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Holy crap, this was dark. Violent. Terrifying in parts, making me clench my fists in anger in others. Trigger warning: There is violent rape, on page and off. There is a sadistic bastard, a madman who could be liked to Nero and Caligula of Ancient Rome.
But there is also love, budding, slowly unfolding, as Darragh and Ciaran try their best to survive in a cruel, violent world ravaged by a pandemic and the ensuing chaos in the aftermath.
This is one of the darkest, most disturbing books I've read in a while. It's a nailbiter, no doubt about it. And it makes you grind your teeth while it explores the minds and actions of men who fear, men who fight for power and men who rise above the crud and crap to find inside themselves that which is good and kind. It sends a message that despite a despotic madman ruling the place, there is still good in the world, and that fear, while a powerful motivator, does not earn you loyalty in return.
The writing is what made this such an enjoyable experience, despite the dark and bleak themes. While the setting is post-apocalypse, after a pandemic has wiped out much of society and the rules we live by, it still felt like something that could happen. And against this terrifying backdrop, the authors created richly explored characters, flawed, scared, fearing for their lives, yet also persevering and moving forward as best they can.
Darragh comes to Dublin in search of medicine for the survivors in his village when he unknowingly stumbles into a hotbed of terror, with the King of Dublin at the reins. Captured and then more or less indentured to the King, Darragh keeps his ears open and his eyes set on his goal. He questions his motives more than once, worried that he likes the violence he's forced to commit, but also knows that he's not given a choice.
I really liked how the authors explored that part of human nature - what are we willing to do, what atrocities are we willing to commit, in order to survive?
Ciaran - gosh, I felt so sorry for him, but also recognized this inner strength, even if it was beginning to fade. The human soul can endure only so much, and when we get this back story, about his idealistic views that are then met with such disdain and cruelty, I cried hot tears, but was also in awe of his perseverance, his cunning. When he's abused over and over, for the amusement of the King or as punishment, I wanted to reach into the book to grab this King by the throat and throttle him.
Again, the authors delivered a realistic character - beaten down, nearly devoid of hope, full of fear and anger that must be suppressed at all cost - and made me believe in him. His actions (and inactions), his despair, his hopelessness all were believable and fully understandable.
Yeah, it's the writing, my friends, that kept me going, that kept me pushing through the darkness and the tears. It's the writing that had me fully engaged from the start, biting my nails through the terror and turmoil, that had me pulling my hair when Ciaran and/or Darragh are being stupid (though understandably so), and that had me shout out in anger when someone betrays them.
Even the villain in this story wasn't a cardboard character. He too was explored, and given reasons for his actions, even if they didn't always make sense to a sane person.
But out of the darkness, there comes light, and the book ends in a very satisfying, hopeful way, with the memory that love, real love, can endure anything and everything and will survive against even the cruelest of circumstances.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. [1 Corinthians, verse 13, 7]
The only negative in this was that nobody ever got sick from all the bareback f*cking going on - there's not a condom in sight, ever - and considering how much Ciaran is being used, and how he's bleeding after the numerous rapes, something that the King sees fit to point out and be proud of in his cruelty, I was surprised that there were no STDs mentioned at all. A pandemic that wipes out much of the population doesn't then also wipe out things like Gonorrhea, Syphilis and/or HIV, yet no mention were made of these. Much mention was made of multiple men coming inside Ciaran, to the point where he was leaking from his butt (a pet peeve - the anus usually prevents that from happening, but I let it go here due to the number of men doing the deed and the ring of muscle being stretched to the point where it won't close immediately), and his injuries after vigorous f*cking had taken place, yet no mention is made of sexually transmitted diseases. It's as if these people have either never heard of those, or simply don't care.
Then again, Syphilis might explain the insanity of the King.
This book was violent, it was gruesome, and it was terrifying. And still, I highly recommend you read it.
Love conquers all.
** I received a free ARC from the publisher via Netgalley. A positive review was not promised in return. **