This is going to be a somewhat different post from me because it’s a review of not one book but three: the entire Captive Prince trilogy by C.S. Pacat, comprising of Captive Prince, Prince’s Gambit, and Kings Rising. I consumed these books in a month after a Herculean effort of trying to pace myself, to absorb what I was reading instead of blazing through it in a “head empty, no thoughts” mindset. This has been the first trilogy I’ve read all the way through in quite some time, and I had nothing but a good time, a realization that thrilled me to no end.
For a few years, I’d been eyeing these books, staying away for a few reasons that all amounted to my own unfounded assumptions and others’ naysaying. These books were in the romance section, which means they likely weren’t well-written. They contained just sex covered by the thinnest veil of plot. They were hugely problematic in the way they glorify sexual slavery, rape, and other issues. The list goes on, but finally, I’d had enough of believing the fears. I picked up Captive Prince because current fiction and romance have been boring me to death lately, and before long I realized I was utterly—wait for it—captivated.
Now, I won’t lie. Problematic elements do exist in this trilogy, the first book especially. If you seriously balk at dubious consent or non-consensual sexual situations (aka rape via blow job or discussions of/implied rape) or if the entire premise of kinky sexual slavery in a fictional setting is lost on you, then yeah, don’t read the book. Believe it or not, no one has to read whatever the popular book is on Bookstagram at the time, especially if you can tell by the premise and “Mature Audience” warning on the cover that a book won’t be for you.
That being said, these situations are handled in a much more graceful way than the stark trigger warnings of them would suggest. I have read and written worse. Hell, The Gilded Ones and The Descent of the Drowned have more disturbing scenes than Captive Prince, and they’re both considered YA books. Throughout the books, Damen is horrified by the Regent’s court and the pets of Vere and fights against what he is now expected to do as a pleasure slave. Every time something fucked up happens, Damen calls it for the vile thing it is and has deep sympathy for Veretian pets and Akielon slaves alike. His own experiences push him to the point of swearing off slaves and wanting to change his own country. That’s not exactly glorifying it, is it? Indeed, it’s a reminder that depiction of a “problematic” topic doesn’t automatically mean anyone is endorsing, glorifying, or romanticizing it; it can be a tool used to tell a story while safely exploring the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects the topic brings to light.
The premise of Captive Prince is a simple one. Heir to the throne of Akielos, Prince Damianos is betrayed by his half-brother when their father, the king, dies. Stripped of his status and identity, Damen is sent to the enemy nation of Vere as a pleasure slave in a cruel political move. There, he is given as a gift to Prince Laurent, a cunning and manipulative young man who embodies the worst of the Veretian court. As Damen is swept up in the political games of the court, games that will eventually target his own country, Damen realizes he has to cooperate with Laurent to survive and escape—and he must never reveal to Laurent who he actually is because doing so will mean certain death.
While Captive Prince does read as a bit of a prologue and build-up to Prince’s Gambit, I was nonetheless entertained by the story and the characters, intrigued by where the story was going, and endlessly impressed with what Pacat achieved as a once self-published author. Laurent and Damen have become so near and dear to my heart. OTP material? You better believe it.
Ah, if only Laurent batted for my team, at least a little bit because he’s so my type it hurts. He’s cold and cutting. He’s disciplined with his emotions to a fault, because when someone like him is that in control and emotionally repressed, it’s all the more brutal when they lose that steadfast control. He also wears the most ridiculously complicated clothes and lounges like a hedonist. When he speaks, it’s usually nasty. So much of him grows throughout the trilogy, but the core essence of him stays the same, and that’s just good character writing right there.
Then, there’s Damen, my bisexual king. What I love about Damen starts with the basics: he’s Big and brown. He’s also at his core just a good person with a strong sense of justice. Not to say that he’s perfect, no, no. He makes terrible mistakes and has harsh judgments and does some things out of anger and other impulses. But when he learns he’s wrong, he’s willing to adopt a new perspective. He may not have Laurent’s gift for plotting, but he’s still intelligent in the sense that he’s deeply empathetic towards others and he pays attention. Even when he’s in survival mode, he still tries to do the right thing for other people. It was the right choice for Pacat to tell this trilogy in Damen’s POV ninety-five percent of the time; it wouldn’t have had the same impact without Damen as the center point of the story.
There were other side characters I cared about and liked, of course. Erasmus, Nicaise, Jord, and Nikandros, to name a few. Others were good background characters who served their purpose, and that’s all I needed from them. Even the Regent was well written, at first as a reasonable counterpoint to Laurent’s cruelty and waspishness, but then as someone utterly despicable. The way Damen’s opinion of him changed upon learning certain information mirrored my own, and I loved the feeling of it.
As far as the overall writing was concerned, I generally loved it. Pacat is as in love with commas as I am, if not more, and I salute her for it. Aside from a few places, I was enamored by how she described the settings as well as Damen’s thought processes. The dialogue was also an instant hit and honestly written much closer to how conversations flow in real life than most things are nowadays. Conversations between Laurent and Damen are especially quick, and when it comes to reading into a character’s motives, especially Laurent’s, there’s a fair amount of reading between the lines the reader has to do. I adored it.
