To start with, I want to say the Captive Prince trilogy is now probably one of my top five fantasy series ever — just for sheer emotional power. After finishing Kings Rising (the third book, just released) last night, I feel wrung-out and satiated all at once. I’m in a post-novel fug (it’s over, I don’t want it to be over!) and I can’t put my mind to much except… this.
So I need to purge and decompress, but it’s hard to know where to start. I’m simultaneously buzzed and mopey. Aching. Restless. And more than half of me just wants to go back to the beginning and read them all again.
Damen and Laurent. Oh. My. Fucking. God.
Settle. Breathe. Write your damn review.
Kings Rising is the third book in the Captive Prince trilogy by C.S. Pacat, a Melbourne author. I reviewed the first two in the series last year — and I’m really thankful I didn’t come to them earlier and suffer the very long wait.
The basic premise of the series is this:
Instead of inheriting a kingdom when his father dies, Damen is betrayed by his half-brother and gifted as a pleasure slave to a rival nation’s crown prince, Laurent. Meanwhile, Laurent is also being manipulated out of his throne by his uncle who is regent but wants to be king. The princes start off hating each other, then over the first two books gradually build mutual respect and a deep emotional connection, based on their recognition they need each other to survive all the political and military plotting, and ultimately regain their birthrights.
Each book picks up exactly where the previous left off. Which means Kings Rising picks up just after Damen and Laurent have finally spent the night together, and Damen’s true identity as Prince Damianos, who killed Laurent’s elder brother (and hero) six years ago on the battlefield has just come to light.
(I honestly do not know why reviewers keep calling this slave m/m erotica. There is only one sex scene between them in two whole books. It’s a love story, not erotica. Is it just because it’s love between men they have to call it erotica? Gah!)
In Kings Rising, the relationship between Damen and Laurent is back on rocky ground, but they do form a political alliance and endeavour to defeat both the Regent and Damen’s bastard half-brother. There’s a cast of new supporting characters too, all of which are robust enough and play their roles.
But it’s Damen and Laurent we’re interested in; and their love will not be denied. It can overcome Laurent’s knowledge of Damen’s identity and the fact he flogged Damen nearly to death in the first book. It can even overcome the fact they’re destined to be kings of two different nations.
Each recognises he needs the other to temper strong emotions; Laurent’s intelligence and political nous complements Damen’s insightful military strategy and skill on the battlefield. Together they make a stronger whole. And because their love is so hard-won, so against all the odds, it is all the more powerful.
The challenge of meeting expectation
I confess I was, while excited, also a little apprehensive to read Kings Rising. I’ve been burnt by third books many times before, especially from debut authors. And I so desperately wanted this book to reach the heights of the preceding two — the tension, the twisting, the stakes, the deep emotional impact. I also desperately wanted the writing (from Damen’s point of view) to reflect the same elegant, sparse, yet deeply emotional style.
And as it turns out, Kings Rising is not a perfect book. The opening few chapters are a bit shaky, bumpy, especially as the author throws in the first ever chapter from Laurent’s point of view — which at this stage I did NOT want. After seeing him and knowing him through Damen’s eyes, I didn’t want to suddenly get inside his head. Not that much was revealed about him anyway. It was just a random and annoying deviation. (I am trying to forget this chapter even existed.)
But once the first few chapters were out of the way, it settled down into something reminiscent of the first two books. Damen is once again the viewpoint character, struggling to second-guess Laurent’s fierce strategising and plots within plots, trying to make the hard political decisions and temper his own headstrong nature, yearning for Laurent who has retreated emotionally.
Restrained yet emotional writing
Pacat’s writing is wonderful. It manages to convey deep emotional connection and love and fear, while being fiercely restrained. So often it’s what’s not said or thought that conveys the depth of their feelings — the reader is never in any doubt of either character’s love, even though neither once says the actual words. Their individual acts — of vulnerability or sacrifice — say all that is needed.
So on an emotional level, from the perspective of the love story, I got what I needed and wanted out of Kings Rising. Damen, charismatic and honourable and loyal, wins the heart of Laurent, whose true character is gradually revealed over the three books as he opens up to Damen and lets him inside. From cold to warm-hearted, self-serving to self-sacrificing, resentful to forgiving; but always so intelligent with the ability to be extremely ruthless when needed. He’s a truly marvellous creation and I fell for him so hard.
It even appears they will get a happy ever after… No two kings deserve it more. (Apparently there’s an epilogue coming as an addendum, for which I cannot wait.)
However, I do have to agree with many other reviewers that the last 20% of the book does fall away in terms of plausibility of plot. After 2.8 books of intricate political maneuvering, the ultimate confrontation is all resolved a bit too easily, and relies too much on luck with not enough twisting. Also, Damen is played far far far too easily — first by the Regent and then by his brother. It made me mad with him, especially as the Regent’s manipulation put Laurent in a very bad situation and any reader with half a brain was expecting the reveal leading to it.
Having said that, I did like the way the final confrontation played out based on the past actions of a cast of supporting characters from all three books — from the Regent’s poor murdered bed slave, to the thuggish guard who tried to kill both Damen and Laurent on various occasions, to the unexpected contributions of their companions. This tied up a bunch of loose ends rather neatly, and gave me the feeling the author knew what was going on the whole time.
Traditional fantasy — princes with swords
I should note also this is not fantasy for those who seek innovative worldbuilding or gender equality. On the whole, it’s a traditional male-dominated (perhaps more than normal) fantasy world, but it feels solid enough. For this series it doesn’t matter. It’s about princes with swords. C.S Pacat has admitted in interviews that it started as something she wanted to read and she listed a whole bunch of fantasy tropes to include. And there they are. Familiar doesn’t in this case mean bad.
Despite its flaws, I still love Kings Rising and think it’s a fitting conclusion to a series that’s already close to my heart. After all, for me it’s all about the characters and the emotional resonance, and I can’t fault any of that.
I’m not the first to say this, but I’m a little envious of people who still get to enjoy this for the first time. The first two do stack up well on second reading, though — I inhaled them a few days prior to Kings Rising, wanting to make sure I was fully immersed in the world and characters before I took the final journey. I’m pretty sure I’ll be re-reading this series periodically for years to come.
I’m pretty sure I’ll be thinking about Damen and Laurent a lot too.
This is my first review for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve committed to reading six books and reviewing four, although I’ll endeavour to read and review more.