JOINT REVIEW: Kings Rising by CS Pacat
*All the trigger warnings*
NOTE: The review is pretty much spoiler-free but the comments are not. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read the comments. Go read Kings Rising and then come back and talk to us about all the things.
Janine: Three years ago, Kaetrin and I read the first two volumes in Ms. Pacat’s Captive Prince serial. We decided that when Kings Rising, the much-anticipated third book, was published, we would review it together in a discussion format.
It’s important to stress that the three-book serial contains a number of problematic, potentially triggering or even traumatizing elements, including rape, slavery, orientalism, and childhood sexual abuse. Readers are advised that they may find it offensive, and this installment is no exception.
Those who have not read the first two books but are interested in them should avoid this review. It is best to read this series in order and knowing as little as possible about what happens. Readers who want to do so can find my review of the first two installments here.
Kaetrin: And mine here.
Janine: When we last met up with Damen, he was left in charge of Laurent’s fortress of Ravenel to wait for reinforcements while Laurent and much of his army rode out. The plan was for the two forces to unite on the battlefield in Charcy three days later, trapping the Regent’s army between them.
When the reinforcements arrived at Ravenel, they were, to Damen’s great shock, Akielon, and they kneeled before Damen, recognizing him as their true king.
This is where Kings Rising begins. When the Akielons chant Damen’s true name, Damianos, the Veretian residents of Ravenel recognize him as the man who killed Laurent’s older brother, Prince Auguste of Vere. The rumors the Regent has spread about his nephew, that Laurent is in bed with the enemy Akielons, are now proven true, figuratively and literally.
Damen has no choice but to command the Akielons to take control of the fortress quickly, before too much blood can be shed. But Damen soon has another problem to face. Although Laurent gave him his freedom, Damen chose to keep one of the slave cuffs on his wrist as a reminder of his experiences in Vere. The fact of his enslavement cannot be hidden from the Akielon officers, or from Nikandros, Kyros of Delpha and Damen’s childhood friend. Damen’s relationship with Laurent is hard for them to understand.
Worse yet, when Damen and his army, comprised of the Akielons and some remnants of Laurent’s own forces, arrive at Charcy, Laurent is not there. Damen and those he commands win the battle, but not without a lot of casualties, and at the end Damen discovers that the Regent is not even on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, Laurent’s absence is viewed by the Akielons as a sign that he is not to be trusted, sowing further discord between his men and Damen’s when Laurent finally turns up.
While Laurent expects Damen to believe the same thing the Akielons do – that Laurent tricked them—Damen believes there was a good reason for Laurent’s absence. But they must also deal with the now-public fact of Damen’s identity, the fact that he is the man who killed Laurent’s older brother.
The mix of emotions between them — anger, attraction, fear of betrayal – doesn’t change one thing. No matter how they feel about one another, the only chance to win their thrones lies in uniting against Kastor, Damen’s brother, and the Regent, Laurent’s uncle, and that means forging a truce, not just between themselves but also between their men.
But even if they can get past the abuse Laurent heaped on Damen when the latter was first given to him as a slave, and past Damen’s killing of Laurent’s brother, the Regent is a devious mastermind, one who schemes to exploit their unacknowledged feelings for one another to his own advantage. With all that standing between them, can Damen and Laurent win not only their kingdoms, but also one another’s hearts?
I feel like I had two reactions to this book, one emotional, and another intellectual. Emotionally, this was a very satisfying book. Intellectually I had some issues with it.
I still love these two characters. I can’t actually decide which I like more. Damen is clearly nicer, and a better man on the face of it – loyal, straightforward, honorable, trustworthy, and very capable when it comes to leading.
Laurent is frequently compared to a snake. He is devious, calculating, sometimes downright scary, and there are also times when Damen finds him infuriating. But he’s also young, bright, has a sense of fairness, is ahead of Damen on some issues, and has had to deal with his uncle.
Kaetrin: One of the things I loved in Kings Rising (among many things) was the almost pride Damen took in watching other Akielons start to appreciate the clever and twisty ways of Laurent’s mind and his biting, rapier wit.
