This book – or rather these two volumes of a planned trilogy - have garnered a lot of attention recently. Janine Ballard wrote an excellent review over at Dear Author, Sunita has posted some thoughts on the first part of volume 1, and a number of people, including yours truly got into long chats on Twitter about it at the weekend.
I knew I’d end up blogging about it.
This isn’t a review, so you’ll get no plot summary here, no considered view of the volumes of whole (I’ll give you the result in short form – it’s an A+ from me). Instead, I want to talk about something that I found tremendously satisying and enjoyable and, yes, from a writerly perspective, instructive.
I’ll need to put some context around this now. Volume 1 begins with the enslavement of Damen (properly Damianos) the prince and heir of Akelios and his delivery to Laurent, the crown prince and heir to the throne of the neighbouring enemy state of Vere.
Pretty obvious who the eponymous Captive Prince is, you’d think?
It took me a little while to get my head around the fictional Akelios and the fictional Vere. (And I’ll pause here to say that you really ought to go and read Sunita’s comments about this, with particular reference to orientalism – I’m not going to talk about that in this post, but I do see her point).
There’s a wonderful balance in this story. It starts with the characters of Damon and Laurent, and it’s worked right through every aspect of who they are and where they come from.
Damon and Laurent are opposites in many ways, as their homelands are, as their cultures are.
Damon is straightforward, direct, utilitarian. When he needs to escape a room in a building, he tears a hole in the wall. He’s simple. Determined. Unstoppable. He thinks in straight lines. He sees what needs to be done and does it. He’s implacable.
Laurent is devious, Machiavellian. He plots and strategises like a chess Grand Master. His moves are worked out far in advance, the purpose of his actions at any point in time only becoming clear later. His motives and overall purpose are shrouded in mystery.
The characters’ homelands and cultures reflect them. Significantly, Pacat has chosen to set this story in a fictional world, one which she can shape to her purpose. Thus, Akelios, Damon’s homeland, is a martial sounding place in which clothing is loose and functional and architecture is plain and utilitarian. There is slavery, a cultural fetish for accomplished submission and a system of formal manners between masters and their bed slaves. Damon’s attitude to this form of slavery suggests the slave culture goes largely unquestioned in Akelios.
Vere, by contrast, boasts ornate architecture and intricate clothing that takes time to get in and out of. Whilst pleasure “pets” are kept at the court for Vere, the pets choose to sell themselves and Damon (who is from an enemy country) seems to be the only slave at the Vere court. Furthermore, there is none of the passive mannerliness of Akelion slaves. The pets are outspoken attention-seekers for the most part.
The whole story is told through Damon’s POV and we are very clear, as readers, at the start of the story that Damon is good while Laurent is bad; Akelios is noble while Vere is decadent.
Gradually, however, the reader’s perspective changes.
There’s a beautiful to balance to all of this. We have all the pleasurable tension between these forces of opposition: Damon and Laurent; Akelios and Vere. We get the pleasure of the contrast and texture this brings to the story, and the conflict, of course. But then we have, too, a moving towards one another of these seemingly polar opposites. A slow growth to understanding, and trust. Common ground is found and qualities are discovered by both Damon and Laurent, in each other, and in their peoples and cultures.
We start volume 1, in Damon’s POV, in a clear and unambiguous place, and we end volume 2 somewhere else entirely, still in Damon’s POV. A more mature place, a place he has gained from his hard experiences. It is a more complex world he finds himself in, one in which waging a bloody war against his lifelong enemies begins to look less glorious.
Oh, this is very accomplished and patient writing.
Damon doesn’t even have to earn our sympathy at the beginning of volume 1 – he is the captive prince, A noble warrior brought low and made to suffer horrors, yet displaying courage and resourcefulness throughout. He’s a hero to the tips of toes.
It would have been so easy to let him always be that.
Instead, we get something so much better. We learn, slowly, that despite these virtues, Damon is far from perfect. The negative side of his directness and straightforwardness is naivete and complacency. His trials force him to face up to reality.
He is redeemed by his slavery. And we end volume 2 with a very different Damon – free in more than one sense. The shackles are off, both those of the body, and those of the mind.