The neighboring countries of North and South Abarran have been feuding for years. The latest conflict centers around the grape harvest; Tarik Jaso, Duke of Arles, is sure his southern neighbors are doing something to cause a drought and thereby ruin his crop of wine-making grapes. With all the royals of the two nations having superpowered abilities, Tarik figures South Abarran is up to something. When Tarik meets with Sander Fiala, Duke of Roses, he makes it quite clear where he thinks the blame lies.
Every since his powers caused a devastating accident in his youth, Sander has stayed out of the public eye. He blames himself for the accident and knows he isn’t trustworthy. After dealing with Tarik, all Sander wants is to head out on his annual birthday sail for a week of privacy and relaxation. He is stunned when he not only finds an unconscious Tarik onboard his ship, but when the ship seemingly sails off on its own, eventually crashing the pair on a deserted island.
At first, Sander feels confident that there will be a quick rescue. His sister speaks to animals, after all, and she will likely track him quickly through the seagull network. But soon it becomes clear that they are well and truly stranded. Tarik is sure that Sander is behind their predicament. He is the Monster of Roses, after all. Tarik figures Sander must be trying to gain some advantage over North Abarran. However, as the men begin to work together, some of the animosity fades as Tarik realizes that Sander is a genuine, caring person, and clearly not behind whatever has left them trapped on the island. Tarik also helps Sander explore his power, something he has kept locked away for years. With Tarik’s help, Sander learns not only to better understand his power, but to control it.
The two men are falling for each other, but they know when they make it back home, that will be the end of things. The two countries have been at odds for years, and no one is going to tolerate their friendship, let alone a romance. But first, they have to figure out how to make it home.
Duking it Out is the first in the Royal Powers collection, a multi-author series set in a shared world where the royals of North and South Abarran have an assortment of superpowered abilities. I am a big super powers fan, and I love enemies to lovers and forced proximity stories, so this one called out to me. I think Russell does a nice job here with the “stranded on a desert island” theme. It is clear that that Tarik has a lot of hostility toward Sander, partly stemming from Sander’s reputation as having killed people in his youth, and part due to Tarik’s generally prickly nature. Tarik is sure that Sander is behind their marooning and it takes a while for things to warm up between them. There is a definite sense of the pair being stranded and having to figure things out, though they aren’t trapped for that long as far as I can tell. There are some nice moments as the guys work together that lead to a thawing of their relationship and eventually to more.
There is also a nice opposites attract vibe here that I enjoyed. As I said, Tarik is somewhat prickly, in part due to the fact that he is constantly bombarded with unwanted mental messages due to his super powers, many of which reveal the ugly side of human nature. So he is not inclined to trust much. Sander is a sweet soul, one who is still mired in guilt for his unintentional actions years ago. Tarik helps Sander realize it wasn’t his fault, as well as to harness his powers and figure out how to use them safely. The guys fall pretty hard and fast; they go from enemies to in love in what seems like just a handful of days. But I did like the men together and the way they take care of and support each other.
I think the world building could have used more developing here. While this series is meant to be read in any order, this is the first book released and so I was looking for more detail here to explain things. We know that North and South Abarran used to be one country and have now split due to fighting, though the exact reasons aren’t spelled out. We also know that the royals from both countries, as well as any of their out-of-wedlock common offspring, have super powers, but the royals are the only ones allowed to use them. There is also some sort of ministry that oversees those with powers. But I still was confused as to whether ALL royals in the world have powers, or just those from Abarran. And there is no explanation given as to why they have these abilities. While this story tends more to the light side, I still wanted to have at least a basic explanation for their powers. I was also unclear whether this one ministry presides over both countries. If so, who runs it? It is referred to as one organization, versus each country having their own. Despite my questions, I did enjoy the super powers element. The powers are not just the garden variety abilities, so it was fun to see them in action.
My other significant issue is that we know that someone arranged for the Tarik’s attack and the marooning, and there is a mystery as to who is behind it and what they hope to achieve. However, the story ends without actually answering either of those questions. While there is someone who claims responsibility, it is stated outright that they know this person is not the actual mastermind of the plot and the book ends without ever revealing who is behind it all and why. The author indicated to me that these are standalone stories within a shared world that can be read in any order. So I am unclear if this question is resolved in another book (in which case I wouldn’t consider it either a standalone or a series that can be read out of order), or if it we just never find out who done it. It seems so strange to me that this is just left open ended when the rest of the story ties up on the romance end. If the books do have an overarching series plot that resolves over multiple books, I think this has to be made more clear. Otherwise, I feel like is a disappointing and pretty major plot hole.
Overall, I did enjoy this one. There is a playful tone here and I liked Tarik and Sander together a lot. I just think that the world building needed some more fleshing out and that the ending needed better resolution.