Who’s winning and what does winning mean? Darion Navarr savors a challenge. As a Negotiator for the Vaironian Government, he matches wits against Tolrek Marou, the nation’s most notorious rebel. Tolrek Marou, an ace mecha pilot, jeopardizes his prominent military career. When he and his fellow pilots are blamed for the loss of a recent war, he leads a rebellion. Tolrek ultimately surrenders to the government, but Darion suspects Tolrek has hidden motives. Even as Tolrek is taken into custody, he’s focused on finding out why he’s still so important to Vaironia. Once he gets that answer, he plans on taking full advantage of the situation. His largest obstacle is Darion, who Tolrek believes understands him too well. Both Darion and Tolrek are intelligent and stubborn, pushing each other psychologically and physically. Negotiations, small and large, impact their relationship. With the many stakes involved, who’s winning and what does winning mean?
There are two main problems I had with this book, and one of them is me. Based on the blurb and the early chapters of the book, I went into this expecting a story that involved BDSM, a master/slave dynamic, an enemies-to-lovers story with characters at one another’s throats, or at least characters with strong wills clashing together. When none of those expectations were met, I was a bit nonplussed and had to readjust my approach to what I was reading. However, the second problem I had is with the book itself.
To start with the good, the author has a keen understanding of the politics of their world. The set up is there of genetic experiments, of secretive powers infiltrating various political factions towards some unknown end, and of Darion trying to figure out what’s going on and who’s trying to kill him. However, this plot is only a vague shape hidden beneath the rest of the story — which I gave up on at 59%. I was interested in the politics; I was not, however, interested in the characters, the lackluster world they existed in, or the author’s prose.
Darion is supposed to be a Negotiator, which is, as far as I can tell, a person with a government job and a powerful family backing them. Other than signing the paperwork to put Tolrek into prison, and then getting him out of prison to be his personal Pet, Darion doesn’t really seem to do much of anything. He’s wishy-washy, emotional, arrogant, selfish, and shallow. For example, Darion makes a sex tape of himself and Tolek, which he gives to friends. When the sex tape gets out, Darion shrugs it off as nothing interesting. When Tolrek finds out and confronts Darion, he doesn’t really seem to care and refuses to take responsibility. The only “I’m sorry” Tolrek gets is when Darion grabs for him, causing Tolrek to trip and fall into a vase, hurting himself.
Somewhere in here, Tolrek and Darion are supposed to have fallen into a deep, loving relationship of mutual affection. At least, that’s what the book tells me happened; I can’t express much of an opinion on it as it isn’t show to us. The same is true about conversations that were supposed to have taken place, or two characters supposedly having chemistry. All of it is stated as something that happened with none of it actually shown in the book. Which is something I, personally, really dislike. If a conversation is important to the plot, if a pair of characters are growing closer, if something important happens, I would like to see it happen rather than having it told to me in a single throwaway sentence.
Tolrek himself feels like he has no personality. He seems to exist to be what the scene needs him to be. Angry one minute, bratty the next, sad or lonesome or flirty or sulky so that Darion can calm him down, rebuke him, seduce him, or show him off. I have no sense of Tolrek as a person and it was kind of exhausting. Darion, for all that he’s not a likable person, in my opinion, had a personality. He was weak and cruel, entitled and abusive, but he was at least a person. Tolrek felt there to be a problem to be solved, and a body to be fucked.
Then there’s the world building or, rather, lack of it. What is a Pet — also called a Companion? Are they glorified house guests? Do they have any rights? Any status? Not all relationships between a Pet and Caretaker are sexual, but it’s taken as a given that Darion will be sleeping with Tolrek; everyone — from his boss to his family — sees the connection between them. (But how did his family see it? They weren’t there … unless they were there during the many weeks things happened that weren’t mentioned in the book. And Darion’s boss only saw the first meeting of the pair when Darion sent Tolrek to prison. How does that one scene make him so certain they’re going to be falling for each other?)
There isn’t any world building in this book as far as I read, so much as world tetris, with things feeling shoved into place to fill a need without feeling connected to the same story. For example, there are cell phones and genetic testing, near human AIs, households equipped with holosuites and guardian robots, and a civilization over 7000 years old. But then Tolrek, on his visit to to another world via space ship, is shocked — shocked! — at flying cars and an air train. Tolrek’s world is at least a few thousand years old. Tolrek flies a mech, a very top of the line one. He has just flown on a space ship to another planet. But an air train is enough to have him shocked and delighted at the technologic wonder of it all.
Honestly, I was already having such a hard time connecting with the book and characters that this moment just made me sigh. Nothing feels consistent, nothing feels earned, and nothing feels real in the portion of the book I read. The one character and the plot thread he was following was almost enough, but Tolrek and the train was just the last straw for me. In short, I am not a fan of this author’s writing style. The prose itself is serviceable, but I felt zero chemistry between anyone, and none of the relationship development I was told was happening was being shown in the book itself as I read. This is a pass for me, and I will not be continuing the Agitator’s Code series.