Rating: 5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

Anger — like scruples, or compassion — is a luxury Elliot can’t afford. As it is, he can barely afford food, let alone rent, clothes, or sleep. He’s working two jobs, his own and his brother’s, while in what free time he has, he scours the beaches and alleys looking for Dayne. No one believes Elliot will find his brother, and no one cares. Like Elliot, they’re too ground down by poverty, hunger, and hopelessness to care. But Dayne is all Elliot has, his only family, and the only thing worth living for. So he keeps looking.

Dark City is what they call the slums at the bottom of the hill. Shabby buildings, narrow streets, and roads lit by the red magical orbs that the Kin trade to the nobles in exchange for the right to hunt Dark City for blood, for fun, for whatever and whoever their whims take. And the nobles allow it because, along with lights (and their own lives), they gain access to the nectar, a magical liquid that heals injuries, stops aging, cures the sick, and, to the rich and the lovely up on the hill, is easily worth the lives of any of the rabble in the slums.

Knowing that it’s likely the Kin took Dayne to be “pet” — a human slave, nothing more than food for the blood-hungry monsters that appear every night to terrorize the city — which means Dayne is in the castle across the water. To get into the castle Elliot will need to make a deal of his own with one of the Kin. His blood, his body, in exchange for … well, for a chance. A chance to see if his brother is even alive, a chance to get him out, somehow.

Umbra is a Prime, son of a powerful Abyr sent to Vermilion castle to serve as their mate. Not that Umbra has any desire to accept the “invitation” Vermilion is offering. The other Abyr wants him to feast on female humans, to change his sex to female and to bear Vermilion children. Umbra has other plans, plans that fortunately seem to coincide with those of a brash human. Blood is easily had in Vermilion castle; trust is hard to come by. And with Elliot playing one game and Umbra another, there’s no saying how it will all end.

There is a distinct cold, brutal, dystopian feel to this book. Everywhere you look, people are suffering. Some, like Elliot, are forced to make harsh choices. Elliot sold himself for extra coin, and when he thinks of it, it’s with a bitter grimness. Umbra, too, is put into a situation where they must either let Vermilion hurt and use them, or allow Vermilion to hurt Elliot. Umbra chooses to save Elliot, knowing they can take the pain and damage. While the actions themselves are all off screen, for the most part, the emotions are front and center for the characters. Then there is Dayne, Elliot’s brother, who has been beaten, forcibly addicted to Abyr blood, and held prisoner. If these sorts of scenes cause you any distress or discomfort, this book is not for you.

Elliot’s life has always been one of sacrifice and pain, shouldering every burden for himself, hiding his pain and suffering and despair away from his brother. Dayne has become almost more of an ideal than a brother, a reason for everything Elliot is enduring. It’s easier to face the injustice of the world when he’s protecting his brother from it, after all, and easier to put aside the doubts and self-loathing when he can rationalize every action he is or isn’t taking. But when he’s taken by Umbra to the castle, Elliot finds himself taken aback by how easy it is to enjoy himself.

A warm bath, big enough to lounge in. A soft bed. Food. Simple things like fruit, or cheese, or clothes that aren’t made of rags. Clean hair, getting to sleep until your body is ready to wake up. Being held by someone who values your existence. Umbra needs Elliot’s blood, but only that. They make no demands of Elliot beyond the blood, the trust, and follow the rules. (Elliot, of course, has problems following the rules.) When those brief moments of touch and trust move beyond expected and become welcome, it’s Elliot who brings sensuality to the act of blood drinking. Umbra has always given Elliot the freedom to choose, because it’s something they weren’t given.

Umbra is neither female nor male. They came to Vermilion castle at their sire’s request to be Vermilion mate, though Umbra was, at the time, unchanged. Having never taken human blood, they had no physical traits of either male or female, and had no desire to take either role. They didn’t want to marry Vermilion and bear their children, but the more they resisted, the more Vermilion threatened and hurt them (and there are some references of assault and rape in the past between them) and now threatens to force them to drink the blood of female humans to force the change.

Umbra is cold. Calculating. Abyr are hard to kill, and can endure pain and injuries no human can. They’re willing to endure Vermilion abuse if that’s what it takes to protect themselves or to advance their plans. But Umbra is … reactionary, for much of the story.. While they make the choice to bring Elliot to the castle and drink a man’s blood, they’re also more inclined to watch, and wait, and plan and plan and plan. It isn’t until Elliot makes a move that Umbra is forced to consider taking action, but when they do, it’s as cold and clinical as a gardener pulling weeds.

I loved this book. At the beginning, with the rather unpleasant feel of an unpleasant world, I was actually on the fence. But the more I grew to know the characters and the more I got to see of the world, the more I was pulled in. This story reminds me a bit of the Wraeththu series by Storm Constantine with it’s examination of gender, of how gender roles affect culture and the people within it, and how humans might view and be viewed by a gender fluid people. The Abyr themselves are gorgeous, a lovely blend of the fae folk and vampires, with intricate court manners and politics, economics and trade, resource management, mythology, and all of this against a dystopian background. Then toss in the coup, the revolution, the resistance …

This brief moment between Umbra and his birther sums up the feel of the story, I think:

“You have done well.”

“Then why doesn’t it feel like success?”

“Because there will always be a problem to solve. Enjoy the small wins when you have them, but always be ready for the next battle.” {…} “I am glad that I have found your body and do not need to take it home.”

This story seems to be a standalone, which is a shame. I would devour a series set in this world, with the Abyr and humans, with the old ones in the forest, the leviathans in the ocean, all of it. This is a harsh book at times with an emphasis on characters and world building rather than romance, but the romance is there. It even ends … well, beautifully. This book is just amazing. It ticked all the boxes for me, and I hope — if you give it a chance — that you enjoy it half as much as I did.

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