Prince Dorian Sextus Tullus, King Tullus’ sixth child, wants to be more than just “Decorative Dorian.” Joining the royal guard was supposed to help, but his infatuation with the captain of the guard proves to be somewhat distracting. Yet when Dorian and the royal entourage are set upon by barbarians from the north, Dorian proves his mettle as a soldier by helping his parents escape. He himself, however, falls into the hands of the barbarians and soon he learns just how rough his not-so-friendly neighbors to the north truly are.
Lord Aksel of Silberturm was supposed to be Warlord. When his elder brother perished after offering to help their Roman neighbors to the south, Aksel suddenly finds himself responsible for leading his people. He decides exacting revenge against King Tullus is the first order of business, but a surprisingly capable soldier spoils his plans. Aksel instead takes the man prisoner and gives him to his dead brother’s wife as a slave. Yet whenever Aksel’s path crosses that of the slave, he finds himself attracted to the smaller man. The Roman is lovely to look upon and when Aksel discovers the mean circumstances in which his sister-in-law keeps the slave, Aksel decides to “save” the slave and keep him for himself.
When Dorian suddenly finds himself in the service of the Lord, he realizes he has inadvertently been given a tremendous gift: the opportunity to seduce Aksel, gain his trust, then make his escape. Yet there’s no denying Aksel’s giant frame piques Dorian’s interests. The longer Dorian cohabits with Aksel, the more conflicted he becomes. The life he lives in Silberturm is extraordinarily crude compared to the Roman comforts of home. And yet, the barbarous northern place offers things Dorian could never hope to find at home. For the first time in his life, Dorian feels useful. As he learns more about Aksel, Dorian soon fears his soft heart will foil his plans for escape.
This was a delightfully character-driven romance. The basic enemies-to-lovers trope was well explored. I enjoyed the LeBrun’s take on the attraction between Dorian and Aksel. We know Dorian is gay and unsatisfied with merely a physical relationship consisting of oral sex only with the captain of the guard at home. Aksel admits he’s never been attracted to a man, but he is extremely attracted to Dorian. LeBrun establishes that these two feel physical attraction to each other rather early on, but they slowly work through their feelings about one another. In this regard, it’s a slow burn. Here, too, I really liked seeing Aksel and Dorian take one step forward, then two steps back, then three forward and one back, etc. The give and take between the two was a lot of fun to watch. Of course, their relationship is also fraught with doubt. Dorian originally only wants to seduce Aksel for his own gain; Aksel, by the same token, is keenly aware that sex can be used to make him more lenient towards Dorian. These juxtaposed emotions were one of the highlights of the book for me. Also, I should mention that there are overtones (undertones?) of…power play? Dorian enjoys being submissive and enjoys rough sex and he sees Aksel, with his considerable portions, as an ideal partner. For his part, Aksel has sworn he won’t engage Dorian unless the man is begging for it. Despite plenty of charged scenes between them, this combination of Aksel’s promise and Dorian’s need to make any seduction believable keep them from acting on their desires until…well, until they’re actually in love.
Even with so much focus on how Dorian and Aksel navigate their growing feelings for each other, LeBrun works in a lot of detail about the two kingdoms these characters are from. Since the action takes place almost exclusively in Aksel’s home of Silberurm, we get many first-hand accounts of life there. Descriptions of the tasks Dorian undertakes as a slave, as well as the people he encounters helped me visualize the land—and it is a rough one. The information we get about Dorian’s Roman home comes almost exclusively from Dorian’s wistfully wishing he had those creature comforts (running water, flushing toilets, fine food, etc.). The way Dorian describes and longs for his home actually colored my expectations for him as a character a bit…would this yearning for home ruin any romantic developments with Aksel? Would his knowledge of technology cast him as a sort of savior for the people stuck living in Silberturm?
The ending begins with the reappearance of Dorian’s family. This seems crucial for moving the story towards its climax, but I thought it was a little disorganized and detracted from the emotional pain that occurs between Dorian and Aksel who, at this point, have finally admitted their feelings for each other. The slow burn to get them to fall in love blows up marvelously when it’s finally revealed that Dorian is a prince, but I thought this “my lover betrayed me with lies of omission” threat got muddied by having Dorian’s blasé family right there in the picture, too. Nevertheless, things get hammered out and everyone gets a happily ever after, so I can’t complain too much.
On the whole, I found this story enormously entertaining. I loved the main characters, who are both flawed — Dorian for being something of a layabout and Aksel for being a “big, fat dummy” — but also lovely as Aksel gains self-confidence in his ability to lead and Dorian learns the pleasure of being useful.