Rating: 4.5 stars
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People from a long ago and far away survived past dystopia by restructuring society into a totalitarian regime controlled only by the strongest of women who are served and serviced by men lucky enough to be deemed worthy of the role of soldier. Everyone else is relegated to feudal roles that funnel all their time and energy into sustaining the city.
Despite being nothing more than a lowly male, Maen achieves the highest honor among men: Gold Warrior. He toils for the Mistress of the Exchequer and is responsible for training and maintaining the military strength that serves and services his Mistress and her ladies. Under his tutelage, Bronzemen lose the softness of boyhood to become fighters; Silver Warriors hone their skills in service to the house. Maen lives to serve and, if he cannot entirely sublimate his body and his mind’s reactions, he will damned well remove himself from temptation’s path.
Until he sees Dax.
A man is of negligible worth, but Dax’s background marks him as the lowest of the low. He was not born of any respectable house but of the leftovers, the Remainders. His very presence at the auction that supplies all Mistress’ Households with new Bronzemen each year is both a bit risqué and intriguing. Just his bearing–so different from the circumspection of the others at auction with him–draws Maen’s attention to him. The Mistress buys Dax as something of a favor for Maen, not expecting any return on her investment. Maen, on the other hand, sees great potential in the Remainder…if only the man could learn his place in society.
And that’s barely even the tip of the iceberg Clare London has set afloat in Branded.
Although I typically avoid books with M/F scenes and non-exclusive pairings (neither of which I was aware of as devices in the book before I started to read, honestly), the world London builds around this pulls you right into the mentality of Aza City and lets even a pairing-picky reader like me not just steamroller through MF/non-exclusive scenes, but find ways to enjoy them.
The world building is wonderfully crafted with a good balance of explaining what’s unique about this post-dystopian world and just letting the reader figure it out through context. A few prime examples of this are the men’s “devotions,” which sound like they could be innocuous utterances of faith and loyalty to the city, but are actually a nefarious tool used by the Queen and Mistresses. Another example is the very structure of the society of Aza itself, which plays a key role in the climax of the story.
One thing is very clear in Aza City and the rest of civilization on this planet: women rule supreme and men are utterly subjugated to them. This power structure, however, isn’t belabored in the narration because the story is told in first-person perspective through Maen. He is a man who lives, eats, and breathes his caste and it’s structure. For him, being utterly subservient to his Mistress and her Ladies isn’t an insult but an honor. When others question his blind devotion even when it’s not strictly called for (for example, Maen may take other higher-up soldiers as “coupling” partners but does not since he fears the emotions that such pairings might raise will interfere with his ability to focus on his duty to the city and his Mistress), you are right there with him as he rationalizes and justifies his reasons. His reactions to the changes in his society come across as being wonderfully realistic and conflicted.
Apart from the societal issues, the story also features a fantastic love story between Maen and Dax. As a new recruit, however, Dax is explicitly reserved for the sexual gratification of the Ladies when not being trained in a soldier’s duties. Coupling with a new recruit is punishable by discharge for the new recruit and death for his partner. Not even mortal danger, however, prevents mutual attraction from growing between Maen and Dax. When they ultimately consummate their desire, the consequences are hell to pay.
My only major criticisms concern the timeline for the events that set up the action that closes the book and how Maen/Dax’s story gets resolved. For the timeline part of things, there is a scene where a group of rebels argues over history that seems rather inadequate to mask the actions of one character and insufficient at justifying the reaction of another. Given the resolution, that scene just felt painfully conspicuous to me as a reader when it really didn’t have to be. As for the Maen/Dax story, honestly, I was rooting for these two since Dax got introduced. I was on tenterhooks expecting them to get caught in flagrante delicto. I loved how the fall-out was handled. I loved the bittersweetness in Maen’s tone following the aftermath. I really loved the bittersweetness of circumstances that brought them back to the same space but not back together. It all primed me for something emotionally charged when their love either finally conquered all or fizzled out. And while I cannot say I was disappointed with how they ended up, I can definitely say it felt like zero time was spent explaining how they got there.
Overall, this is a well-planned story with plenty of themes to keep you rooting for the OTP and plot twists to keep you turning pages. Branded has a wide cast of characters that support the action and themes well. London does a fair job at making supporting characters clearly have lives not just to further the plot because the main character requires it, but are shown to have their own independent reasons and motivating factors. The prose isn’t particularly challenging, which helps the 400-odd pages fly by without those awkward moments of forgetting who is doing what and why. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants an involving story that won’t require you to take notes just to keep everything straight. It’s got a great mix of sex and love, power and politics, and self-discovery and acceptance.
A review copy of this book was provided by DSP Publications.