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/nb romance set in an imaginary ancient world, with murderous philosophy students, sex acts named after fruit, and love blossoming in the midst of mayhem.
Book 1: Sword Dance
Book 2: Saffron Alley
Book 3: Strong Wine
** I WAS GIVEN THIS BOOK FOR MY READING PLEASURE **
Reviewed for Divine Magazine
Sword Dance, (Sword Dance, Book 1), by A.J. Demas
POV: single character, 3rd person POV
Content Warning: mentions of past slavery, torture and war; deals with historical ideas of sexism, homophobia, and slavery. PTSD experiences.
Sword Dance is the first in a trilogy, showcasing a front-and-centre historical political mystery, with a side of romance and a slice of action/adventure.
With two central characters who capture and engage the reader from the beginning, the story begins with a group of strangers who come together for a weekend visit. Ebbing and weaving through a political mystery, then a murder investigation, it explores the backstory of the two main characters. Damiskos, an ex-soldier, and eunuch dancer, Varazda.
The story is told in Damiskos’ POV, from arriving at the villa where the entire book takes place, to leaving the villa. I really liked him as a main character, as he was pragmatic, resourceful, and a skilled but wounded soldier. With a physical injury, and mental scars, Damiskos is relatable as well as someone that you believe in, trust to make the right decisions, but who is also real, because he makes mistakes, has doubts and second guesses his abilities.
Varazda – sometimes referred to by his dancer’s name, Pharastas – is a really great character, and though he never got his POV, I felt he shone well off the page. He was fun, interesting, a little snarky and sarcastic, while being smart and sociable. He made a great compliment to Damiskos, balancing his serious side by being more laid-back and approachable.
Verazda is a eunuch, who has a history of being a slave and, thus, being forced to perform sexual “duties” before his freedom. There is some PTSD from this, and a nice, compassionate and sympathetic exploration of his needs. He comes across as non-binary, though these terms are, of course, not fully expressed in a historical/fantasy setting, and isn’t asexual but has definite lines to his sexual interests/desires. I really appreciated the way the author explored this, as it was slipped naturally into his experiences with Damiskos.
I utterly loved them both as a couple. They bounced off each other, balanced each other, and still managed to be completely unique individuals that were easily differentiated on page. I never felt confused about who was acting or speaking. If there hadn’t been any speech/action tags, I could easily have known who was saying or doing what. Their honesty with each other was lovely, even when it was awkward and embarrassing for them both.
I liked the plot, a lot. I really enjoyed the sense of anticipation, that wasn’t over-bearing or felt like the plot was rushing, but kept a steady pace that allowed us to enjoy every aspect of the story as it naturally unfurled.
The story begins with Damiskos, and his arrival at the villa of a friend, Nione. His insecurities and past as a soldier, the mental and physical scars left over from those days, and even his current task of a working holiday, are all nicely explored in the first few chapters. It does make the story start a little slowly, and I did wonder where it was going, what the friendly atmosphere and strangers-get-together would unfold into.
As the story continues, it evolves into a political mystery, that then leads to a murder investigation. Both these aspects bring Damiskos and Varazda together, giving them a reason to get closer and get to know each other better, to work in closer proximity. It felt natural for them to bond and learn more about each other, and their stories. The chemistry grew naturally, and their banter was a great addition to a story that could be quite tense and serious.
I equally loved that both characters got to show their personalities throughout the story. Damiskos’ military bearing and knowledge is utilised throughout the investigation, allowing him to shine in a job that he’s no-longer physically fit for. Varazda is both politically/socially capable and has swift feet and a quick mind that allow him to help Damiskos without being a burden. Seeing them work together, I never felt that one out-shone the other, or that one held back the other. They both brought different skills, different abilities, and various insights to every step of the investigation.
Honestly, this aspect is the only reason I didn’t give this book a glowing 5* review.
Before anyone mentions it, there is a List of Places at the back of the book. BUT, this is at the BACK, after I’d already read the story, and didn’t offer the pre-warning context that I needed when starting. If even the first paragraph of this page has been put on Page 1 or as a prefix to Page 1, I would have understood. However, its usefulness was rendered pointless, by appearing at the end.
For me, I felt the world-building wasn’t intense enough. It was good, and I felt immersed in the world, but…some vital information was missing, that would have made it easier and more natural for me to slip into the story, from page one. It took me a few chapters to feel comfortable, because these parts were missing.
To start with, we are never given a time period this story takes place in. No location, no timeline, no year. A simple, but clear line under the first chapter heading could have easily solved this, even in this fictional world. Something like:
Villa A, off the coast of B, year C
This would have cleared up the idea that this was a fictional world, not a historical era, and given us a settled concept of the time, location and era. Even if it was something simple, like: Summer, Year X.
Secondly, the world-building lacked explanations. I spent the entire book without ever understanding what the Maidens were, what the Goddess Anaxe’s purpose was or what her religion was; the importance of the Maiden’s. I never understood what the Ideal Republic was – was it a religious movement, a political party, or an ideal thought similar to Hitler’s Aryan master race? I was never entirely sure what it stood for, and how the Phemian purity fit into that. Whether they meant tightening border control, to keep out “foreigners” or whether it meant a complete annihilation of other races, leaving Phemian’s without contact with other races/countries, and no marriage/sex between them. It was left unclear.
There was also a game mentioned a few times – the Reds and Whites – that was never explained. I never knew what it meant, or how it was played. It read a little like a version of bowls or croquet, but was mostly skimmed over so it was never clear.
Also, terms like Moon’s Day, Seventh Day and Hesperions were never fully explored, in ways that meant I could read them and instantly understand what they meant.
Because these aspects were pivotal to the plot, and to the world-building, they had more importance – and a deeper need to be explained – than anything that is already familiar to the reader. It should have been easy to figure out what it meant, through reading the story, but there were a few times when I thought I understood only to be confused again. Perhaps clarity, through the students arguments could have been a good place to put this, as they argued amongst themselves what exactly the terms stood for.
I really loved the book. Sword Dance is an exciting, but romantic and fun, adventure through a political mystery. All of which sounds like there should be too much going on in one book, but it’s actually well balanced and paced, so that it never feels weighted or over-loaded. There’s a little bit of everything, all in equal measure.
I absolutely ADORED Damiskos and Varazda together. Their chemistry, their banter, and their playfulness, as well as how well they complimented each other, really worked to make sure that both characters shone equally.
The ending was positively satisfying! So perfectly planned, and though it was a touch abrupt, it felt right for the story, for the characters, and for the relationship they’d built together. It makes a perfect HFN ending, that makes me eager to read Book 2.
“He collapsed gracefully onto it, pulling the covers around himself, and pressed his face into the pillow, drawing a deep breath.
“Mmmm. Smells like soldier.”
“I’m sorry,” said Damiskos stiffly.
One dark eye looked up at him from the pillow. “I don’t know if you’ve worked this out, First Spear,” came Varazda’s muffled voice, “but I fancy soldiers.””