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Sword Dance #1

Sword Dance

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Five years ago, Damiskos’s brilliant military career was cut short, leaving him with a permanent disability and scars that are not all physical. Adrift and still grieving, he tries to find meaning in an unsatisfying job.

Work takes him to the remote seaside villa of an old friend, where, among an odd assortment of guests, he meets the eunuch sword-dancer Varazda. Enigmatic and beautiful but distinctly prickly, Varazda is the antithesis of the straightforward and serious Damiskos. Yet as they keep getting in each other’s way at the villa, their mutual dislike is complicated by a spark of undeniable attraction.

Then the villa’s guests begin to reveal their true characters and motives—no one here is what they seem—and Damiskos finds himself at the centre of a bizarre web of espionage, theft, and assassination. Varazda may need Damiskos’s help, but not as much as Damiskos, finally awakening to a new sense of life and purpose, needs Varazda.

Sword Dance is the first book in the Sword Dance trilogy, an m/nb romance set in an imaginary ancient world, with murderous philosophy students, sex acts named after fruit, and love blossoming in the midst of mayhem.

265 pages, Kindle Edition

First published July 31, 2019

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About the author

A.J. Demas

6 books297 followers
A.J. Demas writes about love and imaginary politics in a fictional ancient world. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and cute daughter.

A.J. also publishes fantasy and historical fiction with a metaphysical twist as Alice Degan.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 247 reviews
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 57 books7,650 followers
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August 12, 2019
Absolutely delightful romance set in AJ Demas' alt-Mediterranean Classical world, with a house party, a retired soldier, a hot eunuch sword dancer/spy, and a conspiracy afoot. The slow burn romance goes along with a twisty plot, lots of likeable characters, a very well-realised setting, and a hilarious mickey-take of Greek philosophers. There's depth to it, in the discussions of power, gender, sex, loss, and much more, but it's never weighted down by that and the writing bubbles with life. A pleasure from start to finish, and I am really looking forward to the continuation of the story.
Profile Image for WhatAStrangeDuck.
474 reviews35 followers
August 3, 2019
This is a heck of a thoughtful, multilayered book about things like gender inequality, gender identity, sex, privilege and nationalism. In that sense it's a very modern book for all that it's set in a fictional ancient world.

It's also (for those of you I see shrinking back from this) a really fun book to read. Because - at the end of the day, I really care about all those rather lofty themes very, very much - but what I need from books that I love are characters that I fall in love with.

And I did. Really, this author slays me every time. What I will say, though, is that you need some staying power because she takes her own sweet time to get the characters where you want them to be (in real time, not in story time because from a less nuanced narrational voice I would scream INSTA-LOVE but here, really, gah, it's so sweet!). And really, guys, you can never rush through any of this author's books. She is really sneaky with giving out tidbits of information.

So loved it, though I liked "Something Human" by this author even better, but I'm looking forward to some of my friends' reactions.

And *coughhinthint* the next book in the series. Just saying.

Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Skye Kilaen.
Author 14 books291 followers
April 1, 2021
If this Mediterranean-inspired alt-historical romance didn’t have a suspense sub-plot, the two main characters would have spent the whole book gazing into each others’ eyes with delight at having met [edited to add upon re-read: once they got past the POV MC being so amazingly awkward oh no!]... and I would have been here for that!! I loved them so much. But it was probably better that suspense sub-plot was there, because (a) structure and (b) it was really tense, realistic, and satisfying.

Both of the MCs are such soft sweethearts in personality - though they kick ass when needed - and I don’t often see such a pairing in romance. I hadn’t planned to read this but a friend talked me into it and I’m so glad ze did. And yay there will be a sequel!
Profile Image for Teal.
580 reviews176 followers
June 11, 2021
**** 3.5 stars ****

I love the Greco-Roman alt-historical world the author has created for her stories. This one is set up like a country-house mystery, but turns into a tale of espionage and political intrigue. Somehow it felt lighter than her previous books, despite dealing with subjects like slavery and xenophobia. The romance was too insta for my tastes, but hopefully it'll get some additional depth in the sequel. Probably a 3-star read overall, but like I said, I love the setting, and that earned it a rounding up rather than down.
Profile Image for Elena.
823 reviews80 followers
June 12, 2021
3.5 stars

