Rating: 3.25 stars
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Length: Novel

 

Serd isn’t quite sure what he did to warrant being whipped to death, but he’ll do his duty as an Imperial Guard and accept his punishment. One hundred lashes will probably kill him, but Serd is a Guard. He won’t complain or whine about the unfairness. Salvation comes in the form of Prince Calelaine, the bastard grandson of the Emperor, who has demanded justice on Serd’s behalf. For that moment, for believing in him, for saving him, Serd will give his life for Prince Calelaine.

When the Emperor dies, followed by his heir, the Empire is suddenly thrown into war as four potential heirs each claim the crown for themselves. Serd is tasked by his commander to get Calelaine out of the palace; as a bastard, he isn’t in contention, but his relatives would prefer him dead just to be on the safe side. Getting Cal out of the palace is hard enough, but getting him out of the city — alive — proves even harder. Between the legion, the guards, and a city gone mad with fear and rage, the two men have only one another to rely on.

Personally, I would categorize this book as a dark romance. For one, there is the graphic, on-page violence. We see the multiple-paragraph killing of Cal’s pet dog as Serd slits its throat, with lingering moments to contemplate the blood and body left behind. Sard and Cal cheerfully cause someone to be sold into slavery. Cal viscerally and graphically kills someone on page. So many people die. Second, Cal, the ostensible main character, is not a good person. He’s selfish and cruel and, through his actions, causes so many deaths, none of which appear to cause him any issue or discomfort. He demonstrates no problem with people dying for him or because of him, and seems to have no care for anyone beyond himself.

So, let’s take a deeper look at Cal. Cal is the illegitimate grandson of the Emperor. His father was unmarried when he had an affair with Cal’s mother and, after Cal’s birth, went on to marry and have more children who are in line for the throne. When the Emperor dies, Cal’s half-brother is made Emperor for a brief period of time before he, too, dies, and the world is thrown into a political mire of cousins contesting for the crown, and legions fighting the Imperial Guard as they lay siege to and then sack the city, and Cal just wants out. He has no interest in any of it, beyond escaping with his life. He manipulates people easily, even and especially Serd, and while he is mildly inconvenienced a time or two, he doesn’t seem disturbed by or as if he cares about anything.

All of this is fine. It’s even fine that, when given a chance to be Emperor, Cal declines. But he does so knowingly leaving the Empire in chaos and at war with itself, and with people dying, starving, being tortured, and sold into slavery as people look for a leader to stabilize them. Again and again, Cal is the cause of and the inciting factor of people dying, and there is never a reaction to it. It feels like honestly he doesn’t care. And that’s fine. He’s not asked to be heroic or good; all he has to do is be a character interesting enough to carry the book along.

I will say, Cal was at least consistent in his characterization. When faced with a legion who didn’t know what to do or how to survive, Cal blithely tells them to go be mercenaries. The commander asks him how they decide which side to fight for — you know, what morality should they follow — and he tells them to look to the highest bidder. He abandons an empire in need of leadership and, when at college, he notices the steady decline in students and just shrugs. It’s not his problem and he really doesn’t care.

Serd, the love interest, is a member of the Imperial Guard who has a crush on Cal. When given the task to protect the prince, he takes it gladly — not to get close to Cal romantically, but to save the man who saved him. When the two of them start their sexual relationship, it’s clear Serd is falling head over heels for the prince. He doesn’t mind being used, being the one to do all the heavy lifting and protecting, because that’s his role. Serd takes over the emotional labor of caring for Serd, guarding him, serving him, pampering him, and loving him in exchange for Cal being with him.

At the end of the book, Serd is following Cal like a puppy — like the puppy Cal let him kill. And Cal seems to like this. Likes the closeness, the obedience, the sex, and the fact that he has someone at his side who can protect him. Cal manipulates Serd effortlessly and Serd lets it happen. It’s not a classic romance, but for the two of them, it works. For me … it almost worked? Part of my uncertainty is because I’m not entirely sure if the author intended for this to read like a dark romance between a manipulator and his willing subject. But this is my review, and that’s how I read the couple.

The writing is stiff and clumsy, and the pacing is … well, it’s bad. Chapter three is almost entirely Serd lecturing some new guards about how the Imperial Guard works, how the palace works, how the imperial family works, how court works (and oh so much more). It’s awkward and heavy handed exposition that almost had me dropping the book. It felt out of place and, worst of all, it was boring. This is followed, in chapter four, by a lecture about coronations, and in chapter five an explanation about the legion. Too much of the world building is slowly and methodically explained when, in my opinion, it doesn’t need to be. At no point in the story did the history of the Imperial Guard matter to the events happening to Serd and Cal. All of this slowed down the pace, taking away any momentum and a bit of interest from the story, and felt quite tedious. Add in my most hated nitpick — breath, instead of breathe — and I was left struggling to finish this book.

If the writing were stronger and the pace tighter, this might have worked better for me. I don’t often see enough truly morally grey and selfish characters as romantic leads, and Cal is exactly that. But my issues with how everything was put together and how the pacing didn’t flow kept me from enjoying this as much as I would have liked. If you’re into darker shades of gray romances with not-very-nice characters and their doting love interests having road trips, and don’t mind information dumps scattered left and right, you could consider giving this book a try.