This is a terrible, terrible book.
Normally, I won't write reviews like this. I feel uncomfortable writing something so negative, but this book is wildly offensive, and I feel readers should be warned -- especially because this book contains hints of underage sex.
This book is an anthology where each story is connected to the next. It's a retelling of the legend of King Arthur. Everybody in Camelot is gay; they engage in lots of public nudity; there's not a woman to be seen. Could be fun, right?
On the first page:
Young scullions from the kitchens, the prettiest only of course, brought in huge silver salvers [...]. They were wearing only the shortest of tunics and there were tantalizing glimpses of bottoms toasted pink by the fires of the kitchen, and sometimes even the tip of a youthful dangling penis. [...] it was quite acceptable to pat a rounded bottom or fondle a hanging prick as it passed, and the Knights took full opportunity [...].So I thought, huh. Full-grown men publicly molesting half-naked boys. Weird, but okay.
Regardless, I read to the end of this first story, feeling a little creeped out but willing to continue.
The next story was worse. One of the knights, Sir Gareth, is attracted to a boy who is a "youth", "possibly eighteen". Gareth mentions he'd like to take Ranulf back to the boy's parents, but given the loving descriptions of how pretty Ranulf is, I'm not convinced.
Gareth feeds Ranulf. The text tells us that "Gareth [enjoyed] seeing healthy young men indulge in their appetites - of whatever sort." Gareth and another male character (a monk, who is also sexually attracted to Ranulf) forcibly strip Ranulf and bathe him. These two full-grown men tear Ranulf's clothes off as he shrieks and struggles, and then grope him repeatedly as they wash him. Despite the fact that Ranulf was shown to enjoy this, this scene came off as creepy rather than funny, and not at all sexy.
Next up is Sir Peveril. The first bit of this story is actually pretty funny. Sir Peveril finds out a dragon is terrorizing the countryside. Now, according to this story, dragons are only dangerous because they've got enormous... well, you know... and they'll rape anything they can catch. So Peveril gets a vial of magical powder that prevents any creature it touches from having an erection. Instead of slaying the dragon, he finds it and sprinkles the powder on the dragon, who, in humiliation, retreats.
This is where it gets creepy again.
The dragon has been keeping over a dozen boys prisoner in its cave. This happens:
"You are free," announced Sir Peveril. "No longer will the Dragon ravage you with his cruel depravity, for I have conquered his rapacious desires. [...]"
Instead of looking overjoyed by this news, the lads seemed downcast, if not enraged. A handsome youth with a broad chest and legs that looked as if they could crack coconuts between them said, "But who is going to service us now?"
And several others agreed until it was obvious that, far from objecting to the attentions of the Dragon, they were very angry at being denied them.
One looked hard at Sir Peveril and then said - albeit a little doubtfully, "You'll have to carry out his duties." At which all the others, some twelve to fifteen, said, "Aye" and looked threatening.And then they have an orgy.
My problem is that, once again, the male characters here are referred to as "boys" or "youths" or "young men".
Now, it's true that these words are ambiguous. I think of a "youth" as someone who is around the age of 15-17, but it's always possible the author means 18-21.
But at other points in the book, the author uses these same terms - "young men", "lads", "youths", "boys" - to refer to boys that are explicitly stated to be underage. The author talks about them the same way. They're in the same age group. And they're all sexualized - not in spite of their youth, it seems, but because of it. There's all these descriptions of their youthful attitudes, their young health, how they're like puppies. And they act like teenagers - they bully each other, they have to be watched and rescued and taken care of, they're childish and immature and manipulative, and all of this is sexualized.
And on top of that, the other characters act like these boys are children. On two separate occasions, there's talk of how the boys should get back to their parents, who must be worried. And then, on both occasions, the man who not five minutes ago was thinking 'this kid should get back to his mother' has sex with him.
This was shocking and horrifying to me. While Dreamspinner Press has a firm rule about no underage sex appearing in their novels, I feel that rule was bent to the breaking point here.
Authors: if you feel the urge to refer to your character as a boy instead of a man, he doesn't belong in a sex scene.
Still, I kept reading. And, in some ways, this anthology did get better. There were some genuinely funny moments, and once the focus was back on Lancelot and Arthur (both full-grown men) things were less awful.
The author's treatment of women was also a big problem for me. I don't normally comment on this, because I don't expect there to be female main characters in m/m romance novels, and it's not normally a big deal. But I felt the author went out of his way to be sexist. There is only one female character in this anthology, and her sole purpose in the narrative is to tear apart the main couple. (And I don't mean she's the only named female character, I mean she's the only female character, period. All side characters and background characters -- and there's dozens -- are male.)
And at the end of the book, we've got this tidbit from the author:
Of course the legends say that King Arthur, at his death, was taken off in a boat and ministered to by three Queens - surely a fate worse than death!Which struck me as a little odd, because in the original legend, all these women did was tend to him and serve him.
Is this what the m/m genre has come to? Has the exclusion and degradation of female characters become so common that it fails to even register anymore?
(More nitpicking: the dragon has a penis as thick as a man's thigh and three feet long. How are those boys still alive?)
I got the feeling this anthology wasn't written to be taken seriously. Regardless, any humor it possessed was ruined by (maybe) underage sex and the sexist tone.