I loved the worldbuilding like in all the other books by this author and there’s something about the writing that I find soothing and relaxing even when I’m stressed. Maybe it has more to do with the historical-fantasy setting and how decent and kind her MCs usually are than with the writing style, but still, it was exactly what I needed at the moment.
I really liked the novelty of having one of the MCs being an eunuch and on top of that.
I wasn’t happy with the
I also had some eye-rolling moments when it came to the plot and some of the secondary characters, but since this isn’t primarily a mystery or a suspenseful story and Aradne compensated for the idiotic secondary characters, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment.
All in all, I liked the characters and the story. The book ended with a promising set-up for the rest of the series and I’m curious to see what’ll happen next.
------------------------
Many thanks to my ever-so-patient friends for putting up with my snail pace on this BR. 😘

Profile Image for  ~Preeti~.
623 reviews
December 2, 2021
3.5 🌟
This is my first book by AJ Demas and I am delighted to discover a new author whose books are based in the alternate historical world. Because dear me hates the realities of my contemporary world so much that I am ready to read about an alt- Mediterranean civilisation filled with slavery and barbaric laws.😒😒

World-building
The author has built an imaginary world kinda like Roman-Greek civilization. There are different republics, acceptance of slave culture and homosexuality. But, what I liked most was the discussion around politics and nationalism. 

Plot
The book has a suspense plot, a kind of a country house mystery plot. We have a bunch of weird houseguests and a  group of vigilantes trying to bring back national purity.

Damascus is an ex-soldier with a permanent disability. Ex-soldier....you get the personality gist?? right!!! world-weary, straightforward, ever so helpful protector, and falls hard and fast for the other MC. 

Varazda is a sword dancer, a bit of femme and a eunuch. As a former sex slave, he has suffered a lot and survived. Now, he doesn't care much for romance or men.

Things I loved about the book
1. Opposite- attract romance.
2. Femme MC(one of my fav), I love how confident they are with their sexuality. 
3. super-sweet romance- I love
how careful Dami was with Varazda. 
4. Politics- my ultimate love.😂😂😂
5. action-filled suspense

Things I found Confusing
1. So, many difficult names……😿😿
 2 . Some of the talks about politics became repetitive and confusing.
3. How the sexuality of Varazda is defined and how he sees himself is not clear-cut. And, I would love to know more in the next book. But, even if not, I adore his grumpiness.


Still, as I said before, I liked this alt-classic historical setting so I will continue with the series and would also love to read some more books by the author. 

P.S- Although, there is a lot of contextual talk around slavery, this one is not Captive Prince. 
 
Profile Image for Leaf of Absence .
127 reviews19 followers
August 1, 2019
Lovely! Great characters, though philosophers do get a hilariously bad rap.
Looking forward to the next one.
Profile Image for Aldi.
1,084 reviews81 followers
January 26, 2020
(Here there be spoilers.) 2.5 stars rounded (barely) up. While I enjoyed some aspects of this, I also have a lot of notes. To begin with, between the faux-ancient-Greek setting, the soldierly protagonist named Damianos Damiskos, and the eunuch dancer love interest, it felt very much like someone had thrown Captive Prince and The Persian Boy in a blender, put it on high, then fluffed it all up with an improbable amount of whipped cream so it would never get as epic or emotional or impactful as the sources, and then baked it in a confusingly flavoured pastry of a country house mystery plot. (Yes, I have been binging a lot of Great British Bake Off lately, I don't know how you can tell.)

Anyway. I don't know if the influences were deliberate or complete coincidence, and I don't generally mind an influence as long as you can put your own spin on it. Which this did, sort of; it does feel like its own story and the characters are distinct enough that I got over the initial "this sounds very familiar" hump. The setting's quite lush and the descriptions well done and I enjoyed the world-building.

My main issue was with the plot, which seemed to start out as a house party murder mystery - an oldie but goodie of a trope in a different setting, quite nice, go with that. Except then the author very quickly moved away from that and tried to bring in treason and spying and war-mongering on a grander scale, supposedly affecting multiple countries, and that didn't work at all: the action never moves away from the isolated country villa, the conspirators/villains are thicker than really stodgy cake, and I didn't for a second believe that any of their extremely ineffectual scheming would come to anything, let along threaten national peace.

