How much blood does it take to make a sacrifice? How much pain before sacrifice becomes nothing more than suffering? For Lev, there is no answer. There is only obedience. As the Left Hand of Maahes, Lev exists only to serve his god. His knives are keys to the doors that separate the mortal realm from Duat, where souls will stand before the scales and balance the weight of their hearts against Maahes’ feather. Whether their hearts are light enough to enter the paradise of A’aru or heavy enough to fall into the flames of damnation, Lev doesn’t care.
Živan is the grandson of Živan Bratko, bastard son of Živan Bratko, and heir to a legacy of corruption, blood, and power. With his grandfather’s murder, Živan should be granted charge of the family, but instead, it’s his uncle Ivaylo who has taken the reins of power. Not that Živan minds, to be honest. All he really wants is to keep playing with his lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and lynxes … and occasionally vanish into some BDSM club and indulge his dark fantasies. What Ivaylo does and how he does it doesn’t concern Živan as long as he has enough money for his pets.
When a madman meets a monster, blood will spill. The only question is whose.
This entry in the Malicious Gods of Egypt collection is … quite a book. The collection is one of dark romances by a variety of authors, with heavy themes and scenes of graphic violence. There is a brutal rape scene (which can also be read as consensual non-consent), graphic torture, dehumanizing treatment of one character by another, incest, kidnapping and human trafficking, and the death of a dog. There is also a cult, brainwashing, and regular, hum-drum murders. This is not a story about romance, but instead an examination of obsession, power dynamics, and finding that other half of yourself.
Lev is left-handed, something that determined his fate before he even knew who he was. He wanted to be an artist, to be loved and accepted and treated like everyone else. Instead, he is the Left Hand of Maahes, who writes the books of the dead and escorts the faithful to the arms of their god, sacrificing them on an alter in a gentle, peaceful ritual as old as the gods of Egypt themselves. When the servants of Maahes stray, be they Hands, artists, farmers, or priests, it is Lev who finds them. All of his life, he has been shunned by his own people, unwanted, unwelcome, and untouched.
It’s not just his vows that keep him celibate. It’s the fact that he is unclean. Even surrounded by his cult, Lev is alone. And it’s broken him. Lev is, quite honestly, more than a little mad. He has rationalized his life, counted it and recorded it and weighed it, knowing that his suffering in this life will only serve him in the next one. He is a devout follower of his god, and a true believer in his faith. Lev is a zealot, a religious fanatic, and a trained killer. Catching him is the worst mistake Živan ever made.
Živan grew up as a Romanichal child called Billy, until he was discovered by his Bulgarian mafia family and brought home. Given his father’s name and place in the family, Živan was unwelcome and unwanted by anyone but his grandfather. Fortunately, Živan’s interests were in his cats and dogs, rather than the power plays of the family, so he was allowed to loiter by the side. He never cared where the money for his cats came from; it was money laundering and that was fine, as long as there was always enough left at the end of the month for what he wanted.
Živan is not a nice person. He prefers giving his cats live goats and delights in watching them slaughter the animals. Watching one of his lions kill a man arouses him, leading to one of the best orgasms of his life. He knows about the human trafficking, the drugs, and all the rest of it … and doesn’t give two fucks. He has almost everything he wants. What he’s missing is that certain someone who will fight him tooth and nail, only to be conquered by him as he takes them — willing or not. And Lev, the virgin killer, the priest who may or may not be the man who killed his grandfather, who belongs to an organization of skilled killers, is everything Živan wants. Lev isn’t a sub, won’t tap out or duck his head and be obedient. Lev could kill Živan, would if he could get his hand on his knives. And the thought of breaking him, of taking him like an animal … it haunts Živan’s dreams and waking thoughts.
Lev is touch starved, so much so that the mere thought of Živan’s hands on his skin makes him feel things he hasn’t felt, has chosen not to feel. He is both fascinated and repelled by Živan’s physicality, and by his own response. In his confusion Lev pushes, trying to encourage Živan to do things to him against his will. After all, if it’s not him making the choice, if there’s a gun to his head (literally) or he’s being forced to choose abandoning his prayers to his gods — which he can’t; he just can’t — or let Živan touch him, he has no choice but to let himself be touched. It’s never his choice, but it’s always something he wants.
When Živan rapes Lev in the bathroom — something Živan sees clearly and unflinchingly as rape — we, the reader, see Lev’s side of it. When he came it wasn’t just from the stimulation to his prostate, it was from his own enjoyment both at being forced and at being touched, wanted, chosen. It’s a dark and twisted dynamic, and it’s a relationship entirely built on obsession rather than romance.
The author makes it clear several times that this is not a normal BDSM relationship. Živan himself, while visiting a sex club, shows awareness of the normal rules of consent and aftercare … he just doesn’t want that for himself. He doesn’t do aftercare, and doesn’t care about consent, but that is the character’s opinion, not the author’s.
The writing is strong, but the pace is meandering and bloated. To be honest, I felt every one of the four hundred pages of this book. There were so many repetitions, two flashbacks that added nothing to the story or to the characterization of Lev — making him less mysterious rather than more — and a lot of the extra flourishes to make every other character vile, depraved, and evil just felt unnecessary. The author would build up the tension only to break it again and again with fluff and filler, and while it might have served as a distraction from the heaviness, it just didn’t work for me.
However, that said, I have to applaud the author for the bravery of the ending. It was a bold choice, and one absolutely in line with the characters. However, I really didn’t care for the epilogue. Other readers may feel completely differently, preferring the epilogue to the ending. This is the second book I’ve read from Emma Jaye, and while her stories aren’t for everyone, I find them to be wonderfully dark and decadent.