. Keeping Julian at an emotional distance is not as easy as Arend had thought however. The man appeals to him on every level and Arend finds himself torn between desire to keep Julian for good and his need to keep distance. Things are further complicated by the Council who is not happy that the country has no clear line of succession. With Arend’s only son married to a man and his cousin with no heirs, they are pushing for Arend to once again marry a woman and have more children. They are putting hard pressure on Arend and he may not be able to refuse them, especially since they are threatening his son’s happy marriage. Arend has finally taken steps to find happiness and live for himself and Julian seems like the perfect companion. But Arend may find that he has to give up the man he is growing to care for before he ever gets a chance at happiness.
So I was drawn to this story right away when I saw the plot. The idea of a shy, inexperienced king hiring a sensual concubine to teach him the ways of hot loving? Yes, please. And I think for the most part Davis does a really good job delivering on this premise. One thing that works particularly well is that we are in Arend’s POV for much of the time, especially early on when he is making the decision to enter into the contract with Julian. Typically in relationships with this kind of power dynamic, we get the POV of the person who is being brought in to serve the more powerful player. But in this case, being in Arend’s POV really lets us feel his anxiety about the new arrangement, his excitement at the prospect of finally being with a man, and his pain at losing his first love. It allows us to really see him vulnerable and I could sympathize with him as a man who has sacrificed all his desires for duty and now is finally taking steps to live life on his own terms.
We also get Julian’s POV in this story and he is another lonely man. Julian was born into a well of family in a nearby country, but when they fell on hard times, his brother sold him to the Temple as a concubine. For the past ten years, Julian has been waiting for a placement, but kept getting passed over. So while he knows that he shouldn’t expect anything long term, Julian still dreams of a real relationship with Arend, one that could perhaps become permanent. Things are definitely idealized somewhat here in terms of Julian being just ecstatic about being a concubine. I mean, he was sold to the Temple against his will and now has been hired as a sex servant (though he isn’t the one who actually gets paid). Right from the start, before he even gets to know Arend, he is just thrilled about it all. I mean, I get he was tired of being passed over, but we definitely are getting a somewhat sunny version of a man who is basically forced into selling his body.
So these guys are kind of an interesting match. We have Arend as a lonely king who is innocent in the ways of men and struggles to balance his need to be strong with his emotional and physical desires. And then Julian who is the concubine, the one with no power, but all the knowledge. It creates an interesting dynamic between them, one that plays out well over the course of the story. I did feel a bit disappointed that we didn’t get as much of Julian teaching Arend the ways of sex as I had hoped. I’ll admit that is totally my hot button, and while these guys do get together physically a few times over the book, there is never much of a student/teacher dynamic between them. In fact, for all his anxieties and protesting, Arend jumps right in to blow jobs and anal sex with barely a word of guidance, which seems kind of at odds with the book set up.
I think the central conflict here is well done, as Arend faces push back from the Council, just as he is finally coming into his own. I could feel for him as he is just starting to reach for his own happiness, only to see it grabbed from him so quickly. He really is in an impossible situation, and once again it looks like he will have to sacrifice his own desires for what others want and need. I did wonder just why this problem never occurred to him before though. I mean, when he sees his only son married to a man and there are no more heirs in the family line, didn’t this potential problem cross his mind? But either way, I think this central conflict is really well done and we can really see how Arend is a man torn between his personal needs and his public responsibilities.
I found the conflict centering around Julian and Arend a bit more problematic. We are told right off that Arend isn’t interested in a relationship, he just wants to hire someone to service him. Yet he is almost immediately talking about “courtships” and having Julian be a partner to him in ways that don’t seem to fit with the rules he sets out. As the story goes on, we see him going back and forth between putting up walls between them and saying how much he wants Julian to be part of his life. I think if the relationship had progressed more slowly and we really saw the men falling for one another, it would have made more sense to see him changing his mind as he falls for Julian. But in less than 24 hours, the guys are already totally into each other after barely spending any time together. So Arend ends up coming across a bit wishy washy to me, like he isn’t sure what he actually wants. For his part, Julian is told right away what to expect, yet clearly he is still pining for a real relationship. There are times I really felt for him, and others where he comes across a bit whiny and demanding. I mean, he is a hired servant essentially, yet he has expectations for his treatment and his relationship that seem at odds with his role.
My only other issue is that I felt the story ends without much resolution. It is not a cliffhanger, but none of the conflicts really get resolved in this book. This is the first of a series, so presumably these issues will be addressed in future books. But I was looking for a bit more closure then we get. The issue of the Council and facing those problems isn’t really solved in any way. Things are a bit more clear on the relationship end, but given that these guys go back and forth so often, it just kind of felt like a stopping place more than really resolving anything. We also get hints along the way about Julian’s past and the idea is definitely planted that he is more than what he seems, but again, we don’t get any real development on that front. Still, I am definitely intrigued by the story and characters and am eager to see where Davis takes this series.
So I found A King Undone to be really enjoyable. I loved the set up, with the vulnerable Arend reaching out for happiness. I think the dynamic between these two men is great and I could really feel for both of them. I am excited to see where this series goes from here and am really looking forward to the next book.