Suspension of disbelief was a problem with pretty much every aspect of the ensuing developments. There are some half-hearted action scenes, the heroes set up camp on a beach below the villa (which has been taken over by the almost comically incompetent villains), where they somehow build fortifications out of... sand and sticks. And successfully fight off several attacks by... throwing stones and shooting one of the two arrows they possess. (Yes. They possess literally two arrows.) And easily sneak back into the besieged villa to pick up some weapons and... extra clothes. And easily fool the villains with extremely simplistic "look over here while we sneak over there!" strategies. Everything was just really simple to the point of almost-silliness, the antagonists were basically interchangeable, and the story never developed any sense of real urgency or drama.

The same lack of real stakes unfortunately affects the central romance as well, although overall the relationship is actually my favourite part of the book. It, too, is fairly simple, but what doesn't work for the plot kind of does work for the romance - it's careful and very consent-focused, with a quiet sense of longing that was quite nice. Again, though, there is no sense of threat or failure, for all that these people are stuck in what's meant to be a pulse-pounding life-or-death situation. Everything rolls along very calmly and gently, the characters almost instantly understand everything about each other, communicate super-well, and the initial "mutual dislike" mentioned in the blurb lasts about two pages. I have no issue with two decent people falling in love without major drama, but since everything about this was designed to be major drama, I almost got a little bored, and I really shouldn't have been - not when there's all the fun cloak and daggers tropes like "we must work together though we do not trust each other" and "we must kiss now to deceive our enemies" etc. But everything always got resolved almost instantly.

Tying into this, the other major problem I had was with Damiskos apparently being a mind reader. One of my favourite things about having a single POV is that you're not always sure of the other character's thoughts and motivations - you may get an inkling or two of things the POV char doesn't realise, but overall you get to know the other character along with the POV char, and it can be fun and suspenseful and rewarding. There was NIL of that here, because Damiskos would unfailingly see some expression on Varazda's face and immediately conclude with apparently complete accuracy what he was thinking, in great detail. He literally frequently catches some tiny facial twitch or gesture and goes "he realised that Varazda was thinking that [insert lengthy thought process that no human person can possibly deduce from a near-stranger's face glitches]." I felt like the author really really wanted you to know what Varazda was thinking/feeling at every moment of every scene even though he doesn't have a POV, so she opted for spoon-feeding us his every thought via Damiskos' amazing inbuilt facial expressions interpretation software. It was extremely heavy-handed and destroyed every possibility of genuine uncertainty. And it extended to less direct aspects of their relationship too - I felt like I was forever being told exactly every nuance of every interaction. Random example:

(Damiskos has just told Varazda that he loves him. Varazda has responded that he doesn't really know how to reciprocate, because he's still working through ex-slave issues. Damiskos thinks that's fair enough. They are now walking back to their camp.)

Varazda was treating him a little differently - with a touch of a kind of careful affection - but it was a subtle thing.


Like... what?? You told him no more than an hour ago. You are now walking down a hill in the dark. How the hell can you tell he is treating you oh so subtly differently, with a touch of a kind of whatever, when you are walking down a hill in the dark? What could he possibly be doing that shows he is treating you differently than AN HOUR AGO at this point? Is he giving you subtly affectionate neck rubs as you are walking down a hill in the dark? This is the kind of realisation you can maybe have about someone you know really well, over a span of observably different behaviour exhibited over days or weeks, not about a dude you've known for a few days and told a potentially behaviour-altering thing AN HOUR AGO.

This spoon-feeding nonsense goes on and on and extends to Damiskos's motivations as well - at one point there's a bit of angsting over whether he actually loves V. or is just fetishising him, so there's a real quick clumsy set-up of a strawman who actually does fetishise him, just so it can be slowly and thoroughly explained to the reader why what D. feels is correct and what the strawman feels is incorrect. I'm pretty sure nobody was actually in doubt. It's a shame because if the author just trusted her readers a bit to interpret a character's behaviour themselves or hey, maybe enjoy the fact that their every thought and motivation is NOT instantly crystal-clear, the relationship development could actually have been subtle, instead of just declared so.

Even so, I did generally enjoy their scenes and the mutual care and respect extended. It wasn't fireworks but it was sweet and careful, and I liked the exploration of PTSD and slavery as portrayed in this world, as well as the acknowledgement of non-binary identity and the love scenes which, while low-key, were sensual and intimate. There were a couple of interesting side characters as well, though I wish more had been made of Damiskos' and Nione's friendship.

