Vindt has lived ten years as a slave, bound to the Singer, Silhorveen. As part of his service, Vindt wears two bracelets: one to keep him from killing his master, the other to prevent him from killing himself. He is the Singer’s Thyd, a guardian, weapon, and attendant … and he hates him. He hates what they do and hates that the Singer are about to engage in battle, to slaughter helpless humans by the score with his magic, just as they did to his people.
It’s a day like any other, a war like any other, a hatred like any other. Until the demon attacks. The Verdur is a creature of no shape and every shape; no human eye is able to see it directly, only bits and pieces, blurs of motion and the sensation of pain. Where it touches, flesh warps; where it stands, reality shifts. What was a bush before might be a boulder, now. A patch of grass is now a thicket, a stream is now a meadow, and flesh is now clay. Singers are the only weapon humanity has against Verdur, but this time Silhorveen isn’t enough and Vindt’s Singer dies.
What ought to have been a death sentence instead becomes a miracle. Vindt … lives! His soul is not taken to Thrithid, the world of demons, the Singers’ version of hell. He is alive and whole and no one knows how. Instead of a blessing, this becomes a curse, as the rest of Silhorveen’s retinue view him as demon touched — or a demon ally. It isn’t until a new Singer comes, Asche, that anyone will even talk to Vindt. Now, he’s being taken back to the Singer’s home city where his fate will be decided. Vindt is taken by this new master with new plans, new goals, and who refuses to tell Vindt a single truth; a new master, but kinder than the old one. And then Ru, another Singer, offers him a chance. Betray Asche and be free …
This is a slow book, almost more a character study of Vindt and the slow, elegant reveal of the world the author has created than a romance. There’s a plot that doesn’t get started until the last third of the book, involving Gods and the creation and death of the Singers, who are neither angels nor demons, but who are certainly not human. This is the first book in The Drowning series, and a great many questions are still left unanswered at the end of the book.
First, Vindt is a slave. His homeland was conquered by a rival nation that hired Singers to ensure a victory. Vindt was chosen as a Thyd and sold into slavery. He is, in this book, the only slave. As Singers, both Asche and Silhorveen have entourages of people who adore them, worship them, serve out of love; in their home city, the Haven, children are raised knowing adoration and love of Singers. And yet Vindt, a slave who has tried to escape, who has tried to kill a Singer, is chosen to be a Thyd.
Vindt’s slavery is mentioned, but never examined; his status as a slave versus the freedom of other humans is never compared or questioned. Instead, Vindt is looked at jealously because of his closeness to the Singers. A closeness brought on by blood that the Singers feed to their Thyd at regular intervals. It keeps them young, it makes them heal fast, and makes them strong and swift and powerful, and like heroin, it cannot be stopped. The immense pain of the addiction is used as a punishment, and yet for all that, Asche acts like the one put out by the situation.
Asche is an asshole. He’s malicious and secretive, playing with people’s lives and emotions. He seems to see humans as little better than his horses. Treat them with a modicum of kindness and they shall give you endless devotion; but if they won’t obey with kindness, than force will be used. Perhaps it’s because Singers live for hundreds of years while humans live much less, or maybe because he’s just a spoiled, entitled asshole. (That’s not to say he’s a bad or badly written character; he’s just a character who happens to be an asshole.) Asche is also somewhat inconsistent, going from being fey and whimsical to being cold and pissy, to being cruel and indifferent. It is fine, in that people have many emotions and moods, but it feels as if his mood changes based upon what Vindt needs in order to learn a secret or feel ill-used rather than because that’s Asche’s personality or mood in that moment. I found it hard to pin down who Asche was when he wasn’t being seen through Vindt’s eyes and bias.
The relationship between the pair will always be one fraught with power disparity, as Asche is Vindt’s master and has ultimate power over him. Vindt is a slave forced into this union of servitude and attendance, not a lover, not an equal partner. When the two do finally have a physical encounter, it feels rushed and forced, as though some outside force made Vindt charge in and fuck Asche. That’s not to say it’s not well set up, it just didn’t feel natural. The sex scene itself is … difficult. It can be read either as consenting, dubious consent, consensual nonconsent, or rape — with Vindt charging in, grabbing Asche, kissing him with no sign or indication from Asche that he wants this. When Asche is enraged and punishes him afterwards, Vindt’s thought is along the lines of “you could have stopped it at any time if you’d wanted to.” It’s a very open ended scene. Because we know how strong Singers are, it’s easy to think Asche gave in, but it was also shown, very clearly beforehand, Asche’s exhaustion at the amount of magic he was performing. So, it’s up in the air if Asche could have defended himself. Personally, considering that Asche nearly whipped Vindt to death afterwards, it reads as rape, to me.
There’s a strange note of misogyny in the book. Singers are only and ever male — their females were killed long, long ago — and there are only a handful of women mentioned in the book. One of them, Narr, a warrior serving at Asche’s side, comments on Vindt taking down his rather unique and character defining braids (his long blonde hair is braided in a culturally specific way that has meaning for Vindt). This leads to Vindt thinking: “Women. They could wrap themselves in armor and let a dozen scimitars dangle from their waists, and still they would notice someone chanting their hairdoo.”
The writing is good (though I did catch a few typos; dosing instead of dozing, jar instead of jaw), the world building is very well done, and the … well, the vibe of the book was just what I was in the mood for. It’s angsty and dark, introspective and angry, with a slow pace that revels in Vindt’s unhappiness and grief as he mourns his lost people, his family, his life. I don’t buy the romance, though. Maybe the second book will establish it more, or reframe it. For now, I will simply enjoy this as world building, magic building, and a character study with a dash of plot thrown in.