Damen could feel the quiet exultation of Laurent’s men, while the Akielons looked a little dazed. Nikandros passed Laurent his reins.
‘Is this how you do things in Vere?’
‘You mean effectively?’ said Laurent.
Janine: Yes, that was fun.
If the arc in Captive Prince was that Damen came to the realization that no matter how much he hated Laurent, he had to help him for the sake of Akielos, and the arc in Prince’s Gambit was the slow shift of Laurent from enemy in Damen’s eyes to something much different, then the arc of Kings Rising is very much about resolving the remaining conflicts.
In this regard, I thought the plot needed a couple more complications like those in book two. It was a little too easy for the remaining conflicts to be resolved.
Kaetrin: Did you think so? I didn’t. In my mind, I had a picture of a coin, tossed in the air, spinning in slow motion, like in a movie. There were a number of times in the book that I felt the entire outcome turned on whether the coin came up heads or tails. I had a real sense of just how precarious everything was at numerous times in the story.
I thought there was a certain poetry to the methods used to resolve matters [I’m being vague to avoid spoilers] and even when I was reading with my heart in my throat sometimes, a part of me was admiring the skilled writing underpinning it; when I thought about it, I could see why it happened that way and why it was good that it happened that way, even though I hadn’t been expecting it at all.
Janine: You are absolutely correct that there was a much-needed sense of fragility to the truce, and to Damen and Laurent’s chance at a HEA, for much of the book. But what I meant when I said that I wanted a couple of plot complications is that in Prince’s Gambit the Regent was such a formidable enemy, and he arranged for multiple attempts on Laurent’s life to come from unexpected sources. Maybe it would have been repetitive for this book to continue in the same vein, but it felt like a dropped thread.
Kaetrin: My take on that was that the Regent thought he was already in the winning position. (I have more to say about that but spoilers!).
Janine: There were also some moments of comic relief in Kings Rising that were highly entertaining, but for me they undercut that coin toss feel you mentioned a little bit. One or two of those moments, while fun, were a little too comical given the high stakes – the fate of two kingdoms – that turned on them. On the other hand, I’m not sure I could have taken the same near-unbearable level of suspense and romantic tension that we had in Prince’s Gambit.
Kaetrin: Most of those moments for me were examples of Laurent being extremely clever so I pretty much lapped them up. I found the small breaks in the tension helpful – the only exception was something I’ll take about later on in the review.
Janine: Because I’ve had almost three years to think about what might happen in this book, I was able to guess at four of the big twists. There were also a few that I didn’t foresee, so I was able to enjoy the book quite a bit, but I think that if I’d been able to read the three installments back to back the very first time I read them, I would have been taken by surprise.
Kaetrin: I guessed two. Or, maybe I guessed one and agreed with someone else’s speculation about another back when the first two books came out. And now I want to know what the other two you guessed were Janine!
I think you’re right. Had we read all three books back-to-back I think the experience might have been more satisfying. With the endless speculation over the past three years, we have inevitably spoiled ourselves in some way. I’m actually a little envious of those who get to experience the series all at once with no gaps.
Janine: Some of the complexity and fraughtness of Damen’s relationship with Laurent was a little less present in this book. So much went unspoken between them in the earlier books and that served those books really well, but in this book, I felt that with Damen’s identity acknowledged by all, that same aloofness and unwillingness to speak of his feelings that Laurent has always displayed left me wondering how he felt about having made love to his brother’s killer – the kind of emotional conflict that had to be for him.
Kaetrin: I’m not good at subtlety in my reading and so there were quite a few passages I had to read over again for me to feel like I understood the subtext. I can’t say that I always did. I expected the tension between Damen and Laurent to be lessened in this book but I found it to remain fairly steady. Perhaps a bit reduced from the very start, but still present right up until the end. That is because Laurent plays his own game and doesn’t let Damen know about all of the pieces on the board. Even now, having read the full book I’m still wondering about some of the things and whether they were entirely planned by Laurent or serendipity.
