Four years ago, Barrett Boyd was a guard in the Queen’s Eternal Dungeon. He was also starting to understand being a dungeon guard did not mean that torturing the prisoners there actually benefited the prisoners, despite what the sacred Code of Seeking said. Then, in the wake of a misstep, Barrett was subjected to a horrific whipping that would have killed almost anyone else. In fact, the punishment was so great and Barrett’s survival was so amazing that his story instantly became a myth—even though the man himself survived. Or at least his corporeal body survived. Barrett Boyd today remembers nothing of the thirty odd years he lived prior to the lashing. And now, he lives with the simple knowledge that prisoners he guards are near divine. He can tell because they shine with inner light where everyone else is dark and dull.
Only one other person in the entire dungeon glows with such brilliance. That man is Clifford Crofford, formerly Barrett’s apprentice and one-time “love-mate.” Now, Barrett can barely endure the man’s touch for the physical pain it brings. And love? The beating not only took Barrett’s memories, but his ability to express and understand human emotions at all. That does not deter Clifford, however. With his subordinate’s gentle coaching and practical explanations, Barrett slowly relearns how to interact with people. It comes just in time, for Barrett and Clifford soon find themselves sucked into an uprising meant to destroy the Eternal Dungeons, their Seekers, and the men who guard prisoners and seekers alike. Barrett’s ability to process emotions gets further pushed when he realizes Clifford has the capacity to love not just one man, but two.
The Awakening is a complex, multifaceted story from author Dusk Peterson. They meld historically factual elements into an enormously fictionalized world while deeply exploring Barrett’s psyche. The book comprises four sections: two set in the Eternal Dungeon, one at Barrett’s parents home, and one at a seaside resort belonging to Clifford’s lover D. Urman. While I came to enjoy the cast of characters and their not-so-clear-cut interpersonal relationships, I must admit the first section of the book was frustrating for me to read. I felt adrift in a sea of details that either resolved coherently at a much later point in the story or merely took on the semblance of sense because of the repetition. For example, over the course of the first two sections, I came to understand that “Seekers” are (for want of a more nuanced term) those who torture confessions out of the prisoners, a step seen as crucial if the prisoners are to be reformed. “Guards,” on the other hand, are tasked with protecting the prisoners…but not from torture, even if the prisoners are innocent…I think.
Because the story is told from Barrett’s perspective, I think the lack of clarity regarding the world is a great reflection of Barrett’s own inability to understand the world in which he lives. So it makes for a challenging read at first, but it got somewhat better for me the more I read. By the time I got to the fourth section, I was more invested in Barrett and wondering whether/how he would adapt to being in love with Clifford, who was and who acted on his polyromantic sexuality.
One of the most interesting elements of these stories for me was the development of Barrett’s emotions. Specifically, how he relearns to have emotional connections to others. At first, he is entirely closed off to any sort of relationship with another person. He identifies himself through his work. But Clifford teaches him about human connections and Barrett slowly warms to the idea of having Clifford as more than a friend, but maybe not a romantic partner. Eventually, they declare their love to one another, but also address the fact that Clifford desires a sexual partner as well, a role which Barrett cannot fulfill. So, in addition to Clifford being polyromantic and Barrett being asexual and gray aromantic, Clifford’s sexual partner, D. Urman, brings in complexity as all three men try to find a balance that satisfies all their needs.
I think The Awakening was a bigger challenge to read than I was expecting. I was not prepared for so much of the world to feel like disjointed islands of information and felt confused pretty often. But eventually, the world gained enough focus for me to enjoy the third section that focuses on Barrett re-meeting his parents and the fourth section that explores the three-way connection between Barrett, Clifford, and D. as they journey to D.’s parents’ beachside resort. The interpersonal relationships at that point had developed enough that I was fully invested in them and eager to see how our characters would fare.