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Book Review: Branded, by Clare London

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Book Info

Book Series
Gold Warrior 1-2
About the Author
Clare took the pen name London from the city where she lives, loves, and writes. A lone, brave female in a frenetic, testosterone-fuelled family home, she juggles her writing with her other day job as an accountant. She’s written in many genres and across many settings, with award-winning novels and short stories published both online and in print. She says she likes variety in her writing while friends say she’s just fickle, but as long as both theories spawn good fiction, she’s happy. Most of her work features male/male romance and drama with a healthy serving of physical passion, as she enjoys both reading and writing about strong, sympathetic and sexy characters. 

Clare currently has several novels sulking at that tricky chapter 3 stage and plenty of other projects in mind . . . she just has to find out where she left them in that frenetic, testosterone-fuelled family home.

All the details and free fiction are available at her website. Visit her today and say hello!
Publication Date
January 19, 2016
Pages
451
Content Warning
More explicit M/F scenes than there are M/M.
ISBN
978-1-63476-464-3
ASIN
B01A8XL6FQ
Excerpt
THE DAY was so much hotter than it should have been—it seemed the climate grew more erratic every spring. Unless I was planning a campaign, I rarely listened to the ramblings of the Weather Weavers, but occasionally I’d admit they were right to complain about it. Today the breastplate and leggings of my dress uniform were awkward and my helmet too heavy. I could feel my long hair sticking to my scalp with sweat, and my sword belt dragged painfully at my waist. But I’d worn all of this for many years. I, of all men, had no reason to complain.

Inside the arena, the sanded floor had been brushed down and the stone steps prepared for today’s event—the Choosing for Aza City. It was a very public venue and well used. I could see how tired its decoration looked. The structure always remained dirty, despite regular scrubbing by hordes of cleaners. Construction work was habitual throughout the city, and it proved difficult to keep buildings at their best. But I saw evidence of attempts to make the arena look glamorous for this occasion. Banners and notice boards had been hung from the pillars at the side, the flags of the Households of the city flew proudly along the top wall, and there were plenty of facilities to feed, clean, and relieve the large number of visitors that flocked in today. This event had occurred annually for hundreds of years; there were few excuses for it to be less than spectacular.

Most of the Households had already arrived, settling with blankets and folded chairs, erecting sunshades for the Mistresses, preparing refreshments in case the public supplies were inadequate. Each Mistress was attended by a few of her Ladies, and most of them also had the company of soldiers from their Guard. This had often seemed ludicrous to me, for what military danger would there be during a Choosing? Everyone’s attention would be on very different things! But it was a matter of prestige. I’d always accompanied my Mistress, ever since I qualified as a Silver Captain under Bernos, the serving Gold Warrior of the time. Now I stood as a Gold Warrior myself—the highest honor there could be for a soldier, let alone a man.

The Mistresses were excited to meet each other, and high-pitched female chatter choked the air around us. It would get fiercer once the bidding began. Many of them only saw each other at these events, and although some were glad for this, others regretted it and regularly made plans to travel more to visit. Whatever their pleasure at seeing friends, however, their gazes still strayed frequently into the center of the arena, to the ring where this year’s candidates would soon appear. That was, after all, the main purpose of the day.

A couple of my Silver Captains stood at my Mistress’s side. I watched them closely, for I was currently displeased with their lack of attention to her. She may have found them interesting in bed, but I demanded far more of them than a pleasing prick. It was an honor to be chosen for today’s duty, and I expected them to anticipate their Mistress’s discomfort. She had to stand for long hours at the side of the ring with an inadequate sunshade and nothing but cooled water when the serving children came past. Today she wore a thin pale blue shift in deference to the weather, and a cloak in a light fabric. Her badge of office was a pendant around her neck. Her head was uncovered, her long dark hair caught loosely at the back of her neck with a brooch. She was no longer as young as many of her favorite Ladies, but her skin was smooth, her hair glossy with aromatic oil, and her brown eyes very bright. She was a faithful follower of the Devotions. In return, they repaid her with good health and delayed aging. That’s how things were in the city: we all benefited in many ways from the Devotions.

Just about then, she caught my eye and raised her eyebrows. She was amused at my frustration with the men. I swear the woman should have been Mistress of Magic, not of the Exchequer. She had a sharp, often wicked perception that many underestimated.