Janine: That’s a good point. Maybe what I’m saying is that I wanted the book to go a little slower. I wanted Damen to have a little more time to grapple with a hard truth he discovers later in the novel, for example. This is a true enemies-to-lovers relationship so I wanted the weight of that to be fully explored. The novel could have benefitted from slowing down just a little, so that the realities of Damen’s and Laurent’s pasts and the way those pasts impacted their present could sink in a little deeper.
On another topic, there are two scenes in Laurent’s POV in this book, something that surprised me. It could fairly be argued that the trio of books are really one long, 900+ page novel, so the first of these Laurent POV scenes jarred me. Though it came early in this third book, it still felt late for the overall arc of the entire serial. I also thought it defused some suspense to have access to Laurent’s POV just then.
Kaetrin: Yes, this surprised me too. When I was reading it, I was thinking, “hang on Damen’s brother wasn’t’ Auguste. Is this a typo?” And then I went back and read more carefully and realised there had been a change and Laurent was the POV character.
Janine: The same thing happened to me.
Kaetrin: Unlike you, it added to the feeling of suspense for me. I still think there are things about what the reader learns in that scene which don’t exactly line up with what Laurent tells Damen later and my mind is turning over those puzzle pieces and trying to make them fit. So, for me, while it defused one tension, it created an entirely different one which hasn’t entirely been resolved.
Normally that kind of thing would drive me wild but here, I think it’s just evidence of how tricksy Laurent is and how no-one (well, apart from the author I guess), not even Damen. will ever have a handle on why he does everything he does.
Janine: I didn’t have that reaction, but the second scene in Laurent’s viewpoint was one of my favorite scenes in Kings Rising.
Kaetrin: Oh yes. That kind of took my breath away.
Janine: I thought of it in the same terms – that it almost robbed me of breath.
There were a few things that confused me. While we find out quickly where Laurent was during the battle at Charcy, we never do learn where his army was all that same time. Also, Laurent makes Enguerran his captain, and given Enguerran’s loyalty to Lord Touars in book two, this seemed like too quick a shift. Something similar seems to happen with Jord, who late in Prince’s Gambit was not in Laurent’s good graces.
All of the above are relatively minor quibbles for me. There were so many scenes in the book I found emotionally satisfying, but can’t describe much because I don’t want to spoil the book for readers. I especially liked those scenes in which others prove their loyalty to Damen, and I loved those scenes in which Laurent and Damen’s truce is tested and holds. Damen and Laurent had both been alone for a long time, so for them to have each other as allies felt really significant.
Kaetrin: Yes, me too. I had similar quibbles. The one big thing I wasn’t sure was sorted at the end sufficiently for me was the succession. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say there is a HEA. (After all, I’m a romance reader and I wouldn’t even open Captive Prince until the author promised me I’d get one.) I don’t want to say more about it because I don’t want to give away how things resolve, but I did have a question about the succession. Probably only a sentence or two would have sufficed to square that away for me.
Janine: I have lots more to say about that, but I’ll save it for our spoilery discussion in the comments.
Seeing Damen’s and Laurent’s men also begin to thaw toward one another is very satisfying as well, even though I felt that given that all that had gone on between the two nations, this should have been a little harder to achieve.
Kaetrin: I agree. I went in wondering how on earth the author was going to pull that off. These are countries who have a history of violent war (particularly noticeable around the border) and longstanding enmity. I don’t think the book remotely suggests all the work was done by the end. But I saw, in the way the Damen’s and Laurent’s respective armies behaved and how they were managed, the seeds of how it would be done. And that was enough for me.
Janine: I have this issue with many books that feature warring fantasy nations. I think it comes of having spent my early childhood in Israel – I always feel that progress comes very fast in most books that have this as one of their conflicts, without enough setbacks to be completely believable. I think it’s driven by the need for a happy ending, which genre fiction, unlike real life, must deliver. I hasten to add that Laurent and Damen did face some setbacks, I just wanted one or two more.
Kaetrin: As far as the individual thawing between some of the more prominent secondary characters, I was prepared to buy it. I agree it was quick. But I also believed in the stark discipline to which both Damen and Laurent held their troops, no matter that they did this in different ways.
Janine: That’s an excellent point. I believed in that discipline as well.
