Review: King of Dublin by Lisa Henry and Heidi Belleau


Ratings 3.75 stars out of 5 (rounded up to 4)

ARC fullcoverTwenty years ago a virus spread around the world, and the resulting deadly pandemic left all countries in ruin, its populations and governments destroyed in the aftermath.  Darragh Fergus Anluan and the other children of the Irish village Cuíl Aodha survived when their elders died but only just.  Hard winters and a disease which seems to return on a cycle has left the small group further decimated.  Desperate for medicine, Darragh is leaving his home against the pleas of the others to search for medicine to help them survive another winter in their small village.  Unsure of what has survived, Darragh is horrified to find that Dublin is nothing more than a ruin, ruled by a sadistic despot who has taken the name of King Boru.

King Boru rules by fear and force, accumulating an army of thieves, murderers and rapists eager to do his bidding.  Those who oppose him are killed or sold off as slaves.  And sitting at his feet is his Boy, a pretty sex slave, whose looks entrance Darragh even as the abuse and rape the Boy endures at the hands of the King and his soldiers draw out Darragh’s protective instincts.  If Darragh is to get his hands on any medicine, he must appear to join the ranks of the king’s men.

Ciaran Daly is the son of a high official in Belfast, a place of relative civility and safety. Ciaran wanted to help out Ireland, believing good deeds and good intentions would triumph over the problems and issues he thought he  would find in Dublin.  So Ciaran and his band of naive friends gathered together supplies and snuck away from their families and friends. But they were unprepared for their capture at the hands of the brutish soldiers of Boru as soon as they crossed the border.  All died except for Ciaran.

Ostensibly held as a hostage, Ciaran has been reduced to Boy, King Boru’s sex slave.  The continual abuse Ciaran suffers has torn away all hope but the arrival of Darragh in the King’s court sparks it back to life.  Darragh is different no matter how hard he tries to hide it.  And Darragh’s gentle attraction to the King’s pet is a dangerous one should anyone notice.  The madness that is King Boru is just the type, however, that incites treason instead of loyalty.  And soon Darragh and Ciaran realize that if their hopes are to become reality, then the King must fall.*

Heidi Belleau has a fondness for Ireland and its culture, all of which translates to her writing (see The Druid Stone).  Lisa Henry shares Belleau’s fascination with the Irish people and their culture.  So a dystopian society based in Ireland, where the characters bear Irish names that speak of the past and the lore of the people makes perfect sense. From the names to the places and mentions of Irish history, this story is steeped in the love of Ireland.  And no matter how bad it gets (and it gets very bad indeed), the moments of cultural recognition and love shine as in scenes at Newgrange, home of The Dagda, and the high kings of Tara.

If you are familiar at all with the novels of Heidi Belleau and Lisa Henry, than the shear scope of the universe and the enormous amount of attention to detail given to the world building here is to be expected from these remarkable authors.  So too is the level of darkness and brutality of existence in the dystopian society created they have created. As society and governments fell, so too did all laws and structure that would have protected the remaining populace.  Instead, it deteriorated into a deadly scramble for power and the acquisition of material wealth and modern vehicles such as cars and gasoline.  Dublin becomes a harsh and deadly world, ruled by gangs and petty despots of which King Boru is at the top of the corrupt pile.

Belleau and Henry are never ones to shy away from difficult material or subject matter. The descriptions of the ruined Dublin are vivid and intense.  Urine soaked courtyards and streets full of human misery, and waste, the authors bring their dystopian society alive.  Here is an excerpt as Darragh goes on his first patrol with King Boru’s soldiers:


The warehouse was full of people, penned in like cattle. Worse somehow than the heads on posts, because they were still alive. Still full of fear and hope.

“Trader can get three hundred for one in good condition,” Hugh said. “That’s worth a few bags of supplies our way.”

“What happens to them then?” Darragh asked. His brain felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He couldn’t think.

Hugh shrugged. “Don’t much care.”

“Isn’t that the way of it though,” Seamus said, “Even in the old days, the only thing Ireland ever had of value for export was the Irish.”