“Leave them be, Maen,” she murmured, leaning toward me from her position on the steps so that others wouldn’t hear. “They’re excited by this as well. It’s an upheaval for them, this time of year. When I ask for something, they will be speedier than the hare to fetch it, never fear.”

She’d used my personal name rather than my rank, and that was frowned on socially, though of course I wouldn’t chastise her. It was a measure of the time we had been together and the ease we had between us—and also, perhaps, her sometimes worrying tendency to chafe at the more formal requirements of her position.

“Excitement is not part of their official duty, Mistress,” I replied rather dryly.

But maybe they overheard me. The blond Justes straightened his shoulders guiltily and snagged another cup of water from a passing refreshment tray.

My Mistress smiled, unconcerned. When Justes handed her the water with the appropriate greeting and the brief but formal salute of a palm to his heart, she caught at his fingertips for a little longer than necessary. His eyes flashed with passion and pride; he would be the one she took tonight, in all probability. She liked his combination of strength and soft skin—he had the flexibility of a gymnast and the reflexes of a cat. Or so word had it in the barracks.

Mistress Luana was always interested in such things.

“The Choosing of the Bronzemen… don’t you remember it yourself, Maen?” Her gaze met mine with an innocent expression that I knew to be contrived. I’d been in her Household for my ten years of adult life. By now I should know her character well, both as a woman and as a Mistress. “Is that all too long ago, my grown-up Gold Warrior? Too long to remember yourself as a young boy on the cusp of adulthood, desperate to impress, desperate to be chosen by a good Mistress?”

“I remember,” I said, determined to say no more unless she insisted.

“Or perhaps the memories are clearer from when you were first a Silver Captain. One of our youngest to qualify, I believe. One of our finest athletes and also our most excellent swordsman, which is indeed still the case. You stood here, like Justes and… the other one.” Her memory failed her, for she couldn’t always remember the names of all the men she called unless they became particular favorites. “You watched all the young boys, all the potential Bronzemen, full of your professional criticism, questioning whether they would be a good crop that year.”

“I wondered what Bernos would make of them,” I said. “Whether they’d make good soldiers.”

She smiled. “Whether they would be good servants in many ways, Maen! Whatever Bernos—and those before him—may have recommended, I don’t choose only on the basis of potential military skills. As I said, it’s a difficult time for the Silvers. There’ll be a new batch of these gorgeous young things in the Household. My attention will be drawn away from the Silvers themselves, along with the other Ladies’. There’ll be a time of some insecurity and frustration, until the positions have been reestablished in the Household—”

“And in the Guard itself,” I added. “For they will be soldiers first and foremost.” I took a risk, interrupting her. But she’d let me know many times that she would allow me to banter with her. I believed she enjoyed it.

She laughed softly, and Justes turned his head sharply to see if she called him, but she waved him back. She looked up into my face—I was a good head taller than her—and smiled purely for my benefit. “Did you never worry that I would tire of you, that each year I would prefer the new, soft young bodies to your fiercely toned soldier’s muscles? That you’d languish in my indifference with nothing but your barrack companions for physical relief? That my gifts would be given to others, now and for the foreseeable future?”

“I’ve never had any interest in gifts,” I said a little too sharply. I felt Justes’s gaze on me now, but he would never challenge me, his commander, in public.
Maen is a Gold Warrior, an elite defender of Aza City, respected by his fellow soldiers and favored by his imperious Mistress for services both in and out of the bedchamber. His loyalty and commitment are unwavering until he recruits Dax, a captivating and challenging Bronzeman who, despite his youth and inexperience, seduces Maen with his fierce hero worship. When they’re captured by enemies of the City, Maen risks everything to save Dax: his position, his faith, and even his life. But he loses his lover to the rebels and upon his return to the City is stripped of his rank. 

In Aza, where a soldier’s only lawful devotion is to the City and his Mistress’s pleasure, the disgraced Maen is placed under the watchful guard of the arrogant Gold Warrior Zander and relegated to preparing a Royal History for the new Queen. But his discoveries cast a new and shocking light on the past and threaten to stir revolution in both citizens and rebels. With the help of the lively and inquisitive scribe Kiel, Maen initiates a chain of events that will change their world forever—and offer him the chance to regain both his honor and his heart’s desire. 

