Daemon Stormcaller is arrogant and brutal and one of the most powerful men in the empire. Daemon is the Knight-Commander who reports directly to King Tairen and is in charge of the armed forces of Tairen’s kingdom. Not that Tairen deserves to be king. Once, not too long ago, the Stormcaller ruled the world, but the Silverheart family usurped the throne. Now the Stormcaller family is relegated to their castle in the North, a far cry from the comfort of the ruling city.
Daemon and his men are called to a neighboring lord’s holding to investigate a missing heir, only to discover rumors of giant shape-shifting monsters: bears. Bears haven’t been seen in the kingdom since the days of the Honored Blood, shape shifters who ruled the kingdom with iron fists and unrivaled cruelty. Brushing the matter aside — who would believe stories of bears anyway? — Daemon moves on to his next task and the next lord.
The Lord of Sunsdale Harbor is an odious creature that Daemon cannot stand. Not only does he have a lack of control, he has an unwholesome desire for his slave girls. Most notably, a new arrival from Akvara, a nearby kingdom with a fearsome army of their own and a Queen unwilling to let an insult to her people go unchallenged. When a mysterious prisoner from Akvara arrives on a ship, Daemon can’t help but wonder if the queen knows one of her people is missing — and if she’ll take offense. Not that he spends much time thinking on it. His mind is taken up by his dislike of Sunsdale and court politics. Sunsdale buys the strange woman for his own amusement, and when Sunsdale pushes — and with Daemon under orders to play nice — forces Daemon to purchase a slave of his own.
Audrec is one of many children in a poor family and was chosen by his father to be sold into slavery in order to feed the rest of his siblings. He knows nothing about being a slave, which may end up being a problem when he’s bought by the Knight-Commander and tasked with caring for his armor, his weapons, and the man himself.
This is a violent book that wants to be brutal. It references rape and describes stabbings and arm breakings. Daemon is not a good person. During an early scene, while at a supper with the Lord of Sunsdale, a slave girl tries to take his plate. He stabs her in the hand with a knife and, after a moment, twists it slowly and deliberately. There is no remorse in him, no guilt. When she is then forced, weeping and injured, to attend her lord, Daemon plays no attention to Sunsdale raping her at the table. Nor do any of his guests.
In this world slaves are nothing and cruelty to them is encouraged. There is an inconsistent viewpoint that slaves both are and are not used sexually. In ‘proper’ places, such as the palace, it is seen as wrong to sleep with your slave — though I can’t see why there when it is accepted other places. There’s never any good reason given for it, though the Lord who gets his slave girl pregnant and tries to marry her is punished swiftly and violently enough, to say nothing of the poor girl. Sunsdale sleeps with his slaves and nothing is said of it. But when Daemon is suspected of having a fling with his new slave, it’s a world ending event. So much so that one of his men feigns a romantic embrace with him, much to the offense of the woman he’s courting, to keep Daemon from getting caught with Audrec.
Speaking of Audrec, Audrec is a wide-eyed tabula rasa. He’s a blank page with no real emotion other than confusion. For some reason, he falls in lust with the man who bought him, who treats him like garbage, who killed a man for approaching him and asking a question. (To be fair, the man was a wealthy merchant, so there’s less… bad about his death than if he’d been another slave?) The few scenes from Audrec’s point of view have no personality; they’re passive, reactionary, and bland.
Damon, on the other hand, has a personality. Just not a nice one. He’s is an anti-hero, not in the sense of the injured, broken, or unexpected hero, but in the true meaning of the word. He’s a villain. He’s a violent thug who happens to be the protagonist of the book. The biggest problem with Daemon is that the author seems to have a vision of the character that is unsupported by the book. Daemon has no reaction to stabbing a slave girl in the hand and then twisting the knife. He has no reaction to killing a ranking merchant because he asked a question too many. At a later event, he breaks a young boy’s arm and goes back to eating. Yes, he’s a product of his raising, and yes, people can change, but the author sets none of that up. Daemon goes from breaking a slave boy’s arm to tracking down one of his own slaves and suddenly spilling his guts out to someone he’s ignored for all of her life. He doesn’t even call her by name, because that would be treating her too well.
There’s is such a vast discrepancy between how Daemon acts and how the author seems to want us to think he feels about those actions. When he loses Audrec to Lord Sunsdale, there’s a minor twinge of pique, and then life goes on. Weeks pass while he goes about his days and when he sees Audrec again — abused by Sunsdale and his men — Daemon is… angry? Something like angry. Perhaps more put out that Sunsdale’s rubbing it in his face. The scene was very lackluster, but we’re assured he’s upset about it. He shows more anger in dealing with his brother, or when he’s angry at the king, than he does in any scene with Audrec. When you make your character an unmitigated asshole, proving it to us again and again with what are rather well-written scenes, you need to do more than give lip-service to redemption. Just because you force your character to mouth words of guilt doesn’t mean the reader can’t tell it’s not sincere.
The world building was inconsistent, the mystery of the skin changers felt tacked on. The story should have either focused on the Honored Blood plot, or the romance, or the Akvara storyline, or the Daemon redemption arc rather than muddling all four into a mishmash. There’s talent here, the writing is decent… but this story, this world and these characters, simply don’t work.