Captive Prince, C. S. Pacat’s blockbuster first trilogy of “sexy homoerotic slave novels” begins with one of the protagonists bound and gagged in a dungeon. Apart from being a lot of fun, the novels are also finely written and shot through with a surprising amount of darkness. So it is interesting to watch Pacat now turn to young adult and tackle similar ideas but for a presumably younger audience (only presumably: half of all young adult readers are adults).
In perhaps a nod to the earlier trilogy, Dark Rise also begins with a scene of captivity. Marcus, a Steward, is being held in the bowels of a ship by the impossibly beautiful James, a classic blonde-haired Pacat character in the same vein as Laurent from Captive Prince. It’s 1821 London, and James and Marcus converse in the kind of densely allusive fantasy language that won’t make sense until later. There’s talk of a boy, who is still alive, much to the resentment of James.
The boy is Will, 17 and working on a cargo ship on the Thames. We soon learn he is on the run after his mother was murdered in front of him three months ago. Things escalate quickly. Will is drawn into an ancient supernatural war between the forces of the dark, once ruled by the so-called Dark King, and light, defended by an order of white-clad knights known as the Stewards. James works for a man called Simon, who is fixated on bringing the Dark King back and unleashing darkness upon the world. Will draws around him a rag tag bunch of other outcasts who will help him – Violet, a young Indian woman with super-strength; Cyprian, a proud young Steward; and Katherine, Simon’s Austen-esque child-bride.
Although it struggles a little to find its feet, weighed down by establishing somewhat convoluted rules and the need to introduce something new to this oldest and simplest of conflicts, and the writing is not as taut, the story builds to a number of high-adrenaline confrontations and several excellent twists that ably lay the groundwork for future installments. Things are more complicated than they seem, and Dark Rise begins to ask more interesting questions of agency and inheritance, whether means justify ends, and interrogate legacies of colonisation and ecological ruin.
The real draw though, as in Captive Prince, is the ravishing gaze under which Pacat places the characters under. Will is a Chosen One, but here that is less about fate than the intoxicating light that bathes those we desire:
it made sense of his strangeness, the otherworldly quality that he had, the way he’d always seemed – sharper and brighter in her mind than other people, even as he’d seemed separate and apart.
Dark Rise also pushes further Pacat’s depiction of queerness, with a easy air of fluidity about all the characters, at least the ones we are meant to be rooting for. And yes, the eroticism is there too, less explicit but in its own way just as wild as anything depicted in Captive Prince, including a creative scene involving a unicorn horn.
Gay rating: 4/5 for queer characters and desire.