Mar. 3rd, 2016

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Captive Prince V3 came out last month -- long-awaited and very enjoyable and satisfying. Satisfying, however, in a significantly different manner to the first two books, and in a manner that pushes my buttons a little less. What I miss in it most is the sense, pervasive in the first two books, of an organising mind -- Laurent's mind, and the author's. Pacat was tremendously skillful in developing a narrator that is not so much unreliable as unknowledgeable. That would be the point of view character, Damen, who is plunged deep into the deadly political intrigue of a rival foreign country, and spends the first two books in desperate catch-up mode.

During those books it becomes apparent that initial antagonist Laurent's story is buried inside the tight perspective Damon's own story. It exists in observations that Damen or can't fully understand, or wilfully misunderstands; in events that colour past words or actions retrospectively; in surprises and slow puzzlings out of character deed and motivation. Every time Damen turns a corner on his understanding of Laurent and his environment, the foundations of our assumptions and prejudices crumble a little more, and we get a marginally clearer glimpse of the long game that Laurent is, and has always been, playing.

One of the cleverest things Pacat manages to do -- genius-level stuff -- is to run Damen's and the reader's levels of knowledge at different speeds. The reader -- cued by genre clues, mostly -- is running a few steps ahead of Damen at most points. And yet we still can only know what Damen knows, and seemingly inconsequential moments like the reveal of an earring as a disguise come as momentous, emotional, characterful shocks. Pacat manages that trickiest of things -- to have a Laurent's tremendous intelligence and competence actually feel like a living, realistic intelligence, organising the narrative behind the scenes without trickery or crutch, and she keeps it so, even on reread. This was, honestly, a revelatory pleasure for me.

By V3 most of the tension created by an unknowledgeable narrator has been settled: reader and Damen has much better handle on Laurent and the true antagonists. The reveals of V3 are correspondingly smaller and less undermining; it contains a narrative "cheat" POV switch; Laurent's interim plans reach fruition; romantic desire has been satisfied, although there is still a good level of tension; and, perhaps most crucially, the two major secrets that continue to underpin the emotional stakes are essentially resolved in the reader's mind, and are unavailable for the same kind of destabilising shock.

Laurent is still, of course, a genius, and legitimately reads so, but the third novel is organised around Damen's ascendency and power, and his is a much more straightforward, A-to-B, enduring kind of power, and the texture of the narrative follows accordingly. The plot(s) and characters remain twisty and complicated, but Damen is the one in the know now, and while it is immensely satisfying to see him and Laurent renegotiate their relationship and kick ass, that "uncharted territory" pleasure is missing, that feeling of you and Damen matching your wits against Pacat and Laurent both.

All three books are an incredible achievement, and Pacat is very generous about passing on some of the lessons she's learned. I've reread the first two several times and look forward to going over the third again to marvel at just how she does what she does. I've been thinking a lot about unreliable narrators lately, and the way she manipulates information, context and assumption just blows me away. Do check her out.

ARF

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