Once upon a time, the Emperor of Susconian had an aviary of birds. They were pretty young slaves there for the enjoyment of the court. The slaves were harassed, assaulted, used and abused, kept chained in a harem at night, and lucky to have a pillow and blanket to call their own. And then there was Salas.
Salas is the loveliest bird in the Emperor’s palace, the most favored, wanted, beloved, and precious. Salas wanted the birds to be happy and so asked the Emperor to give them freedom and money, jewelry and protection. Now, the birds are beloved court companions, wooed and courted, known for their beauty and charm, and they are happy. Salas, though, is still a slave. Some days, it’s easier to forget than than others. Some days, it’s easier to ignore the twist in his stomach when the Emperor wants him to charm a noble or two, to perform in public or in private. Some days, it’s not. Today, though, is an easy day as Salas is preparing a party for the Emperor’s 80th birthday.
And then the screaming starts.
Monsters from the north, more beast than man, have descended on the palace, slaughtering everyone, including the Emperor, and have captured all the birds, putting them in cages and chains. Salas will have to use every charm, every wile, and every bit of strength to try to free them again. But even Salas’s charm may not be enough.
This book is described as a dark romance, but I think that’s not quite right. While there are dark elements (trigger warnings include sexual slavery, rape, torture, drowning, grooming, and suicidal ideation), none of those are present in the romance itself. Instead, this is a romance taking place in a dark world. That said, I will begin this review with a heavy trigger warning … and that trigger warning is Salas.
Salas entered into the Emperor’s court with no memory and no strong sense of self. He was confused, uncertain, and clinging to the first person who had ever shown him kindness. Salas was taught by the Emperor that he was a thing to be used, a source of pleasure for other people. It didn’t matter if he wanted to sleep with someone; it mattered that he wanted to please the Emperor. Salas learned that his only value was in the pleasure he could give and — when dealing with the barbarian northerners — Salas tries to please them by offering the use of his body. Again and again, he tries to find his footing, viewing himself as a thing. A thing with no value beyond his skills. When he is raped by a prison guard (the scene is not gone into in any detail) in exchange for some bread and water, he frames it in his own mind as just an hour of time, something to endure and then ignore. When he is raped by the witch while in the king’s rooms, he goes along, thinking he is doing a good thing. If she is pleased, Salas will be treated better, won’t be hurt again or killed.
Rightfully so, the king, Jareth, is horrified by this. As he is horrified by the existence of the birds at all. He frees them, gives them rooms, clothing, and has them trained in jobs. Much as he does for Salas. While dealing with politics, the curse his people are under, the aftermath of a war and the beginnings of another one, Jareth allows Salas to take over his bedroom. He offers security, giving into Salas’ wants and whims. When Salas tells him the guards outside the door make him nervous, the guards are gone. When Salas smiles at him, Jareth’s day is better, and when Salas offers himself to Jareth, Jareth is receptive … until he realizes Salas isn’t. Salas goes through the motions, but his body shows a lack of interest — and when he tries to seduce the king anyway, mentioning how he doesn’t mind, Jareth is appalled and promises to never touch Salas until and unless Salas wants it. He doesn’t want Salas offering, he wants Salas willing.
The slow relationship between the two is well done. Normally, I’m not a fan of the perfectly charming character winning everyone over, but Salas made it work. Not because he tried, but because the self-centered magpie didn’t demand I find him charming. Salas — once he is assured he wouldn’t be hurt or killed — takes to freedom like a fish to water. He notices things, is interested in people, is always watchful for his birds, over whom he feels responsible. Jareth was less developed, being a nice guy who fell hard for a charming young man and good enough to not take advantage of the situation.
I would have preferred a bit more attention to the world building, personally, but what there was was sketched in well enough that if stood on its own if you didn’t look too closely — helped by the fact that the book is told mostly through Salas’ point of view, and he has no interest in what lay outside the castle walls. The writing is decent, the pace is fine, and the plot kept me entertained. So why is my review score so low?
This book has proofreading issues. There are modern colloquialisms (“it wasn’t a shocker”) in a medieval fantasy; some grammatical errors (us witches instead of we witches), and quite a few malapropisms: “were astounding around awkwardly” rather than standing around; tack instead of tact; muts instead of mutts, ladder instead of latter, viscous instead of vicious, self-conscience instead of self-conscious, month instead of move, peaked instead of peeked, and quite a few more. Then there are odd phrasings that almost work, but don’t really, such as: Yet any type of detest toward that fact only resulted in irrational, anger-manifested desire […]; The […] other hand, dear thankfully, or he watched in interest.
Due to the sheer number of editing issues, I’m dropping a whole point off of my review. However, if these were corrected, this would easily be a four-star book. I enjoyed the story and look forward to seeing more from this author.