When he was just a boy, Dag was taken from his tribe by slavers to be conditioned and sold into the service of a great house as a gladiator. He trained day and night to be the best of the best, hoping to snag a spot at a well-to-do house and make a name for himself as the best fighter that ever lived. Shortly before Dag was sold into the service of a fine master, a fresh new face joined their ranks in the dead of the night. He was pale with dark hair and eyes that glowed of the moon. They fought and, miraculously, the new boy bested Dag. Despite the defeat, Dag befriended the attractive youth whose name is Myka. As they returned to the holding cell that was their make-shift home, they formed a fast friendship.
Not much later, both Dag and Myka were bought by the same house. As their careers in the arena unfolded, so did the romance between them. It started as a mere physical thing among two youths predisposed to like one another. It grew to love. When tragedy struck in the arena, Dag didn’t simply loose Myka, he lost himself. Dag mindlessly went through the motions of living, fighting, drinking, and fornicating in an effort to drown out all that he had lost. And he had lost everything.
Years later, the master of the house shows off a new acquisition to battle for the glory of the house…and Dag cannot believe his eyes, for none other than Myka stood in the courtyard. He was primed and ready to battle his way out of indentureship a second time. Myka was also ready to rekindle his love affair with Dag. Ten years, however, was a very long time. It was enough time to have changed Dag from the spirited, vital young man Myka had known. The test the men now faced was discovering whether or not their heartfelt emotions had stood the test of time.
With only seventy-odd pages to work with, there’s a lot that needs to happen to set the scene, develop the characters, and move the action through the beginning, middle, crisis, and resolution. Certainly Bain-Vrba does a excellent job establishing a particular aesthetic for the world in which this drama unfolds. Several aspects of the narration create and reinforce the idea that we’re in the time of gladiators (which, according to Wikipedia at any rate, is a sport that was popular for roughly a millennium). We see our main characters living lives that are unglamorous—the only glamour they have are their moments of hard-won glory in the arena. Most other visible aspects of their daily lives are lived in communal barracks type settings with little adornment and much training.
If you, like me, love a steamy story, there’s plenty of action between the sheets for Dag and Myka. While I love me some hot sweaty man on man action, its presentation here didn’t really work for me. On the one hand, the author does a good job establishing these two as star-crossed lovers and building a relationship between them in the scenes that take place in the past. It’s not painstakingly detailed, but there is plenty of interaction showing them falling for one another. Unfortunately, once they are reunited ten years after Dag thought he’d killed Myka during an arena battle (this is the scene that opens the whole story so…not really a spoiler), none of that closeness seems to be revived. Sure, they burn up the sheets…but the emotional connection is built on emotions ten years gone. It felt sort of hollow.
That aspect itself had a pretty big dampening effect on my enjoyment of the story over all as well. As far as the characters themselves go, it’s clear the author is working hard to make compelling characters full of angst. Again, starting this whole book with one lover killing the other is pretty dramatic and begs the question “what happens to the one that lived?” I suppose I cannot fault the characters for falling into bed pretty much immediately after reuniting—that much feels true to their trope. Yet I was rather disappointed that their story going forward never coalesced around a main obstacle. I mean, it’s more realistic I suppose that estranged lovers would have to contend with the different vectors their lives had taken. Mika lived the life of a farmer with his family then joined the army for money and got kicked out for perceived cowardice, which is what drove him back to the arena lifestyle 10 years late. Dag, on the other hand, was beside himself with grief over thinking he’d killed his one true love—but suicide is out as Myka would never have tolerated it so Dag pickles himself in alcohol and beds anything with legs for 10 years.
Obviously, there are issues galore. When you’ve only got a relatively short story, however, it felt too rushed and ill-planned to try to tackle Dag’s feelings of unworthiness/uncleanliness after a decade of promiscuity and focus on Myka’s seemingly crippling aversion to taking the lives of others (even when they’re all in the arena and know/welcome the risks). Lest we forget, both of these dynamics aren’t even introduced until Dag and Myka had reached a place physically and emotionally that, to my mind at least, signaled a pretty clear reconciliation. It was confusing to see these two reconnect and reestablish their coupledom only to have them start jumping through various hoops that should have been at least alluded to from the get-go.
The prose lacked any polish. It’s not so much a lack of descriptive writing—again, the setting was pretty well executed—so much as the style. There are a few choice phrases that were royally misconstrued.
For example, this is Dag thinking about Myka during their afterglow of their epic make-up sex session that is, inexplicably, dominated by equally epic word salad from both characters (note: despite all the catching up they do about who’s been where doing what, there was no strong foreshadowing Dag’s feelings of unworthiness or Myka’s resentment of having to start killing in the arena again):
The fires of hell paled in comparison to the thought of having Myka beside him.
I know the author means Dag would think nothing of going straight to literal hell if it mean he could keep Myka with him. But when “A pales in comparison to B,” it means B is orders of magnitude worse than A. I suppose it can also be used to mean B is orders of magnitude better than A…but when A is “hell,” I’m not convinced either one is (literally anyway) a “win” for Myka.
Or this whoopsie at the tail end of that oh-so-bizarre post-reunion-connubial-marathon where Dag’s finally getting little existential thoughts (the very last interrogative statement):
Myka was watching him with wide eyes, and Dag suddenly wondered what Myka was thinking. Dag had killed him, or very nearly had. Did Myka blame him? Had Myka hated him over the last ten years? Did Myka think Dag had betrayed him? Or would Myka have rather been the one who died, instead of spending ten years thinking he had killed Dag?
This feels too wrong to even pin down why it’s wrong…it’s a combination of the use of “would Myka have rather died” (which I think should probably be ‘would Myka have rather have been the one to have died’) and the insinuation that Myka actually DID spend 10 years thinking Myka had killed Dag (except the “he” feels like it ought to be Dag since he’s sort of third-person narrating this chunk). Short story long, the more I read this snippet, the more it annoys me for not clearly just telling me Dag’s wondering if Myka’s wishing Dag had “died” instead.
Overall, the story was a mediocre read for me. I was totally hyped about the idea that, from the very beginning, a man is responsible for killing his own lover…but that potential felt mostly squandered when this very short story creates more emotional roadblocks for Myka and Dag to overcome than I think the depth of the character development and sheer length of the story allows. The resultant effect comes off as shallowly built and again, made me feel less connected with the characters.