But never like this.

“These traders. They are . . .” Darragh struggled for the word. It seemed so childish, a word from a fantasy like elves or wizards, but no, he knew it was real as well, even if it seemed absurd. “Pirates?”

Noel laughed, the sound terrible and twisted in this place of human suffering. “I think Viking’s the better word, considering, but sure, some are pirates. And some are pirates in the hire of governments, not that the ones paying them would ever admit it.”

Governments trading in human chattel, and the king turning a profit.

And now Darragh was aiding them in the effort.

Medicine. He needed medicine. Not wealth or power or boys dripping with gold.

Medicine, upon which the lives of his people depended.

He looked down at the pens below, at the people standing huddled together, shifting and hugging themselves in the cold. Men, women, and even children. The whole place stinking of desperation and human waste.

Their lives for the lives of Darragh’s kin.

A grim trade, to be sure.

As grim as any the king might make.

With its rank slave markets down by the docks, heads of Boru’s enemies on stakes lining the harbor, the grim reality of life in Dublin is made real to both Darragh and the reader.  Death and enslavement have been made common. So when abuse and rape arrive as part of the norm of this brutal regime than it follows that those details and sometimes hard to read scenes are included in the narrative as well.

The characters found here are as intense as the situations they find themselves in.  There are scenes of constant degradation and humiliation to go along with the continual rape and abuse.  Its overpowering and its meant to be.  Darragh is everything that King Boru and Dublin is not.  Darragh is the best that Ireland has to offer.  He is compassionate, unwaveringly loyal to those who deserve his loyalty, and he has a moral center that did not decay along with rise of disease.  The contrast of Darragh against the terror and horrific extremes of the court of Boru is frightening, heightening up the anxiety and suspense for Darragh safety and mission.

Ciaran’s character is far more complicated.  Ciaran’s naive idealogical crossing of borders without thinking of the possible consequences seems so unbelievably unworldly and gullible. Sheltered in Belfast, a northern city that remains healthy and relatively safe, Ciaran and his friends actions and belief that their ideological and righteous intentions would act like a shield to keep them safe seems idiotic. But one only has to look to current events and the media to find examples of just such behavior in like minded American youths today. Ones who expect their nationality and beliefs to raise them up over the problems they think they will face only to find it a chimera, no more solid than smoke and or able to keep the worst from happening. Which it did.  For them and for Ciaran.

Kept starved and in the dark in a state that mimics a deprivation tank, Ciaran’s isolation by Boru is such that the alternative however hellish is preferable.  That seems authentic as a state of mind.  Victimized, abused, raped, Ciaran struggles to hold onto remnants of who he was, fearing he will disappear into Boy for good.  However, later on in the story, that same naïveté and stubbornness that brought him to Dublin and into the clutches of Boru continues, surfacing and impacting his actions until I had problems with staying invested in this character. At what point does naivete turn into stupidity and stubbornness become a cover for self centered delusion?  Each reader will have to answer those questions for themselves.

Moments of shattering emotional impact are made more hurtful because these characterizations are so well done that it feels as though it is happening to people we have gotten to know. And  instead of being able to keep our distance as we could with one note personas we are trapped in the moment with Darragh, Ciaran and Rabbit (another wonderful character). When the authors put these people in danger, then scenes such as these demand a response from the reader equivalent in emotion to the ones the characters are experiencing. Trust me when I say it will double the impact of the events unfolding in front of you.

And just when the graphic abuse and the horrific intensity of Ciaren’s pain and humiliation get to be too much, then Belleau and Henry give their characters and the readers a much needed  break as the narrative takes a turn towards hope and freedom.  For me, it didn’t come too soon.  I was starting to have some issues with the major characters starting with Ciaran. He’s learned nothing apparently until its almost too late.  And in my opinion, that aspect of his character makes it a tougher sale in keeping the readers fully invested in Ciaran.

Darragh too has gone through some transformations, understandable given the events he survived. Part of that is that Darragh apparently forgets all about the medicine his people need in his obsession over Ciaran who continues to lie and manipulate him. We can relate to his actions  to some degree but still I am not sure that Henry and Belleau made that case here for Darragh completely dismissing his mission to the degree that he does so.

