Sometimes I get tired of all the hetero romances that I find in 99.9% of books I read. I can count on one hand the books in which one of the MC is gay in the YA SFF and SFF books that I have read. So every now and again I make a terrible choice of reading based on the fact that, oh look, this book is about gay boys!
This is exactly how I ended up picking up The Captive Prince by C.S. Pascat.
I had seen some people whose writing I adore raving on about this book and tumblr seems to love the pants off of the series (really that should have been my first red flag but I didn’t really want to see it…). I had also seen someone I respect and who had not liked it at all and I spent an age debating whether to go ahead with reading it or not.
Let me say this, I’m glad I got the book second hand and didn’t pay full price for it. I think The Captive Prince may actually be one of the worst books I have ever read. Why? Where to even start…
The basis of the plot is as such: Damen has been betrayed by his half-brother and has been sent off as a sex slave to the country they were previously at war with. There he is a gift for the cruel, cold prince, who would want to kill Damen if ever realised who he was.
Technically there should have been nothing much wrong with the plot apart from the ‘sex slave’ part. And that would have been just fine if this book was marketed as smut. Due to a dodgy choice in dissertation topic at uni I know that there exists a part of the market that is basically LGBT horror/fantasy smut. For the most part it is terrible and yet a lot of what I read for uni was a lot better than The Captive Prince because at least it committed to being all about the sex.
The Captive Prince doesn’t. Firstly it’s marketed as romance and…there is literally no romance in the book. None what so ever and I do not understand people who finish this book shipping Damen with Laurent or Erasmus. Replace Damen or Erasmus (or any of the slaves that are prominent in the book, all of which are male) with girls, have them fall in love with their captors in a ‘romance’ book and see the outrage it will create. Somehow it hasn’t sunk in to the mass consciousness that doing that to boys is no better. And there is no chemistry bar physical attraction in between any of the characters.
This could potentially be a side effect of the fact that Pascat writes some of the most one dimension characters I have read in a while. Damen is the wronged prince who wishes to escape and have his revenge. Laurent is the cold, calculated, vicious prince who will do anything necessary to further his goals. Then we have Ansel who basically uses sex to manipulate his way to power and, um, don’t even let me get started on Nicaise (more on him in a minute). You will not find much beyond this summary about any of those characters on the pages of the book. So the idea of there being chemistry in between any of them is absolutely baffling. They’re not people, they’re cardboard cut-outs supposed to look good whilst they’re raped/beaten/undressed, etc…
Pascat’s writing isn’t bad just where characters are involved: her descriptions are overdone to the point where she actually uses a lot of words to describe absolutely nothing. She is also very fond of using slightly over the top and old fashioned words…often in questionable context. Some are outright the wrong meaning for what she seems to be going for. The dialogue is stiff and unrealistic, which really doesn’t help the lack of characterisation. Worst of all, perhaps, is the world building. It is bad in that there is almost none. The first half of the book throws place names at us but doesn’t really tell us much about said places: again, like with the characters we have cut outs of what countries are like. To the South, the well-meaning ‘barbarians’ who treat their slaves well, and to the North the evil, ‘more civilised’ people who have sex parties and keep ‘pets’. It’s clichéd to the point of painful.
In the second half of the book, it appears that Pascat suddenly decided that she wanted to write a serious fantasy book and not smut, and so most of the sex stuff suddenly goes out of the window (bar for the really yick paedophilia mentions for some reason), and she haphazardly tries to flesh out the countries and the characters. Suddenly we are supposed to feel for Laurent and see that he isn’t so bad, which would have been great if she had remembered to put breadcrumbs for this sort of thing earlier on in the book. Suddenly she tries to get us emotionally involved in the fate of these places and…I couldn’t have cared less about it all. This book needed to decide if it was smut or if it was romance and bothered to go with either instead of uncomfortably sitting on the fence.
Now let me briefly talk about Nicaise. Nicaise is thirteen and has been a ‘pet’ of the regent for the last three years. And by ‘pet’ I mean sex slave. Yes, the regent is a paedophile and everyone knows it and although people curl their lip in distaste slightly no one really says anything. Now I’m cool with awful people being portrayed in books but, no matter how you look at the Nicaise situation, Pascat doesn’t handle this right. If the book was smut, as it appears to be when Nicaise is first introduced, we can assume people are gonna be reading this to, you know, have some fun. I, for one, know my fun with this kind of story would quickly dwindle with the sudden thought of, oh god this guy has been being molested since he was ten. If it was a romance, then Pascat needed to handle the subject more delicately. She didn’t. The whole thing is smeared across the pages with less elegance than a four-year-old finger painting for the first time. It’s uncomfortable but not in the way it should be. It’s like the book is saying ‘oh this stuff happens, it’s no big deal’ and even the way Nicaise acts hammers this point home. It shouldn’t need saying, but being sexually molested from the age of ten damages people. Pascat seemed to forget that.
That this book is marketed as romance is an issue also on a completely different level. There is this (very, very wrong) belief, that queer relationships are always sexual, which is why queer characters are never represented in children’s shows and books. By saying this book is romance despite its content, there comes this reinforcement of the trope that says that queer relationships have to be sexual. We don’t need romance, says the subtext of the story, all we need is sex and we’ll be happy. Which, of course, is bullshit and insulting. This book had the potential of portraying a gay or bisexual main in a potential queer romance if only the writer had bothered to put the effort into it and realise that queer characters, much like male characters, much like any other character, deserve emotionally stable relationships, instead of expecting us to root for a bad S&M pairing that made even me really uncomfortable.
I went into The Captive Prince wanting to like it because ‘gay boys’ and the promise of hot, if a little riske, sex scenes. Instead I got full on torture, uncomfortable rape scenes, and as a gay man myself felt insulted that this was classed as romance. It read like cheap slash fanfic written by someone who is sitting with a thesaurus on their knees. How half of the issues got passed the editor is beyond me, and they need as much of a wakeup call as Pascat does. I cannot understand what people like about this book and I do wonder if they would still like it if Damen had been a girl. And if they didn’t, perhaps that says more about how we think it’s okay to portray men than about anything else. I felt very much so as though this book used gay characters as entertainment for the presumed straight, female reader.
We are not here for your entertainment. Not as sex objects, not as something to be represented in such a god awful fashion. This book would have been just fine as entertainment if it had had characters and not stereotypes and if it had made its damned mind up about what genre it was.