The young goblin prince Shi’chen’s life is destroyed when his cousin, En’shea, decides he’s tired of waiting to become Emperor and murders Shi’chen’s father and the rest of the regent’s council. At the age of nineteen, Shi’Chen and his twin, A’bbni, are orphans and prisoners, accused of plotting to take their cousin’s throne. Shi’Chen is forced to watch as his gentle scholar twin, A’bbni, is brutally raped while their father’s head is placed on a table to watch. Rescued by a rebellion they knew nothing about, the twins are spirited away to safety, but Shi’Chen knows he’s going to come back, one way or another, to avenge his twin, his father, and his people.
A’bbni is still reeling from what happened to him when he and his twin are asked to trust strangers. Sent to an elven city, alone, he has nothing but his own thoughts to keep him company. Unlike his brother, A’bbni’s thoughts aren’t of vengeance, but justice. Along with the violence and cruelty that are his nature, his cousin, as emperor, plans to bring back slavery both to the goblin kingdom and even to the elves. A’bbni can’t undo what happened to him, but he can ignore it and focus instead on the possibilities the rebellion is offering: The death of En’shea and the crowning of a new Emperor.
This is a rather brutal little book. There is a lot of violence, both with regards to A’bbni, who is raped, tortured, beaten, threatened, used as a hostage against his brother, threatened with being the sexual slave of his rapist, and maimed, and even with Shi’chen, who is attacked and beaten by a gang of sailors, and later in the book where he is efficiently and graphically cutting down palace guards. Emperor En’shea mentioned, gleefully and cruelly, the five-day fate of the woman who helped them escape and who, eventually, begged for death. While there is a love story, and the story of the love between two brothers sandwiched between the violence, the violence is so much a part of this book, and such a large part, that some readers may choose to pass this one by.
While there is a romance in this book between A’bbni and a sailor, Lai, it feels somewhat perfunctory to me, as if it was decided from the beginning that the two of them would end up together, even before the characters met. I found the true pairing here was A’bbni and his twin, Shi’chen. Not that there’s anything wrong with Lai, who is a kind, quixotic, and dashing hero figure, it’s just that his personality remains static and unchanged through the book. He’s loyal and devoted, shows up when needed, and never says or does a wrong thing, and yet I was left wondering who he actually was.
A’bbni and Shi’chen, as twins, have been together all their lives. While Shi’chen served in the palace guard and became one of the youngest captains, A’bbni was a scholar learning how to heal wounds and cure illnesses. They supported each other and balanced one another out; A’bbni was the calm to Shi’chen’s temper and Shi’chen the endless support to A’bbni’s leaps of imagination. Enduring what they did, being parted was the cruelest part. Shi’chen had to go for weeks with the guilt of failing to protect his twin without having A’bbni there to touch, to hold, or to be held by, and, for A’bbni, he had to lose the one source of comfort in his life. He had to pull the pieces of himself back together and hold onto them as tightly as he held onto the promise that he and his twin would be reunited.
When Shi’chen makes friends with Lai, the half-human, half-elven sailor, his first thought is how much his brother would like the man. And when A’bbni and Lai do hit it off, Shi’chen is jealous — not of the romance, but of the attention that they turn onto each other. Lai makes his twin happy, and A’bbni makes Lai happy, and all of that makes Shi’chen happy, but he’s a bit hurt that there’s a part of both of them he can’t share. Shi’chen isn’t interested in physical intimacy; he just wants to know that they’re both still his. HiIs friend, his twin, his family.
The writing is good, the pacing is good, and the story itself is good. The twins and their relationship with and love for one another were the standout for me, but — as I said above — it’s a lot of brutality, both at the beginning and end. If you choose to read this story, I hope you enjoy it.