The pacing was a bit weird, given that this is the first in a trilogy - Damiskos falls in love super-fast and everything progresses way farther than I'd expect for a trilogy arc while actually not accomplishing much at all in terms of an overall plot. I think this would have worked much better if the plot had stuck with the house party murder mystery, focused on the whodunnit and fleshed out the villains better, and perhaps towards the end started revealing that there are larger-scale machinations with wider-reaching implications going on so you have some sense of suspense set up for the second book. As it is, by the end of this book, the inept villains are defeated and everything looks well set up for a happily ever after. I might read the next book because I did enjoy this reasonably well despite its flaws, but I'm certainly not hanging on the edge of my seat about it.

Underproved and overbaked!
Profile Image for Kaje Harper.
Author 72 books2,483 followers
January 1, 2020
A slow-developing fantasy romance set in an alternate-history quasi-Greek/Roman era. The characters were very engaging, particularly Damiskos, an older, world-weary ex-soldier dealing with the loss of a promising career. He has personal strengths that don't only apply on the battlefield, but at first this new assignment doesn't look like it will require them. Then violence and mysteries begin to change the shape of what seemed like a pointless assignment.

As Damiskos tries to figure out what is going on, who is on what side, and even how many sides there are, he's also trying to put his attraction to the eunuch sword-dancer Varazda into perspective. It would be a clear mistake to discount Varazda, for all his gender-ambiguous presentation and apparent lightminded decorativeness. And though many of the guests treat their hostess Nione who owns the villa as a prize to be won, Damiskos knows she is more than that.

This is a fun, although slow-building, mystery of sorts that has a lot of relevant things to say about gender roles and equality and privilege and cults and followership, wrapped in the adventure and the back-story. There is a solid HFN ending, but it's listed as part of a series and I'm looking forward to the next one.
Profile Image for Linda ~ they got the mustard out! ~.
1,523 reviews97 followers
June 13, 2021
3.5 stars

I've enjoyed this author's previous stories, mostly, though I've had issues with the pacing in them. They were slow and the world building was not well done. This is easily her best story yet, if predictable. It flowed well, and once things got going, it was very easy to get caught up in the action.

I liked Damiskos and Varazda. Damiskos was at loose ends and Varazda wasn't what he appears to be at first glance. There were these really obnoxious philosophy students that I wanted to smack constantly, but other than them I enjoyed getting to spend more time in this world. Demas has a way of writing about difficult topics without getting too heavy.

There were a couple of little things that had me raising my eyebrows a bit. Still, I just really didn't require that from this book and it didn't feel quite authentic, so it threw me out of the moment each time.

Still, I'm looking forward to the next one.
Profile Image for julia.
753 reviews157 followers
January 23, 2022
✩ 𝗮 𝘁𝗿𝗶𝘂𝗺𝗽𝗵𝗮𝗻𝘁 𝟰.𝟱 𝘀𝘁𝗮𝗿𝘀 ✩

Sword Dance took me a whole ass minute to read. I bought it, read to about fifty-percent, and then promptly moved onto another book. Shame on me, I know.

This story was … everything. There was so much going on romance, philosophical, and plot-wise. This book was a whole ass meal, ngl.

Honestly, I want to say so much and yet … all I can say is Damiskos has my whole heart.

“I do admire the angry Varazda,” Damiskos said, feeling a little shy about it, “but I think … it’s mostly the happy one I’ve fallen in love with.”

Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,372 reviews121 followers
August 9, 2019
4.5 stars

Brilliant. Lovely. There are dozens of well-deserved glowing reviews so I’m not repeat all that has been said. There were some very minor weak point but all in all it will be a truly memorable story. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Joyfully Jay.
7,292 reviews412 followers
August 6, 2019
A Joyfully Jay review.

4.75 stars


I loved Sword Dance. It’s not a perfect novel, but the characters are endearing and so well constructed that I didn’t care about a few imperfections. Damiskos and Varazda are something of an odd couple and for the first half of the book, they tend to spar with one another more often than not. The romance comes later and works because of exactly who these characters are and the absolute acceptance they have for one another. Varazda was gelded as a slave and, as a result, he is considered inferior or unnatural by many. But Damiskos sees his beauty, his grace, and his intelligence and loves Varazda for himself. It’s a balanced and comfortable relationship and while it evolves quickly, it reads as believable. These two do have the tendency to constantly apologize to one another and over explain the intention behind their words, which is a bit annoying, but doesn’t cripple the relationship. The setting to Sword Dance is fictional, but it echoes Greco-Roman influences so it almost feels historical, which I rather enjoyed.

