REVIEW: Dark Heart by Thom Lane
Dear Mr. Lane:
I’ve coveted this book since I first saw it at Loose-Id. For one, the cover image is stunningly beautiful. For another, the blurb and excerpt intrigued me. Tam is a house slave for an inn in the Wayfarers Guild in Amaranth. As such, he is trained to serve ALL the body needs, sexual and otherwise, of the inn’s guests, as well serve as general house boy. One rainy day, a mage stops at the inn with his lame horse. While Tam serves him, the inn’s mistress hires Master Lucan to figure out who was destroying the guild’s houses, how they were doing it so completely, and why. This short volume (150 pages) details how Lucan does just that, with Tam’s help, and the progress of the surprisingly equal Master/slave relationship between the two.
The world building is very well done. The world–or at least, this city in it–is divided into free and slaves. If someone is caught committing a crime, it seems, they can immediately be made into a slave by the victim of the crime. Tam was caught stealing by the kitchen-master of the inn, and as such has been their slave for years, being promoted to houseboy after being broken in by training. The slave training and its punishments are alluded to by Tam in his musings as he serves Lucan. There is no info dump, no memory that does not serve the present plot as well as character revelation. But the system of slavery, the complicity in and acceptance of the system by both sides of the equation–the very naturalness of the system–is thoroughly explained and smoothly presented.
And therein lies my one problem with the book. The society is built on and around slavery–to the extent, for example, that there are no carriage horses, but rather “bucks”: slaves trained to the harness to pull carriages (a la Anne Rice’s Beauty books). However, troublingly for our own society, there is no questioning of the system by anyone in it. Tam might wish he were still free, even if he was homeless in his freedom, a gutter thief, but he accepts the system itself, as do all his fellow slaves. Unrealistically, perhaps, we catch no glimpses of free people abusing the system, either. The slavery is much more a wish-fullfillment fantasy of a society built around BDSM submission and punishment than a commentary on the devastation of the all-too-real slavery in our history and our current world. And while the engaging writing makes it so easy to slip into a very willing suspension of disbelief that accepts the world as built, it is disconcerting, vaguely disturbing even, to surface from the story and realize that you’ve accepted, even approved of, a very real system of outright slavery that has no implicit social disapproval. The very ease with which I managed to accept the society, though, is a testament to how well-written the story is.
The suspense plot is well constructed and followed-through, if just a little too easily overcome in the end. The supernatural is brilliantly woven into the story: Lucan is a necromancer who can interrogate corpses and walk through Hell with Tam to ask favors of demons. Tam’s heroism at the end of the story is well-prepared for by the construction of his character and his background. It’s all neatly wrapped up in a enjoyable, eminently readable package.
But what really shines are the characterizations of Tam and Lucan. The story is told from Tam’s first person perspective, and we see everything through the eyes of an obedient, well-trained slave who is still a strong, even independent, and observant person with intelligent opinions and strong emotions. With Lucan, Tam is a natural submissive, happy to be serving his Master in all ways, and the story makes it obvious that Tam, while usually an obedient slave for his house, is only this willingly submissive with Lucan as he slowly falls in love with him. Even though Lucan is only seen through Tam’s eyes, the reader can appreciate his gentleness, his humor, his intelligence, and his power and competence as a mage, as his character is slowly revealed through Tam’s interactions with him.
I would actually have liked a little more heartache and despair from Tam as he accepted toward the end that even though he was in love with him so desperately, Lucan was just passing through, as are all the guests at the inn. But rather than cater to a desire for melodrama, you stuck to the world you built. Of course Tam doesn’t despair–he knows too intimately and accepts without question that guests always leave, added to the fact, of course, that he’s a slave and Lucan is not only free but an incredibly powerful mage. This adherence to the world construction and Tam’s characterization dims just slightly the *potential* emotional impact of the HFN ending, but doesn’t dim what actually happens, and isn’t enough for this book *not* to earn anything other than a well-deserved B+.
I can’t wait to read more of Tam and Lucan or of the world in which they live.
This book can be bought in ebook form from Loose-Id.