Stefn Eldering was the youngest son of the Earl of Shia, the last in a long, proud line of demon hunters. He was also a sin-catcher, living proof of God’s displeasure, the shame of his existence atonement for the sins of his ancestors. Michael Arranz was the son of a duke and one of the despised h’naran, half-bloods cursed with the blood of the nara running through their veins. Of all the h’nara, his family alone was immune from the persecution of the powerful Church of Loth, protected by an ancient covenant. In ordinary times, the paths of Michael and Stefn would never have crossed. Alas, times were no longer ordinary. The latest of the Lothlain kings was a weakling, unable to curb the ambitions of an increasingly powerful, corrupt clergy. Famine stalked the land. Fear of the h’nara, fanned by the Church, spread tentacles everywhere. Tanyrin teetered on the edge of chaos.
A loyal and devoted friend to Tanyrin’s crown prince, Michael could refuse Severyn Lothlain nothing, not even when Severyn asked the unspeakable of him. Determined to wrest the throne from his brother, Severyn intended nothing less than the resurrection of the ancient naragi. Michael, whose naran blood was the purest in Tanyrin, was the logical choice. But for Michael become what mankind feared most, he needed a conduit through which to take the powerful, dangerous magic of the Dark Stream. He needed a man who carried the ancient blood of the cethera. He needed Stefn Eldering.
Warnings: noncon, dubcon, graphic depictions of violence, jealousy narratives, love triangle, suicide
Cethe is a fantasy epic slavefic novel, involving a kingdom on the edge of civil war, a race of sorcerers oppressed by the church, political schemes, and magical seduction. It follows the young Stefn, after the Prince of Tanyrin and his conspirators storm his family’s keep, and give him as a cethe (magical-siphon sex slave) to Michael, a sorcerer seeking to unlock the powers of his ancestors to help the Prince’s coup. Being quite frank, I did not like this book, and so before I delve into why I did not like it I will remind the reader that these reviews are merely my own personal opinions and experience, and your mileage will of course vary. But I struggled with this book a great deal, despite it’s concepts all hitting my usual tastes.
The meat of the prose is quite good. It’s expressive, and descriptive enough to be engaging to read and never felt boring. However, the plot was chaotic, and the lack of narrative structure hampered what could have been an entertaining revolution story. There are plot points that end up going nowhere, and miniature arcs within the story that feel more like episodes in a series than events within a single story. The conclusion of the political plot was anti-climactic and rendered previous pieces of the story unnecessary, making the entire thing feel unsatisfying to me. Why bother to set up an elaborate scheme for the throne if it wasn’t truly going to come to doing anything with the schemes? Why set one plot point up as having immense importance and then later undermine it by having more solutions easily available? There was also an awful lot of melodrama and conflict arising from characters refusing to communicate or be honest with each other or just sit down and have some damn conversations which is always one of my biggest pet peeves.
The area that the story frustrated me the most was emotionally. The relationship between Stefn and Michael was never really developed into anything that had real chemistry, and I kept waiting, desperately, for a moment when the two of them would actually come to understand each other. By the end of the book, the gradual progress towards that does pay off, but it never felt earned to me because the hurt and pain in their past is never actively addressed. The things that Stefn is forced to go through at the hands of Michael and Prince Severyn as well as others is hand waved a little much for my tastes, especially given that the story wants us to buy Severyn and his compatriots as the heroes of the narrative, the good guys that we are meant to be rooting for for fighting against an oppressive regime. I could never really believe them as such, because at the same time as they are fighting for naragi rights they are apparently absolutely fine with raping, abusing, and then neglecting Stefn by leaving him in isolation for months at a time.
Severyn especially remained such an ass throughout the entire thing, continuing to call Stefn a whore to his face and encourage his isolation and imprisonment out of jealousy, that I couldn’t for the life of me buy into him being a champion of justice. Even as Michael does start to feel guilty about it, he never defends him to Severyn or demands that Severyn cease his abominable treatment of his cethe. Instead Stefn comes around to working with people who rape, kidnap and torture him on the regular, and the narrative treats it as his journey he needs to undergo to come around to their side of things. The only character that comes to realize, on their end, that forcing Stefn into the cethe binding had been wrong is Michael and he does nothing to address it. Even the characters that become friendly with him never seem to see anything wrong with how he was originally forced into their company, and it’s all treated so casually I felt very off about it.
The worldbuilding here is not subtle. In the kingdom of Tanyrin, the Church of Loth rules with an iron fist. Since Tanyrin had defeated the demon nara race generations ago, those who have nara blood are considered ‘taints’ who need to either be slaughtered for sport or forced into religious ‘penitence’ for the sin of their blood. Although the religion of Loth does not actually condone these practices, the Church has been circulating forged versions of their religious texts that omit anything good about the nara and living at peace with them, and add new edicts to keep the people under their rule. It’s… a pretty heavy handed metaphor, all things considered, for the Catholic church, and I wish it had been maybe a little less on the nose. It’s also, again, extremely difficult to take seriously when those fighting against the Church are… horrible. (I know we captured and raped, and beat you Stefn, but you see, we are actually the good guys, why must you be so stubborn) The magic system is interesting, with magic users taking lovers that fuel their power with their energies during sexual union, but it’s never really explained what “The Blood” is or why Stefn has it, and all of Michael’s bemoaning that he had to do this awful thing (force bonding Stefyn to himself via rape) is completely undercut by the later reveal that actually people with “The Blood” aren’t that rare in fact and he could find a bunch of them back home to choose from so why did he need Stefn again…?
This book has a lot of sex in it, but it isn’t especially descriptive about it. There is a lack of an experiential quality to it, but not a lack of emotional quality. The magical bond that Stefn is subjected to is actually very sexy fantasy stuff; fucking Stefn replenishes Michaels magical energy and heals him when he’s pushed himself too hard, and to that end it forces Stefn to need to be fucked by giving him a raging hard on that wont go away until Michael fucks him. It also forces Michael to develop feelings for him as well, a road goes both ways situation. It’s got a lot of sex pollen, fuck-or-die, A/B/O type flavour to it, which I really really enjoyed a lot! I just wish it had been described more and had come with them actually developing their bond outside of that with something other than terse, awkward conversations that went nowhere. I never quite felt like I was in it with either of them during the intimate moments, as much as I would have liked to have.
Ultimately, this was both way too romanticized for me, and also too harsh. The cruel ways in which Stefn is treated without any kind of care from Michael in the beginning, to the dismissal of said cruelty as not mattering very much, both ended up squicking me out an awful lot, and combined with the plot holes and lack of narrative structure, I can end by saying that this book is absolutely not for me. It’s a drama fest and a kind of fantasy that I’m sure appeals to someone, but that someone is unfortunately not me.
Have you read Cethe? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!