Read Sue’s review in its entirety here.

Profile Image for Hart_D (ajibooks).
355 reviews8 followers
September 22, 2021
I liked everything about this book, but especially the setting, the two main characters, and the slow pace of the romance. I also enjoyed the intrigue plot. It's a really immersive and satisfying read, and I'm eager to read more of this author's work.
Profile Image for Rosa.
599 reviews6 followers
June 8, 2021
I liked this one very much. I think this is the book I've enjoyed the most by this author. Not that I didn't enjoyed the others in this same universe but I suppose as I knew what to expect here about Varazda character , I could enjoy the story much more.
Not everything went smoothly though, sometimes the situation gets a bit ridiculous and difficult to believe, but overall, the story and the characters were interesting enough to make me read this in a couple of days.
Profile Image for Ellie.
806 reviews154 followers
March 1, 2021
I absolutely loved this romance between a male ex-soldier and non-binary/genderfluid sword dancer ex-slave eunuch!

This is the second book I read by this author and it is set in a vaguely similar world - alternate historical world reminiscent of Ancient Greece and Rome. I liked the world building before and I liked it here. It's a rich and vividly depicted world.

I liked suspense/murder mystery at a house party plot and was invested in it despite finding it all going a bit silly towards the end, still it''s very enjoyable and good enough background for the romance plot.

I found both MCs very interesting and likable. Damiskos and Varazda are opposites in many ways but both are decent human beings, who care about others and are open to exploring the attraction between them.

Damiskos is an ex-soldier, uncertain about his future, disabled. He struggles to find his direction in life but at the same time is comfortable in his desires and sexuality. Varazda is a non-binary sword dancer, an eunuch, a freed slave. Acting was part of his job (dancer and a spy) but women's style is also part of who he was - long hair and kohl and dresses and accesories. I found him to be a captivating character, both strong and loyal but also insecure, lacking experience in consensual sex, never before having had a lover/partner on his own free choosing.

Their relationship started under extreme circumstance and was to some extend adrenaline driven, though their moments of tender heart-to-hearts were my favourite. The awkwardly shared fears and doubts and dreams under the cover of the night melted my heart.

There is no HEA at the end of this book, just the promise to explore things between Dami and Varazda further.
Profile Image for M.
825 reviews99 followers
October 5, 2021
Phenomenal. Really entertaining intrigue/romance novel set in Demas's fictional world. The sweet romance is between an ex-military officer and an ex-slave who is written to be a non-binary character, which I loved. There's just a lot to like about this book; great writing, a compelling plot, likable secondary characters, and best of all - a sequel.
854 reviews31 followers
January 17, 2021
Very pleased to discover this new author.

ETA: the two books by Demas remind me of Gillian Bradshaw’s books.
Profile Image for Kit (Metaphors and Moonlight).
857 reviews119 followers
January 25, 2023
I really enjoyed this! The characters, the romance, the story, all of it.

Damiskos was kind and understanding and serious and always trying to be a good person. But he was struggling with his own self-image and grief since becoming disabled and going through the traumatic experience he went through and having the course of his life altered. Varazda was one of those people who sparkled. Confident but coy. Perceptive and smart. Compassionate. As the description says, prickly sometimes, but only because of his own struggles and insecurities.

And what a lovely romance this was! Or still is. This was only the start of it. But what we’ve had so far has been beautiful, full of respect and admiration and vulnerability and trying to understand each other.

The fact that one character was castrated seemed to be handled with care. There were some words used that were maybe not ideal, but it’s fair that characters would use those words. And it wasn’t just tossed in, it was something that had a big effect on the character and his life.

And I loved the nonbinary rep! I could actually relate to a lot of Varazda’s feelings. I don’t think this world has words like “nonbinary,” but Varazda presented himself with both typically masculine and feminine features, styles, etc. And he talked about how he didn’t really feel like a man but was happy for others to see him that way, and how he also liked to feel more like a woman sometimes, that it gave him a balance. I also liked that he wasn’t nonbinary just because of what was done to his body. He felt like he would’ve had the same feelings about gender regardless.