1st Edition published by Dreamspinner Press, 2010.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

Shattered My Heart!
Overall 
 
4.0
Movie Potential - ★★★★★
Ease of reading – very easy to read and follow
Would I read it again – Yes.

** I WAS GIVEN THIS BOOK, BY THE AUTHOR, IN RETURN FOR AN HONEST REVIEW **

I really loved this book, but I have to admit that it's not what I expected. There was way more M/F (explicit) scenes in it than I'd anticipated and this is why I knocked off one of the stars. I read an M/M for the M/M not to have M/F interrupting that so consistently. But, despite that, this book didn't break my heart. It took a tiny hammer and chisel, then with each chapter chipped away a piece at a time, until the final chapter had it shattering in grief.

THE WORLD

Here's the run down of how the world works. You need to know this, because I'll be using terms in my review that you won't understand otherwise: 
Women rule the world. Four women – called Mistresses - first began colonization, in a harsh land, and rule four different cities. There is a Queen and her Queen-Elects, her daughters. The Queen is the only one who keeps their children at home (always daughters). Next, there are the Mistresses – who are like Queens in their own homes and who run an entire 'city' each. Below them are the Ladies of their Household (the term for their home or estate) who have Mistress privileges, but who don't really get involved in the running of the city or the Household.

The men of the world are subservient and always defer to women, when one is around. They are born with a weakness that requires medication that
the Mistresses have designed. It's called 'Devotions', that the men take to protect them from the 'disease' they were born with. The medication makes them stay younger longer, live longer, maintains their sexual appetite and keeps them compliant. This is important for a reason.

Now, how the Household is run: three levels of soldiers serve the house and the Mistress and Ladies (in and out of bed) as part of their soldierly duties. The Mistress runs the house, in charge of the city and the Household. The servants are low born people, called Remainders.

The Remainders (servants) are those who were not born of a Mistress or Lady, but bred by two Remainders. These are the really low ranking people of the world, the poor and destitute, the ones who do the low jobs in the city and never get any special treatment.

Next, we have the soldiers:

Bronzemen : these are the lowest level of soldier. They're called 'children' in the novel (which slightly disturbs me) but we're never really told how old they are. I hope, and presume, they're at least 16, if not 18. They're taken from the Central School (where all children are placed after birth to be taught and raised) and to a 'Choosing', similar to an auction. The boys are presented to the Mistresses for inspection and they bid for the boys they prefer, who will then enter their Household. They learn from the Gold Warrior and Silver Guards, how to train, how to be a real soldier and within the first two weeks, are introduced to the Mistresses bed. They are to remain untouched by all but the Mistress and the Ladies, who teach them the
ways of the bed.

Silver Captain: these are the second level of guard. These are well trained soldiers, with a lot of responsibility and training. This is when they are most popular with the Ladies and the Mistress, because they are grown men and well versed in their 'duties'. But, as well as being 'available' to their Mistress and the Ladies of the Household, they are also allowed to 'couple' (have sex) with the other soldiers. This isn't frowned upon or even hesitated over; it's perfectly natural for them.

Gold Warrior: this is the top level of soldier. They are the best and most well trained soldier in the guard; they have authority over all the other soldiers, train the Bronzemen when they first arrive and help the Mistress run her Household. No longer as popular as the other two levels of soldiers, they spend less time in and out of beds and more time training, in charge and strategising.

Last, we have the Exiles. As the world implies, these are people who have proven useless to the city or committed a crime. They've been exiled to the harshest part of their planet, where they're expected not to live long. Without the medication of their Devotions, they're expected to die within a few years, because of the sickness men are born with. However, the Exiles run skirmishes in the city, stealing food and other items and trying to get into the heart of the city. These are the most important of the characters, as they are the ones who will make the biggest difference to the main characters.

When it comes to the Devotions, the higher the rank, the stronger the Devotions. Exiles take no Devotions, since they can't get their hands on them. Remainders take a certain amount, morning and night, which is the least volume of Devotions taken by anyone in the 'world'. When a child becomes a Bronzeman, his level of Devotions is changed, to encourage strong virulence and strength of character, while promoting an advanced growth of mind and body. Next, the Silver Guards have their Devotions upped again, in what I assume is an attempt to gain control over their minds as well as their bodies. The Gold Warriors are on the highest dose; the most loyal and emotionless of all the soldiers.