Another satisfying aspect of Kings Rising was seeing Damen come to understand things he hadn’t seen or understood when he was the young, privileged prince. But I was surprised to see him, toward the end, placing his trust in two people who proved treacherous. Damen wouldn’t be Damen if he wasn’t too trusting, but I felt he should have known better by then even so.
Kaetrin: Yes, Damen tends to think in straight lines which is totally unlike Laurent. Even so, there was one thing I was staggered to realise Damen hadn’t worked out. It was so obvious and I had (obviously, in hindsight, wrongly) detected some subtext earlier in the book where I thought Damen was acknowledging [the thing]. I couldn’t quite believe that Damen hadn’t worked it out already, so when his reaction was utter shock, it jarred a little.
Janine: I read a lot of what Pacat is saying with Damen’s character as this: that sometimes we don’t see what’s right in front of our faces because we don’t want to confront it.
Kaetrin: Yes, now that you mention it, that makes sense.
Janine: One of the things I most loved about the earlier books (and especially the second) was the slow illumination of Laurent and his motives as Damen was surprised by him again and again. Damen begins the trilogy with his judgement clouded by his prejudices and his limited knowledge of Laurent and of Vere.
Kaetrin: I think both countries will be very different as a result of the time Damen and Laurent spent together over the course of the books. Laurent saw Akielos as something other than merely an enemy and vice versa. I was particularly pleased by one of the changes Damen announces.
Janine: Yes, I agree.
Since we have almost no access to other viewpoints besides Damen’s unreliable perspective in the first two books, we readers too may make assumptions that turn out not to be entirely accurate. But by the time this book comes along, we know Laurent and his country better, and so does Damen. Therefore, the surprises are fewer, but there were still some. That is fitting, given the place that the protagonists’ relationship reaches.
Kaetrin: There were some lovely intimate scenes between Damen and Laurent. I expect I’ll re-read Kings Rising at some point and I’m likely to savour them more. I’ll admit when I was reading (in a “who are you and what have you done with Kaetrin moment”), the second scene was getting in the way of clamor of “but what’s going to happen next?!!” that was going on in my mind.
Janine: Oh, I loved that scene. It was really romantic.
Kaetrin: It was. I need to re-read it to soak it in a bit more. And, even there, Ms. Pacat surprised me again. I thought she was heading toward one of the common m/m tropes that usually bugs me but she subverted things yet again and it was lovely.
One of the risks of Kings Rising for me was whether it would live up to the expectations I’d built in my head. I tried not to add to them in recent months but nonetheless my hopes were very high. A much-hyped book (even when the hype is only in my own head) starts at a disadvantage I think. At the end, I felt kind of stunned and unable to articulate my thoughts. My mind works much closer to the way Damen thinks than Laurent. And I think the author must think more like Laurent to have created him. Even though Damen is the (almost always) POV character, it is Laurent’s cunning which is the spine of the series. There is just no way I could have come up with the way things turned out and all the twists and turns to get there. Yes, I had a few quibbles and there are a few things I’d like to discuss with other readers to see if I can understand some of the subtlety that went, I fear, over my head. But it made me hold my breath. It had me wondering, even when the author promised a HEA, if I would get it. It had me admiring the poetry and the layers and at all points, I cared about the characters. For that and more, Kings Rising gets an A.
Janine: All the big story questions from “Did Laurent know Damen killed his brother?” to “Did Kastor, Jokaste and the Regent scheme together to ship Damen to Vere to serve as Laurent’s slave?” are answered, and that was another factor that made the book so emotionally satisfying.
But because my intellect was a bit split from my heart when it came to this book, I’m giving it a grade of B+.
My grade for the entire trilogy / serial is probably an A-. Prince’s Gambit is my favorite in the series, because it had the most character growth and for me, the most surprises, but this book was very rewarding as well.
Kaetrin: I’d give the whole series an A. I really can’t think of them as separate books. They don’t work as stand-alone stories in the least.
Janine: True. I’m dying to talk about Kings Rising, and the whole serial, in more detail, so we’ll be opening the comments discussion thread to spoilers.