Varazda’s past experience of rape / sexual assault, since he’d been a slave, was also handled with care, especially by Damiskos. Damiskos was always so understanding and patient in sexual situations, letting Varazda make the choices, offering ideas he thought they both might enjoy but making sure Varazda knew he could say no, etc. Damiskos just wanted to give Varazda the pleasure and enjoyment he didn’t even know sex could have. Whatever they were doing, Damiskos could still enjoy himself and the intimacy. And oh, what lovely sex scenes they were.

The plot was interesting. Espionage, intrigue, mystery, murder, and a bit of action. I would say it’s a slow-paced book, but not a slow-feeling one. It never dragged. I was firmly hooked.

There was disability rep, both physical and mental. Damiskos has a bad leg and a limp from a previous injury. Both main characters seem to have PTSD.

This is high fantasy, set in an imaginary world based on the Ancient Mediterranean, but there’s no magic or supernatural.

Overall, this was a lovely book with a bit of action and intrigue, but it was really the two main characters and the beauty of their forming relationship that drew me in, and I’m looking forward to reading more about them!

*Rating: 4 Stars // Read Date: 2023 // Format: Ebook via TTS*

Recommended For:
Anyone who likes fantasy worlds without magic, beautiful and gentle romance, a bit of action and intrigue, characters trying to heal from physical and emotional scars, and nonbinary characters.

Original Review @ Metaphors and Moonlight
Profile Image for Cathy.
1,583 reviews233 followers
September 7, 2022
Interesting world. Names sound Greek, the architecture sounds a little more Roman. And the far away land of Zash reminds me a bit of Persia, maybe the hanging gardens of Babylon made an indirect appearance?

Damiskos, the main character, is a likeable fellow. Former soldier, not a terribly exciting job, gets sent to the countryside to make a deal about buying fish sauce for the troops. Fishy things start to happen, not just sauce-related.

“Terza’s head, what a lot of ghastly people Nione seemed to have gathered around herself. Did he really have to stay out the week?“

Apparently he did. If Agatha Christie had ever written Fantasy, this is probably what it would have looked like. The requisite body might or might not have turned up. Damiskos gets support from unexpected quarters and has to pretend to be romantically inclined to towards the sword-dancing eunuch. Things do not go as planned. Do they ever?

Thrown in were some rather odd philosophers, some violence, a little not too graphic sex and various shenanigans. I liked the underhanded humour. Oh yes, and there were some serious topics woven into the narrative, about gender identity, equal rights, racism, power over and perception of others—nicely done.

This is not quick, the pace is rather sedate. Damiskos and the story take their time. It is well plotted though.

The world has potential for some more sweeping stories and there are two more books in this series. Recommended, if you are looking for a relaxed mystery with some action, light humour and a little m/m romance.
Profile Image for Nina ( picturetalk321 ).
492 reviews28 followers
January 28, 2020
A great discovery and a delightful read with some chortle-out-loud (at 30%!! omg) and grin-pasted-on-face moments. The world is an interesting one: an alternative universe AU antiquity, with Pheme / Athens?, Zash / Persia, and an archipelago of islands / Hellas. The pairing is delicious: the gruff scarred warrior with his lame leg / the lithe athletic dancer with his long black hair and nose stud. There is careful attention to linguistic detail and a nice country house focus that adhered to the three Aristotelian unities of space, time and action.

The chemistry between the Greek ex-soldier Damiskos and the Persian eunuch Varazda crackles off the screen. The pov is tight 3rd-person Damiskos, and he is a very satisfying serious narrator who struggles with his emotions and is of a heart-warming human decency. Varazda is mercurial and scintillating. Both have a solid backstory that is interwoven, never info-dumped, and informs their present actions and reactions reliably.

The sex is unfailingly consensual and kind. The ending has the promise of Happy Ever After.

I found 0-60% absolutely rivetting and delicious. After that, it gets a bit too battle-focused for my taste. Also caveat: there is torture and enslavement in the backstories.

There is a no-nonsense, fluid prose style and excellent sense of timing.

Format: Very good Kindle edition, published by Sexton's Cottage Books. A totally gorgeous cover, credited to Aud Koch (google her website!); design by Lennan Adams. Minor glitches: inverted commas pointing the wrong way; missing prepositions. Nice curlicue place holder.

