Title: Sword Dance
Author: A.J. Demas
Publisher: Sexton’s Cottage
Release Date: July 31, 2019
Genre(s): Historical Romance
Page Count: 265
Reviewed by: ParisDude
Heat Level: 3 flames out of 5
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Five years ago, Damiskos’s brilliant military career was cut short, leaving him with a permanent disability and scars that are not all physical. Adrift and still grieving, he tries to find meaning in an unsatisfying job.
Work takes him to the remote seaside villa of an old friend, where, among an odd assortment of guests, he meets the eunuch sword-dancer Varazda. Enigmatic and beautiful but distinctly prickly, Varazda is the antithesis of the straightforward and serious Damiskos. Yet as they keep getting in each other’s way at the villa, their mutual dislike is complicated by a spark of undeniable attraction.
Then the villa’s guests begin to reveal their true characters and motives—no one here is what they seem—and Damiskos finds himself at the centre of a bizarre web of espionage, theft, and assassination. Varazda may need Damiskos’s help, but not as much as Damiskos, finally awakening to a new sense of life and purpose, needs Varazda.
Sword Dance is the first book in the Sword Dance trilogy, an m/m romance set in an imaginary ancient world, with murderous philosophy students, sex acts named after fruit, and love blossoming in the midst of mayhem.
Simplicity and consistency make up much of the charm of this novel. Take a nice, little plot idea—doesn’t have to be the craziest plot idea ever used—, set it in unusual surroundings, place some likely characters, deliver it in a coherent, skilled writing style with the odd pinch of philosophical discourse, and you’ll get a decent and solid novel like this one. No car races, no action-packed scenes, no over-the-top twists and turns, no exaggerated drama, no insta-love, no fashionable dialogues, with conflicts and tension arising either from the temporal setting or being triggered off as logical reactions by the nature of the characters themselves. Just some plain, good old story-telling the way we’ve always been told story-telling should be.
A.J. Demas sets her novel in a fictional place and a remote time, all of which remind strongly of ancient Greece. We’re on an island, in a villa quite a ways from the capital city. It belongs to Nione, retired Maiden (i.e. head priestess) of the Sacred Loom, one of the main local cults. The story starts with Damiskos, an ancient high-ranking soldier, arriving there for procurement purposes on behalf of the army (Nione’s villa is known for producing fish sauce). He finds he’s not the only host. There’s Eurydemos, a famous philosopher and Nione’s cousin, with a couple of his students as well as a man called Aritokles, from the neighbour allied island state of Boukos. He’s accompanied by his slave, a eunuch from the continental kingdom of Zash. the latter is an extraordinarily beautiful being of ambiguous sexuality and gender appearance; his name is Varazda. Damiskos’s mission looks quite easy and peaceful, but soon he finds himself involved in a political plot that results in the murder of Aristokles and in him and Varazda being thrown together and fighting for their lives.
When I first read the blurb, I was so intrigued by that—ouch!—eunuch-thing going on that I volunteered to read the ARC. Once again my expectations were low, and my reward was high. This is a thoroughly well-written and well-researched book. Of course it doesn’t need to be 100% accurate as to customs and such things as the place is fictional. But, as I said in my preamble, when you have an idea for a setting, you should by all means stick to it with the utmost coherence. And A.J. Demas did. Everything fit, from the landscapes (Greece! One of my favourite countries in the whole, big world!) to the descriptions of buildings, people, even politics, down to the intriguing character of Varazda, who’s playing with gender borders and sexual twilight zones, but consistently and comprehensibly so. I was quite wary of him, but not for long. Both he and Damiskos, from whose POV we see the whole story, are genuinely likeable characters, both with a hurtful past, both therefore with issues, and both rather surprised by the feelings that appear and grow the more time they spend together. You’d think at the beginning that the HEA would be a long-winded, laborious business (we’ve got a bit of an enemies-to-lovers-thing going on) with many annoying break-offs or shyings-away, but no. The whole love aspect is dealed with in the most natural, sweet, and fulfilling manner. I’m looking forward to following these two characters in the next two novels of this promising trilogy. As an aside: yes, there are some philosophical discussions, but do not worry, they are fortunately easy to grasp (this is not The Name of the Rose or The Magical Mountain), highly interesting, and useful to plot and setting.