“There is no price too high to safeguard the crown.”
This is what Kynon has been taught from a young age as a prince of Caralis. When his country is invaded and defeated by the warlord Brasius, Kynon is selected as a tribute to Segasa. While technically he could refuse, Kynon knows his duty is to his country and that failing to agree would see Caralis suffer. So while he is scared and humiliated, Kynon joins a group of other young men and women from Caralis who will now be tributes, virtual sex slaves to leaders of Segasa.
From the start, the experience is terrifying, humiliating, and humbling. Along with a young woman, Alysia, Kynon is given to Brasius himself as a tribute. As they travel to Segasa, Kynon undergoes training by Mistress Hera that involves restraint, flogging, and learning about pain and pleasure. He must give himself to Brasius whenever the warlord requires Kynon’s service and he spends the rest of the time kneeling, crated, or chained to a post. Parts of Kynon want just to rebel at the treatment and the indignity of it all. He has spent years helping to defend his country against the attackers from Segasa and to suddenly be not only living in their midst, but forced to serve them, is hard to handle. But at the same time, Kynon finds himself strangely drawn in, both by Brasius himself, and the new sexual awakening he is experiencing. It is very confusing for him and his mind and body are often at war with one another. But as much as he wants to rail against his treatment, part of him enjoys it.
As they arrive in Segasa, Kynon learns even more about the country and Brasius. He has always assumed them violent and backward, yet Segasa is a wealthy, liberated country with much more equality for everyone. Brasius is often gentle and sweet and shows signs of truly caring about Kynon. But he can also be frustrated with Kynon and seems to want things Kynon can’t understand. Kynon is just trying to follow the rules set out by Mistress Hera, but he always seems to be falling short, angering her or frustrating Brasius. It seems like Brasius wants more from Kynon than he ever expected, and Kynon just may want to truly be with Brasius in return. But not everyone is happy about the breaking of tradition and enemies may find a way to stop them from being together.
I have lately found myself into master/slave stories, and when I ran our Favorite Books: Master/Slave stories post in January, one of our readers recommended Tribute by Lisa Henry so I decided to give it a shot for a Throwback Thursday review. This story really hits many of the high points of what I find interesting about this trope. We have a conflict right from the start with Kynon, prince of his land, who suddenly has his life turned upside down. Kynon is brave and determined to do what is best for his country, even though it means giving himself to a man he sees as a monster. He is so adrift, and Henry really does a wonderful job showing Kynon’s internal conflict. Part of him wants to rebel, wants to hate Brasius, and can’t let himself find anything of value in his situation. He is doing what he must, and he is determined to do his best to follow the rules, but he has a really hard time even understanding what is expected of him. Then he finds himself attracted to Brasius, wanting him and wanting the sex and the pain and the pleasure and that makes him even more confused. We are in Kynon’s POV for the whole story and we can really feel all his emotion so well — his fear and humiliation as he first becomes a tribute, the terror and uncertainty as he tries to figure out how to adapt, and the internal struggle as he finds himself wanting things he shouldn’t desire. Henry really puts us right into the middle of it all, and even though as a reader we have a bit more sense of the bigger picture than Kynon, essentially we are viewing things from his eyes and it makes for a really engaging story.
As I said, I am a fan of this trope, and at least part of that is that sexual tension that is so often a part of these stories. I mean, we are almost always looking at characters who are being coerced and forced into sexual experiences they may not want, but ultimately end up enjoying. It is not something I would ever be comfortable with in real life, but the fantasy works for me in this type of story. Again, Henry handles that very well. We see Kynon slowly go from scared and even revolted, to finding contact with Brasius to be enjoyable and even something he craves, to ultimately caring for the man himself. All that said, this is not an easy story by any means. I labeled this dubious consent because technically Brasius makes Kynon agree the first time, but the reality is that Kynon has no choice and there are some graphic scenes of their early interaction that definitely touch or even cross the line into rape. There is also a scene late in the book by an enemy who again officially gets Kynon’s consent, but has manipulated him into agreeing and is clearly sexually violating him. So if you have sensitivity to this type of thing, be aware. And while I am talking sex, I’ll mention that there are several m/f scenes here as well between both Brasius and Alysia and also between Kynon and Alysia. They make perfect sense in the context of the story and Alysia is a key character whose confinement along with Kynon has a big impact on him during the book.
I think where I struggled a little is just understanding this whole tribute system. The story attempts to justify it in a positive way, focusing on how these tributes are learning about themselves, and control, submission, and pleasure/pain working together. And I think that is true, and something that can benefit a lot of people. But the people of Segasa aren’t taking these prisoners and making them sex slaves for the benefit of the tributes. They are doing it as a show of force to the defeated country, to show power and strength and make it clear that these countries need to accept the superiority of Segasa and their army. I kind of wanted some acknowledgement of what is really going on, without trying to pretty it up and make it seem like it is for the tributes’ benefit. I also found the very end in the epilogue kind of unsettling. I think it again feeds into this justification for their actions with the tributes, and after all that goes on in the story with Segasa, Kynon, and Brasius, it just didn’t sit right with me. And the last thing is that I wanted to better understand what drew Brasius to Kynon and made him care for Kynon in a different way than a normal tribute. We are only in Kynon’s head, so we never really get a sense of what makes him so special to Brasius. This is especially true because Kynon has no sense of himself or the greater dynamics at play, so he is not able to really show us what it is about him that appeals to Brasius. Yes, we know the two had an encounter years ago that may have led to Brasius choosing Kynon as tribute, but not really what makes him fall for Kynon once they are together and defy all tradition to be with him in a different way.
Overall however, I enjoyed this story a lot and agree that it is a great example of the master/slave trope. Henry does a wonderful job letting us inside Kynon’s head to fear his turmoil and his uncertainty. It is sexy and intense and just on that edge of titillating but also horrifying. I enjoyed it quite a lot and am glad I went back to try this book. I’d definitely recommend it, especially for fans of master/slave stories.