Provenance: Recced by KJ Charles and then alerted as a 99p deal by Tanya.

This sort of fulfills the Reading Women Challenge 2020, rubric 20: Feel-good / happy (all except the torture and enslavement but both are handled with supreme sensitivity and are not gratuitous -- but torture can't really ever be 100% feel-good even so). It is also my second fulfillment of rubric 22: A new-to-me publisher.


Profile Image for Leigh Kramer.
Author 1 book1,162 followers
May 10, 2021
I can see why people enjoy this one but it fell a bit flat for me. Perhaps it would have worked better had it been in Varazda’s POV, instead of Damiskos, as I found him to be vastly more interesting than Damiskos, who was a bit of a bumbler. Their interactions were enjoyable, however, as was the way their relationship progressed. The plot, however, lacked in tension and threw off the pacing. I found myself frequently bored and skipping ahead, though I was at least interested enough to finish. It does not have an HEA, although things seem promising, and the story continues with book 2. I don’t know that I’m interested enough to read that one but I’ll likely try something else from the author eventually.

One great thing that came out of reading this, however, is that it introduced me to a new trope. Felicia Davin, who recommended this to me, said it was a big strong loyal/sneaky slinky pairing. I was so taken with this idea that we wound up discussing other books with the trope (so many by KJ Charles!) and I of course had to create a Goodreads shelf.

Character notes: Damiskos is a 32 year old Phemian ex-soldier. Varazda is a nonbinary 30 year old Zashian formerly enslaved eunuch and sword dancer. He has a 3 year old daughter Remi who is raised elsewhere. This is set in a fictional Mediterranean alt-historical world.

CW: Damiskos is disabled , war references, past imprisonment and torture as POW, murder, physical assault, attempted murder, bigotry/nationalism, homophobia, arson, enslaved secondary characters, alcohol, ableism (countered), gender essentialism, ableist language, reference to past rape while enslaved, reference to eunuchs who died by suicide, reference to assassinations
Profile Image for LD  Durham.
334 reviews33 followers
August 3, 2019
This is an incredible book. I am so glad I took a chance on it, because I was just introduced to a new favorite author.

A quasi-historical set in the in the countryside of an Ancient Roman or Greek style world, this story introduces us to a semi-retired soldier who is now more of a bean counter due to a tragic occurrence.

At a house party he attends in order to secure a steady source of fish-sauce for the army, he stumbles into a tense political intrigue involving three countries, philosophy students, and a merchant. He also stumbles into an enigmatic sword dancer.

The characters of Damiskos and Varazda are wonderfully portrayed. While the story is from Damiskos' point of view- and I was very quickly attached to the quiet, humble, and intelligent man- the reader also gains a good understanding of Varazda.

The story itself is really well woven, with bits and pieces revealing themselves and coming together seamlessly. There are many characters, but each one stands out with very distinct features and mannerisms. While the main of the story centers around certain key people, there are no superfluous background characters, and everyone has an important role to play. I really enjoyed the simple honesty of and from Damiskos, and even Varazda, juxtaposed against the philosophy students' grandiose and shallow boasting and ideals.

While there is sword play and murder, this is a fairly calm story, in that it takes place in nearly one setting. Almost like a cozy mystery at a country estate, but with sandals and soldiers. And a very well-written romance. I really enjoyed it and am very much looking forward to the second book. I can't wait to follow Damiskos and Varazda anywhere they go. I heartily recommend this as a very good read.
Profile Image for Mel  Thomas.
35 reviews420 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
October 19, 2022
DNFing at 25%. It's not captital-B Bad, it's just trying to do way, WAY too much. It's an Ancient Mediterranean-inspired political fantasy and also a drawing room mystery and also a romance. The thing about drawing room mysteries is that for them to be interesting we need to be able to quickly get up to speed with the competing motivations of the characters so we can have fun watching them clash with each other. But this is a fantasy world with a lot of complicated politics, and those complicated politics are what's motivating the characters! And the drawing room concept has us stuck inside the house! So the only way to get us up to speed is through 100 pages of info-dumpy dialogue, which: credit where credit is due, Demas handles as capably as anyone could. But the concept, while creative, is broken at the foundation.
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