Dark Heart - Thom Lane This is not a romance.

But it's not a dark, nasty story either.

Dark Heart is something else altogether.

In the world of Amaranth, a caste-system is firmly intact. Slaves are regarded as 'soulless' and are more or less on the same footing as domestic animals. This means that from our perspective, the way the 23 year old Tam -- who was once a petty thief until he was caught and collared -- is treated seems harsh. Ever since he is a slave at a guild house, he is fed only once a day, whipped every now and then for no particular reason and must service the guests, sexually and otherwise. It also means that when one stormy night a powerful mage seeks shelter at the guild house and chooses Tam to see to his needs, the boy is very much treated like a pet dog.

When the mistress of the guild house begs his new, temporary master for help in a series of mysterious attacks on the guild, Tam is sucked into a turmoil of events. After an explosion in the city, he secretly watches how the strong, mysterious mage collects stiff, dead bodies and calls back their souls. However, before Tam's curious mind has time to grasp the the definition of a 'necromancer', he gets more than he bargained for as his master decides to drag him into hell as toll money for the demons. After all, if something dreadful is to happen to a slave, it will just be considered collateral damage...

"Which is in Hell, which is where I must go to interrogate it."
"Ah. I see. And the boy?"
"I need - something to pay my way. To buy me answers. An offering. I'll hope to bring him back to you. Be aware, though, I can't guarantee it."

What's interesting is that this isn't a story in which one person consciously chooses to take on a submissive role to 'play'. Or the opposite: in which a main character is forced into slavery and both he and his master realize things could be different. Since slavery is such a normal aspect of Amaranth's culture, the fact that Tam's a slave is never questioned, neither by him or his new master. The mage therefore is entirely dismissive of Tam's feelings and handles him as nonchalantly as a farmer would treat one of his many sheep, not cruel but never particularly caring either. If you can't handle this matter-of-factly inequality very well, Dark Heart can be a somewhat uncomfortable experience.

Although Tam did not strike me as an overly intelligent character and appears, in a way, happy in his submissive role and eager to please his attractive master ("What did I know? I was only a slave. All I wanted was his cock in my mouth."), he shares enough tidbits to give the impression that deep down he is, in fact, not so excited about the cards he is dealt in life.

I would have liked to matter -- to either of them, really -- just a little more than the furniture, but there's no point dreaming. Free men and women value slaves only for their usefulness, and not a penny piece beyond.

Despite several dramatic events in the story that could have forced a break through in the way both characters perceived their society imposed roles -- I know I had anticipated at least a subtle change in the way the mage regarded his slave! -- the author chose to not let his characters explore their possibilities. Despite my vague frustration about this lack of development -- I personally love a dash of friction, conflict and soul-searching in my books -- I must admit that, besides the great writing, the preservation of this 'standstill' is also one of the book's strengths. The author opted for the road less traveled, which resulted in an ever present bittersweet undercurrent to Dark Heart.
Although it's probably clear by now that this is not really one of those books, for those who like their HEA: there is just enough material to ignite your imagination.

Ultimately, Dark Heart is so much more than a fantasy story. It just begs to be chewed on for a while. To be explored from all angles. If you get the chance, make this one a buddy read. These characters and their motives can be interpreted in so many different ways. It's food for discussion!