With his home under attack and precious few to defend it, Lysander tasks himself with finding a warrior to help save Steed’s Hold. He travels from his desert home deep in the south to a town known for its brisk slave trade. The plan is simple: buy a slave who can fight and tell him he can earn his freedom by fighting for Steed’s Hold. Yet after days of wandering the markets, Lysander soon finds slaves fit to be warriors are not a common commodity.
Then he finds a northerner. Even sunburned, parched, and chained to a post, the man looks every inch the fighter. Lysander is eager to buy the slave, set the terms for his release, and return home to save the hold. Much like his search, however, the payment required to buy this slave doesn’t prove at simple. Despite all appearances, the man is being sold as a pleasure slave and only a buyer willing to “root bond” can be allowed to purchase him. Experience has taught Lysander it is rare enough to have stumbled across one man honed for battle and he’s not about to let this chance slip through his fingers. Reluctantly, Lysander agrees and becomes root bound to the slave.
Under any other circumstances, Wyl might have thought the southerner was attractive…perhaps even worth pursuit. When the man buys him from the slaver’s ship, Wyl is not grateful for he knows it can mean only one thing: this southerner can only mean to use Wyl as a means of pleasure. Wyl may have been betrayed by his faithless stepmother and his family manipulated into disowning him and giving him up to the slave trade, but Wyl is anything but a slave. He is high born and a trained fighter. Naturally, he will fight the man who fancies himself Wyl’s master.
As Lysander and Wyl navigate the slave town, both men learn just how difficult the role of “master” and “slave” can be. On top of the hardship of being forced into these roles, the slave town has a strict protocol regarding slaves and both Lysander and Wyl must learn quickly if they are to avoid punishment. Wyl himself also quickly learns he has been “cursed”—or root bound—so that he cannot physically stray from Lysander.
The hurdles of traveling as the master of a slave begin to mount before the men have even left the town. Lysander is soon second guessing the wisdom of his actions and Wyl fights Lysander tooth and nail. Only time will tell if these two can survive the trip back to Steed’s Hold…and whether Lysander’s rash action will be a boon or a bust for his beloved home.
Don’t let the master/slave terminology fool you, there is nothing kinky whatsoever about this story. However, the status dynamic the master/slave dichotomy represents is a huge theme. I liked that Lysander is cast as the master and Wyl as the slave because they do not embody the leadership required of a master or the obedience required of a slave. I dare say the point of the book is also NOT that they come to learn how to lead/obey, either. Rather, Maefair explores how these two characters react to being thrust into these ill-suited roles.
And before you think “well, just talk it out,” another huge part of their dynamic is shaped by the fact that they do not speak the same language. I’ve read a few books where that’s been the case before and this one suffers a touch from playing a bit too fast and loose with language acquisition—but I am willing to suspend my disbelief because Maefair does a very respectable job exploring their lack of a common language. It helps show the characters interacting, if reluctantly, on-page.
There are three distinct stages in the book: the slave market where Lysander buys Wyl, their journey across the desert from slave market back to Steed’s Hold, and the battle for Steed’s Hold.
The market scenes are characterized by strife and strife and strife. Here, the language barrier plays the biggest role and Maefair does the best job separating the third-person narration between Wyl and Lysander. It’s also, unfortunately, where Wyl’s character got cast in my mind as something of a prick. Perhaps I judge him too harshly—I mean, his family just up and disowned him solely on the word of his (wicked) stepmother—but I found his portrayal fairly stank of…well, small-mindedness. He’s biased against southerners and makes assumptions on Lysander’s motives even though Lysander’s actions never match what Wyl assumes to be true.
Things take a turn for the better (and angstier!) during their trek across the desert. Wyl’s language acquisition goes into warp speed when they wind up hunkering down at an oasis with a traveling caravan that has another enslaved northerner. At this point, Wyl learns he’s not to be a pleasure slave but to help fight off some group of bad guys. While that is something of a relief to Wyl, he still carries deep resentment over the root bond—especially because, by this point, he has discovered the root bond also means he can only orgasm if Lysander literally says he can. Not ideal if you think you hate the (admittedly hot) guy who holds that power. So even after Wyl comes to realize that he’s been railing and ranting and raving about what he thought was a pure master/pleasure slave arrangement, he decides he’s going to get pay back by emotionally manipulating Lysander using the root bond. Except it works…and that’s finally when things between the two of them start to change.
By the time they reach Steed’s Hold, Lysander and Wyl have fallen in love with each other. The only thing keeping them apart now is the massive battle that brought Lysander to the slave market where Wyl was being sold. All the miscommunication from the slave town and the angst from the desert trip is replaced with straight up melodrama peppered with a little fighting. Lysander’s whole family is introduced at this point…which is only noteworthy because they were virtually a non-entity during the first two-thirds of the book. In retrospect, I’d say that’s one bit of the puzzle that was missing. Only once they reach the hold do we really see how Lysander clearly loves his family and was willing to take a lot of risks and suffer a lot of scorn (because, surprise! Slavery is a no-no in Steed’s Hold…yet I never got that impression while Lysander was actively participating in that institution).
Overall, this is a straight up feel-good read. The interaction between Lysander and Wyl goes from one extreme to the other and Maefair does a superb job of showing that entire transition on-page. If you’re looking for a fun melodrama featuring an enemies-to-lovers theme and a loose take on “woke up married” (except here, I suppose it’s woke up “root bonded”), you’d enjoy this book.