Pacat also handled descriptions of sex and romance very well. She never used ridiculous euphemisms or went the obnoxious alpha male route. A nice “cock” was used when it needed to be, but otherwise, she veered more towards the vague, relying on descriptions of feelings and sensation to get sexual scenes across in a way that worked for me. Sure, we all say for authors to just use “penis,” but honestly, overusage of it makes sex scenes sound clinical at best and crude at worst. The worst sin for a sex or romance scene of any kind is for it to not be sexy, not even in a guilty pleasure kind of way, and by and large, that sin was avoided.
Indeed, Pacat’s sex and romance scenes are a spectrum, from tender to desperate to sensual to humorous to obscene to hot. Surrounding it all is the anticipation, and isn’t that really what we’re all here for? Truly, there’s something here for everyone no matter your flavor. The most kinky stuff by and large is in the first book due to the pleasure slave nature of Vere’s court, so if you’re looking for some off-the-wall smut, BDSM, or whatever, that’s not what you’re going to get. Despite how some reviews make this trilogy sound, it’s not a 24/7 smut fest, and honestly, I’m grateful. I would always rather have a good, character-driven, political story with a well-done slowburn and sex when it happens than a sex marathon between characters that gets old by chapter four.
In fact, by the time I got to Prince’s Gambit, that’s when this overarching story took shape into what it could and should be. Where the first book gave me the dark content I craved, the second book showed me why it all mattered and the potential Damen and Laurent could have. And then it delivered and kept delivering all the way through Kings Rising.
Admittedly, I was nervous as I neared the end of the third book. I thought there was no way we could cover all the things we needed to cover, and to a certain extent, I was right. An ending some people might call rushed or a let down ultimately worked for me for the simple reason that it remained so character-focused on Damen and Laurent. The ending framed the entire trilogy, and the growth of both leads—and the problems still between them—are brought to the forefront and resolved, and it was so satisfying.
It was so satisfying that, for once, a fantasy trilogy didn’t culminate in a climactic, end-of-the-world battle, or a joke of one. Rather, the ending stayed true to its theme that kingdoms and crowns can be won and lost, not on a battlefield, but due to political machinations and dealings behind closed doors. That once confidence turns to arrogance, you can lose everything. That self-sacrifice can be the purest form of unconditional love and tragic in its assured destruction. That no man is an island and you can’t do everything alone.
What starts off as a dark romance ends on such a hopeful note, and I cannot stress how rewarding it was to read the whole thing at once, one right after the other. I was sad for the books to end, but I like knowing that the story lives on in the way that good stories often do, in our imaginings of what comes next.
Even Pacat’s publishing journey for this trilogy gives me hope. Rejected by publishing houses because they’re cowards—I mean, because they didn’t think Captive Prince would be marketable, Pacat defied these assessments and built up an online readership that clamored for this story to be told. This eventually caught a publishing house’s attention, and the trilogy was picked up, professionally edited, and bound for bookstores.
In the race to publish books that are the most palatable to the largest number of people; that want to give me tepid, rushed romances; that deliver squeaky-clean black and white characters; that recycle the same plots over and over, there’s still room for surprises and for subversion of the norms. There’s still authors and audiences that want darker content that explores uncomfortable situations. There are writers who know that enemies-to-lovers means more than fighting over the last bagel at the coffee shop or a one-sided, perceived enemyhood that was all just a misunderstanding.
No, there are authors who know that enemies-to-lovers should be a drawn out affair, a slowburn of conflict and understanding in sometimes messy and violent measures. When I got to the end of Captive Prince and saw that Damen and Laurent still hated each other, I was elated. In other books, they would’ve already kissed passionately by now and said, “I love you.” Finally, a relationship that has to be worked on! And it does, it truly does. The part about Damen and Laurent’s relationship that is so wonderful to read is the fact that both have done what should be irreparable, unforgivable harm to the other.
And yet… there’s still two people on the other side of that hatred, isn’t there? I think as humans we’re all enamored with exploring the fine line between love and hate, of seeing how far feelings of vengeance, hurt, empathy, and understanding can take us. What ultimately wins out in the end? What does it take for two people who have every reason to despise and hurt each other to stop and see who the other person truly is for the first time? When does obsession become something else? Can sins towards others ever be forgiven, and does love truly conquer all? Does love actually change people, or does it merely allow us to treasure someone in a way that includes all their thorns and flaws? That’s the core of enemies-to-lovers that all other versions from the most dark to the most bastardized spring from.
That’s why stories like the Captive Prince trilogy pop up and take readers by storm from time to time. We like the idea of someone loving our darkest selves and forgiving us for our worst impulses. Even more than that, we want to discover our true selves and see the person we can be, the one who stands in the light, the one who can forgive wrongs and love tenderly and inspire change in others for the better.
Sometimes, too, we just like to see characters struggle and have an absolutely terrible time of it. There’s catharsis in seeing fictional people go through worse hell than us, and that’s especially true nowadays with Pandemic 2: Electric Boogaloo. And, hell, sometimes we just want to live vicariously through two nemeses sexually torturing each other and getting dicked down real good.
That’s fine, too.
Anyway, C.S. Pacat, well done. It’s an enthusiastic yes from me, and I will be reading Dark Rise as soon as it comes out later this month. Cheers, mate.
CAWPILE Rating: 9.29
CAWPILE Rating: 9.57
CAWPILE Rating: 9.71