Who needs a king? Having lived so long under the hateful rule of the jarls, the Þrælar — wolf shifters blessed by the god Addum — have no desire for more nobility. Now that they are the ruling class, thanks to the White Demon who freed his enslaved people and led them on a murderous rampage across the land, killing jarls, destroying and devouring every army in their path, the Þrælar are happy enough to rule in their own way. Warlords sit enthroned in larger cities with sworn men and women to help enforce their brutal rule. Now it’s the jarls who are beaten, enslaved, raped, sold, and made to scream. It’s the jarls, those once-mighty nobles, who serve the Þrælar as their slaves in the whore houses and coal mines.
For Julian, the world has become a nightmare. Soon, within days, he will be 18. Old enough to be put to work at the brothel where he currently works as a harpist, old enough for his body to be bought. But it’s what has to be done if he’s to get close enough to the White Demon to seduce him and to kill him. Without the feared white wolf Þrælar, the jarls who gather in quiet rebellion hope to be able to end the horrors of the Þrælar uprising, to gain back their honor, their pride, and their lives. And for Julian, it’s also a penance. He’s the one who let the White Demon go, unlocking his cage and letting him free.
He’s responsible for the deaths of his parents, torn to pieces and eaten alive before him. He’s responsible for the suffering of his sister, forced to work at the house of the brutal Þrælar warlord who beats and rapes her. It’s all his fault. But there are always two sides to the story. Julian has heard the jarl’s side — has lived it. Now it’s time for him to hear the Demon’s version, and decide for himself which one is the truth.
This story takes place in an alternate Iceland and has some truly wonderful world building. Between normal humans and the wolf-shifter Þrælar are the occasional halfling, the Skrælingjar who are rarely born from the union of Þrælar and human. There are are also Karls, a sort of witch or druid magic-using race, and they and the world they live in feel whole and fleshed-out.
Julian is the son of a jarl, an abusive monster, albeit one who loved Julian’s mother and treated her well. He did not, however, treat his other wives or children so kindly, and Julian feels obligated and bound to please his half-brother Franc and half-sister Misha, to prove his worthiness to them, to make up for his father’s disdain and, secretly, for the ruin of their lives he has caused. Julian was going to be a priest of his father’s god, but it means as much to him as any part of his past life did. Now, everything is wrapped up with Lucious, the White Demon, whose touch sets his blood on fire and who took both his virginity and his heart. Even as his loyalty to the jarls demands he kill Lucious, Julian can’t quite bring himself to hurt anyone.
Lucious was a pretty young man, when he was a Þrælar slave. Catching the eye of Julian’s father he was raped, beaten, and tortured for years until, one night, a young red-headed boy crept in and opened the door for him. Ever since, during his bloody conquest, Lucious has always taken an interest in redheads, looking for the one who saved him, even as part of him knows the young man is probably dead. On seeing the young musician at the brothel, Lucious can’t help but take an interest. Julian’s spine, his anger, his refusal to back down both amuses and pleases Lucious, and the fact that the boy’s a beautiful virgin makes it even better.
Lucious (and Julian) started this revolution and there are many Þrælar who want him to take full responsibility for it. To stand up and be their king, to bring law and order to the brutal violence and unrest of their world, but Lucious doesn’t want to. He wants to go around the world, righting wrongs one at a time. He also doesn’t want to fall into the trap of being just like the jarls, growing complacent and distant from the sufferings of the world. But the simple truth is, someone is going to have to step up. And if it it won’t be Lucious, it will be someone else. Someone not so concerned with being fair and just. And just as Lucious has suffered at the hands of jarls, so has every other Þrælar, and most of them have no interest in seeing the jarls as human, preferring to see only meat.
I didn’t, personally, care for the author’s style. There was nothing wrong with it, I just didn’t care for it and couldn’t quite get into the flow of the writing. There are also various tense shifts that change entire passages. For example, Lucious, pondering his future, thinks “He’d lived like this for centuries.” instead of “He’d live like this for centuries.” This makes him seem like some ancient immortal rather than a 23-25 year old shifter seeing an endless future of violence in front of him. Or this one: “No, hard feelings, Lucious. I hope you understand.” The comma after the “No” changes the sentence altogether from what I think is intended, one man telling the other that there are no hard feelings to be had, to what the sentence actually says, in that yes, there are hard feelings. And he hopes Lucious understands that. There are a lot of small bits and pieces like this that cause the words spoken to conflict with what I feel the author is trying to say, and it makes for a disjointed reading experience.
I also have a slight problem with the romance, itself. There’s nothing wrong with a dark romance, and there’s nothing wrong with the idea behind the story. But, for me, the balance of the story is off. From what we see of life under the rule of the jarls was one of torture, abuse, rape, and dehumanization. When the tables were turned, the Þrælar were no better. Everyone Julian knows — his own sister, he himself — has become a victim of the new ruling class. His parents were eaten alive in front of him. Daily he and his people see and hear about murders, kidnapping, beatings, rape … the violence goes on and on. But because Julian falls in love with Lucious, he can forgive everything and let bygones be bygones. Getting fucked a few times, no matter how good the fucking, doesn’t seem like enough undo the horrors of Julian’s life. I just think that the Þrælar needed to be a touch less awful, or there needed to be more from Lucious to prove that he was different than just a conversation and a kiss.
All in all, I did enjoy the world building, and thought that both Julian and Lucious were well-realized characters. Julian comes across as a spoiled young man still trying to close his eyes to the reality of the world and who just wants things to go back to normal, and Lucious feels very much like someone tired of all the fighting and blood. He, too, wants things to settle down so he can just live his life. Their romance is fast with the fated mates bond, but it was set up nicely. I just, personally, think there should have been a little more development of both sides. I would be very curious to see if this author continued writing in this world, because I think it’s the best part of this story.