On the planet Xe, master/slave contracts between the Xenin nobility and species from other planets are common. In fact, slavery in this day and age is rather like a job and comes with imutable laws and rights to ensure those entering slavery are treated fairly. Reis Won has never been interested in owning a slave, nor in joining the rest of his noble family in the affairs of the state. Instead, he serves the Xenin community as an Investigator and works tirelessly to keep criminals off the street. One such criminal was Carter Maldin, an outspoken human who very nearly pulled off the crime of a lifetime: stealing Earth antiquities from the queen of Xe’s own collection. Reis, however, foiled Carter’s attempt and, ever since, the two have had nothing but sour thoughts about one another.
Someone has been murdering the slaves of the highest Xe nobility. Reis has no leads to follow, no idea who is committing the murders, and no idea how anyone can penetrate the well-protected homes of Xenin nobles. But if Reis is frustrated with the lack of progress in this case, his frustration easily doubles when his queen commands him team up with Carter—the only person who can possibly help the investigators understand how impregnable palaces are continuously being breached. Suddenly, captor and captive are thrust back into one another’s orbit and, per the queen’s plan, their cover for the operation will be to act as master and slave. At best, Reis is reluctant to work with Carter. He knows the human to be irreverent and headstrong, but hopes he can set aside his intense dislike for the man long enough to catch the real criminal. The only reason Carter goes along with the outlandish request to pretend to be a slave to the man who locked him up is because a full pardon is on the table. Carter is desperate to be free from his sentence, a life-time house arrest, and sees this as a rare opportunity to make a break for it and get off of Xe.
However, passing as master and slave is more complicated than merely accepting or offering services, more than just a change of clothes or attitude. After an intense period of training and establishing a formal contract, both Reis and Carter grudgingly acknowledge that there is some small attraction to the other. Reis is appreciative of Carter’s efforts to act the slave and discovers how much he enjoys seeing Carter in slaves’ garb. Carter, on the other hand, develops a fierce sense of loyalty to other slaves and even discovers he longs to be mastered…by Reis. But a murder is still on the loose; can Carter and Reis capture the perpetrator before Carter becomes the next victim?
I found I had a hard time managing my expectations with In His Service. The major themes seem to be enemies-to-lovers, the suspense suspense regarding the murders, and gender topics. These themes are central to the plot and the characters themselves, yet I found each to be haphazardly cobbled together in the book. First, the enemies-to-lovers trope. Waters clearly establishes unquestionable animosity between Reis and Carter during the introductory chapters. Yet by the end, the pair develops what I suppose I should call a dominant/submissive type relationship where each man was absolutely devoted to the other. What I found problematic is that, despite the sheer length of time it takes to transition from one extreme to another, I never got the sense there was anything beyond lust drawing them together. It isn’t until Carter starts dressing and behaving like a slave that Reis starts having a change of heart. It was easier for me to buy into Carter’s transformation into a slave/submissive because maybe the headstrong, coarse character simply didn’t know he wanted to submit until he ended up doing it. At the same time, he clearly resents being asked to pretend to be a slave to gain his freedom. I really don’t know what caused his change of heart other than the situation finally made him understand what he desired and Reis just happened to be the authority figure present. In other words, I felt like these two were only a couple because it was convenient.
The events in the story are strung along this murder-suspense plot where Reis and Carter are ostensibly teaming up to catch a murderer. It was unfortunate that it seems like this whole thread is more of an afterthought once Reis and Carter enter into the master/slave contract. After the MCs go “undercover,” there are about three scenes in the remainder of the book that actually connect their cover story to the murder plot line. These scant reminders that there was a murderer on the loose were barely enough to remind me why Carter/Reis were playacting at being slave/master. The murder-suspense storyline did little to motivate the plot until Carter himself encounters the murderer in scenes that are shockingly swift and immediately resolved.
Finally, I feel compelled to mention the prose and editing itself. There is a blog post on Dan Waters’ website that explains KDP “did an oops” with the manuscript that resulted in misspellings and missing dialogue. Perhaps this is the source of at least some of the writing issues and two apparent placeholders. However, there were multiple sentences where the basic composition was just poorly crafted. Some examples are (emphasis is mine):
It was the fifth slave murdered since the start of this quarter to be murdered… (duplicated verb)
What would he or would not allow during sex (poorly placed grammatical subject)
I believe I have a scan of the garden […] that shows the hedge was altered with. (error in usage of a transitive verb)
Overall, I thought this book’s biggest selling point is the enemies-to-lovers theme. However, the intense focus on the dynamic between Carter/Reis came at the exclusion of other plot points. The world building was a nice veneer, but ultimately did not have any impact on the matters in the book beyond physical descriptions for the characters and that species from one planet often enter into slave-type contracts. The best thing about this book was the complete nonchalance regarding Carter’s gender identity. For die-hard fans of enemies-to-lovers stories, stories that feature aliens, or stories that touch on dominant/submissive themes, you may enjoy this book.