Looking at the generic cover and reading nothing but the blurb, I admit a little trepidation. Would this be one of those famous “slave fics” that have a large and loyal following? Would this feature BDSM, humiliation and power games and a crusader reduced to a whimpering sex slave? The crusades are probably my favourite subject in the vastness of the Middle Ages, and I admit to feeling even more protective of them than of the rest of history.
So I braced myself a lot before opening the file.
And relaxed. Relaxed some more. Slowly, a smile started to spread, and in the end, I was so pleasantly surprised that I read the story two more times. For the review, I’ve read it twice more. I’m happy to report this is not your typical slave story. I’m even more happy to report it has actual research (!) in it.
But first things first. Falk du Plessis, the squire of his brother, a Templar Knight, survives the battle of Hattin, the medieval equivalent of Gallipolli, in short, a disastrous, all-out battle that decimated the already thin-stretched military resources of the crusader kingdoms to breaking point. At the time when it happened, our historical witnesses tell us that they didn’t think the knightly orders would recover from the loss of men and materiel. It was a turning point in the rich history of the Crusades, an iconic battle with a bloody aftermath, when the prisoners were put to the sword rather than ransomed, and the rest sold on the slave market.
Falk is lucky, he gets sold as a slave. But instead of the all too typical “woe is me” scene in the slave market, we get a Falk who’s actually optimistic. He’s a strong character, calm, and just damn glad he lived. I really enjoyed that inner strength that is so far removed from all the melodrama a lesser writer would have put in there to make an impact in such a short story (16 pages, a total of 6-7thousand words). But Kate Cotoner is not a lesser writer, in fact she’s a pretty damn good writer who has clearly made an effort to make this real, human, authentic and true.
It’s a more quiet, more real story than you usually get, with a character who’s gay, has some experience, and even that rang true—little drama about forbidden homosexuality here, mostly because Falk is usually careful (he has reason to) and because he is not of high enough status to make this political for him. When he gets bought by a Syrian, Sinan, their relationship is not typical of a “slave fic”, either.
It’s a sweet, gentle romance between two men who share more than divides them, and it’s also not soppy at all. Cotoner trusts her characters to let them tell the story, and the actual love/sex scene is delightfully free from men shouting each others’ names in the throes of climax, or confessing undying love five minutes after meeting.
I have to have one little niggle – there’s a paragraph in the text that goes on about how "everybody knows bathing is unhealthy."
Bathing culture in the middle ages (the battle of Hattin places this story firmly into the late 1180ies) was actually doing alright. The “unhealthy” reputation of bathing came when the Plague and likely syphilis spread via the beloved and often-used bathing houses. We still have a few Roman baths, sometimes surviving as parts of monasteries, but in general, our European ancestors did like being clean. It’s in the 14th century and later that that goes slowly down the drain. Not bathing, however, was part of the ascetic ideal, so very holy people wouldn’t bathe to mortify the flesh (yeah, I’d be mortified, too), but those are extreme cases.
So, a short, sweet read that went completely against my expectations, well-told, with an ending that promises more between the two characters. In fact, these two should be a match made in heaven, and I’d really like to read more about their adventures during the decline of the crusader states, or wherever Cotoner takes them.
Kate Cotoner lives in the north of England with her OH and a demanding bonsai named Mr M. She has a fondness for Asian men tempered with a love of hunky Germanic and Mediterranean types, and manages to combine love for all three types whilst watching Formula One motorsport. She loves history, needlepoint, reading, watching brainless blockbusters and meaningful foreign films, staring at US crime shows, and baking French-style bread. She likes strong, plot-driven stories and charismatic characters set against a sweeping, romantic backdrop of history, suspense, international locations and whatever else happens to take her fancy at the time.