~

Now, here's something that I don't understand. The high born people are born from a coupling of the Mistress and one of her soldiers. Once they're born, they're sent to the Central School, where they are taught and grow up, until they're of age to enter the Choosing, to be selected to live in other Households (the homes of other Mistresses). Here, everything is well taken care of, to ensure there's no interbreeding. However, this is what I don't get. The women 'created' the world, once upon a time, and created the system of their world; how it worked and who became what. We're told that all the children are born from the Mistress and her soldiers, but there's no mention of where the Remainders came from. Who had the first child, who became a Remainder? Was it a disabled child, born to a Mistress, or something similar.

~

PLOT

I loved this story. I'm not a fan of first person POV, but I didn't even notice this one. I honestly couldn't imagine this story being told any other way. It works perfectly.

The world building and detail is astounding and brilliant. There is so much attention given to the history, the way the world works and functions, and the roles of all the characters, even if they're not mentioned. There is an unfortunate circumstance of all the women in the novel being obsessed with sex, while the men are treated as sex machines, but it makes sense in the world the author has created. Even if it does get a little old, after a while.

However, I have one niggle. This reads more like a M/F fantasy novel than an M/M. The majority of the sexual contact happens off page and is only
mentioned for the first half of the book. After that, there's extensive M/F explicit sexual scenes and much, much fewer M/M scenes. The main character Maen, for example, has more sex with his 'Mistresses' throughout the book than he's had with any of the men he tangles with. I've taken a star off, for this. In an M/M romance novel, even a fantasy once, there should never be more M/F sex than M/M.

The ending was a little unsatisfying. I would have loved an Epilogue, of any length, just to offer a more complete ending. It was a little sudden and left so much unknown. Unless there's another book, this is disappointing. I'd normally knock another star off for this, but I'm too enamoured by the overall story to do that.

~

CHARACTERS

I absolutely love Maen and his dogged single-mindedness. He's a strong character, but mentally weak. He's been on the Devotions so long that it's as though he's been brainwashed. The way he interacts with Grien, who I also adore, is wonderful. The hesitation, the uncertainty and the chemistry they have is brilliant. Part of me totally ships them, but the other part totally ships Maen and Dax.

Dax is a free spirit, wild and wonderful. When he confesses to not taking his Devotions religiously, it makes perfect sense of his erratic behaviour and his doubts about how the world works. I love the way that he starts to open Maen's eyes to the truth. As a Remainder child, he's the exception to every rule about the people that Maen has been taught, which, I think is what puts him such a unique position, to teach Maen what the world should be like, rather than how it is.

Kiel was a brilliant character. So spirited and funny. He had some of the best lines and his rambling was a really nice humorous break from the
seriousness of the rest of the story. His hesitant chemistry with Zander, the new-Maen, loyal soldier, was incredible and so well written.

~

OVERALL

The book was a little long. Okay, a lot long. The book is 400+ pages and it felt it. It took me two days to read it, non stop, and there were times when I wondered what else would happen, to drag the story out. I don't mean that in a bad way, because A LOT happened in the book that made sense and was important. It just felt looooong.

The story – well, Maen and Dax's relationship – made me cry more than once. Literally. I was lip-quivering and snivelling a lot, whenever those two were together.

The characterisation and detail were fantastic. The plot was well thought out and executed, in a way that revealed just enough information, just when it was needed. The chemistry between the 'couples' was stunning and there were quite a few twists and turns that I never saw coming. The writing was of a very high caliber and something that I really warmed to, very quickly. This is, very possibly, the first 1st person POV story that I've ever really fallen into. I'm notoriously picked about 1st person, but this one felt so natural.

Overall, a fantastic – if, exhausting – read. I'd read it again. I'd read anything by this author again, no questions asked. And I'd read more of this world and these characters in a heartbeat.

~

FAVOURTE QUOTES

“We keep the city running. We are its veins. But we're neither its brain nor its senses.” His sigh was soft now. “We're nothing.””

“I wanted to be somewhere else; I wanted to be away from here. I wanted to be dead too.”

“What will you be, Maen?
I will be lost, I thought to myself, close to collapse, my mouth trapping desperate wails of horror and pain inside me. I will be bereft.
EW
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