What does it take to topple an empire? Bravery and courage? Strong hearts, unshakeable bonds of brotherhood, and a strong moral compass? Good luck with that. This is real life, not a fairy tale. There are no heroes, no good guys, and no bad guys. There are only men and women broken by the world. Worn down, ground down, and spit out. Men like Damian, who is willing to set the world on fire, not to watch it burn, but to keep his family warm.
Damian isn’t anything so glamorous as an assassin. He’s a thug who just happens to be good enough at killing people that Commander Valyr of the Reds — a military force who replaced the police, is loyal to the emperor, their commander, and their pocketbooks, and is filled with brutes, thugs, and assholes — hires him to do a few jobs for her. In exchange for his service, the commander looks the other way when it comes to Damian’s lover, friend, and savior, Aris.
Aris is a voyant, and a strong one. Voyants are people cursed with an inhuman power of destruction that ends up burning up its user, hopefully before they burn up anyone else. If the empire caught Aris, they’d ‘cleanse’ him, ripping out his power and leaving him a mindless husk. Or Aris could go to the Temple, where he’d be ‘taken care of,’ but … even if the Temple was as good and honest as they claim to be, they’d still be taking Aris away from Damian. So Damian plays Valyr’s game, no matter how much he hates it.
His latest target is some guy called Mael Taerien, who, when Damian meets him face to face, doesn’t really want to die. Instead, Taerien offers Damien triple what Valyr is paying him … to kill her instead. Damian hates Valyr already, so being paid to kill her is actually pretty tempting. But what finally gets him to agree is Aris. If Damian doesn’t agree to kill Valyr, Taerien will turn Aris in to the empire.
To keep Damian honest, or as honest as he can be, Taerien’s friend Raeyn Nymerion tags along. Raeyn who is the son of the Emperor and presumed dead in a fire. Raeyn who has his own motives. Raeyn who shoots Damien in the shoulder to distract the Reds so Raeyn can escape. Raeyn who doesn’t like being touched, who is always there to get Damian into trouble and out of it. Raeyn, who Damian finds himself trusting more and more, even as he comes to trust Aris less and less.
As much as I enjoyed this book, it’s not for everyone. It has has many graphic scenes of violence. Bullet wounds bleed and hurt. Bones break, throats are slit, and people get stitches, IVs, and injections. There is a drug overdose, self sacrifice, death, and murder. There are mentions of child abuse, rape, and torture. Damian kills a child, Aris is blackmailed into prostitution, and I lost count of how many people died. Strangely, for all the graphic violence, the sex scenes are fairly tame. That said, the violence is not gratuitous. Damian lives in a violent world and has a violent life. All of the sexual themes of rape, violence, and abuse are mentioned or inferred, but not put on display or used to titillate. They are facts of Damian’s life and help shape who he is.
So much of this story is plot driven that I don’t feel comfortable going into any real detail about who does what to who, who betrays who, who ends up being the bad guy or the good guy — not that there are any good guys or bad guys in this book as much as … well, guys. No one is white, no one is black, and try not to get too attached to the characters because there is a great deal of death, betrayal, and pain in this story. And the true heart of it is the relationship between Damian, Aris, and Raeyn.
When Damian was younger he was in a facility and there he fell in with another boy and became infatuated with him. Unfortunately, the other young man used Damian’s affections and raped him, also allowing at least one other boy to do the same. Damian killed his attacker, but the event left him wary and wounded. Not just the rape and the betrayal, but his own enjoyment of the violence as he beat his rapist to death. When he met Aris, Damian not only found a friend and a lover but … a savior. Aris helped him get over his past and gave him a cause. Aris, as a voyant and as a person, is fragile. He needs, and Damian is more than willing to step up and take care of him in every way he can. Unfortunately, Damian can’t be exactly what Aris wants.
Aris is a masochist and needs pain and shame to help him de-stress. Every second of the day Aris to be in absolute control of the power that is slowly killing him, and some days the effort — and the memory of the people he’s killed — is too much. So he turns to drugs and violent sex to help him forget. Damian is willing to be rough, but he can’t be as brutal as Aris needs. In part, he’s afraid that he’ll enjoy the violence too much; also, it neither brings him joy to see Aris bruised and battered, nor does it bring him personal satisfaction.
Aris also uses these sessions to get information for their jobs, both from random partners and from Captain Laras — another Red — who has blackmailed them into having Aris as her own pet and prostitute, or run the risk of Aris being exposed as a voyant. Damian hates it. Aris enjoys it, and it causes friction. Aris isn’t what Damian thinks he is, doesn’t want the things Damian wants — either in bed or out — and they aren’t perfectly matched in bed or out. When events conspire to pull them apart, Damian is caught flat-footed by the ease with which Aris leaves him. He can’t help but see Aris taking a different path as betrayal, even though Aris is doing it only in part for himself. Aris is also doing what he can to save Damian, though whether he’s trying to save Damian from the Red, the Empire, the voyance, or Aris himself is up to question.
While Damian is losing his friend, lover, and purpose in life, Raeyn enters the picture. Raeyn’s own past is one of abuse and pain as his father hurt him terribly and may even have planned the fire that was supposed to cause Raeyn’s death. While Raeyn is more than interested in Damian, he won’t touch him. It’s not just the scars, it’s also the secrets he keeps. Raeyn is also willing to sacrifice Damian to save his own skin — though that was before they got to know one another. Raeyn is so committed to his cause that it’s hard for him to see the people he’s using as people, but the more he gets to know Damian, and the more he wants Damian, he begins to change his mind. At least where Damian is concerned.
Raeyn and Damian are more alike, both in their shared pain and their shared desires. Raeyn and Damian want to save the people they love, they want justice for those they have lost, and they both put other people above themselves. When Damian and Rayn kiss, it’s perhaps the first honest moment they have. Raeyn and Damian fit together in a way Damian and Aris don’t, but Damian can’t let Aris go. He just can’t. And Raeyn isn’t sure he wants to be in Aris’s shadow.
The pain and angst build up to a well-deserved conclusion. Some books give out romance and love like it’s candy. Every couple gets a perfect partner and there’s a big shiny bow on the end, whether the story or the characters deserve it. Reading this book, having watched Damian go through so much pain, trauma, and rage, I couldn’t help but feel the bone-deep sigh that comes with the perfection of the ending. This isn’t a happily ever after because this isn’t a fairy tale. It’s Damian finding the person who is willing to fight for him, the person who wants to be with Damian more than he wants to be with someone else.
I love broken heroes, angst-filled books (with happy endings), and lovely writing. This book has all of that, along with slippery politics, visceral action scenes, and characters who grow and change according to who they are — not simply because it was convenient to tie off a loose end. The very best part of this book is that is it only book one of the series, which means there’s at least one more on the way — and hopefully more. I really hope you give this book a chance.