But other characters arrive to take hold of your affections, chief among them is Rabbit, a young boy of extreme resourcefulness and rough charm.  He actually became my favorite at the end.

King of Dublin has much to recommend it, great characters, intense storytelling, and a realistic dystopian Irish society.  If you find that the descriptions and scenes of graphic abuse are ones that you can adjust to, then I recommend this book to you.  If, on the other hand, sexual violence and scenes of non consent are outside your comfort zone, then I would look to many of these authors other stories. I am sure you will find one there to love.

Cover Art by Vongue,  This cover is well done in conveying the characters and the setting in Dublin.

Book Details:

ebook, 375 pages
Published February 24th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published February 22nd 2014)

Review: Strain by Amelia C. Gormley


Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Strain_500x750When a deadly virus is unleashed, it spreads and mutates quickly, wiping out most of the human race.  Rhys Cooper and his small family has escaped the virus and its consequences by living in a small compound under the rule of a puritanical preacher and his son.  But soon the zombie like plague victims discover them and all are killed except Rhys and Jacob, the preacher’s son.  They are rescued by a special militia corp, but not before Rhys and Jacob were exposed to the virus themselves.

Sergeant Darius Murrell  belongs to a group that used to be Army and nows roams the country looking for survivors.  They are also charged with finding and killing the people the virus has turned into cannibalistic murderers who spread the virus by various means including blood sprays.  When Darius and his unit find Rhys, he is covered in the blood of a revenant, their name for the infected.  Rhys and Jacob are surely infected themselves by their exposure to the revenants that killed the rest of their group.  When the militia’s medic comes up with a last ditch experiment that might save Rhys and Jacob’s lives, Rhys is begins to think that dying is preferable to the experiment the soldiers propose.

Xolani, the medic present, knows that her squad cannot return to base with the survivors in time to save them so Rhys and Jacob’s only hope is to be infected by another strain of the virus and that the combination might confer immunity. The problem? The virus needed is one that’s sexually transmitted, and the only means to obtain it is to sexually submit to the entire squad of soldiers as many times possible daily over a six-week time period.  At what cost is his survival, Rhys wonders.  Would he rather die than become the sexual plaything of a bunch of hardened soldiers?  And if Rhys chooses to try the experiment, will he be able to live with the memories and the humiliation afterwards?

Of all the thoughts that crowded into my mind after finishing this story, first and foremost is the one that said that Strain is a story people will either love or hate or even possibly hate to love.  The plot alone is one of such emotional impact that the blurb itself just might be a turn off that will leave some would be readers cold.  At its barest outline, you have a teenager who has just watched his family killed by revenants and is now forced to have sex with multiple partners and not yet once but as many times a day as his body can stand.  Throw in the fact that he is a virgin and I can almost see potential readers cringing in dismay, wanting to avoid any emotional involvement this story will demand.

This is not a story for the faint of heart or stomach.  It rears up and commands a reaction from its reader.  And gets it.  At almost 400 pages in length, the reader, once committed to the story, will find themselves on an emotional roller coaster that will include a range of responses, from disbelief to distain, hopefulness to despair, and even moments of hostility towards the author for putting Rhys through such torment for such a long duration.  But if you stick with this story, then it also had its own rewards.

Some of the issues that crop up at first glance are blatantly in your face huge. First, there is Rhys.  He is 19 and a virgin.  Raised in a religious sect environment, he has been abused, starved, and finally deprived of those he loves when they are killed by the revenants that infect him. And in order to live he must whore himself out to a group of unknown hardened soldiers, trusting that the experiment isn’t just a falsehood used to gain his services.  I defy any one out there to to deny the emotions that arise within themselves just by reading that description.

Secondly his rescuer, Darius, that Rhys comes to have feelings for, is 42 years of age.  Think of that difference in age, experience and outlook on sexuality and morals.  Once the reader adjusts and gets past those elements, more arrive to be dealt with.  Additional issues will depend upon how your tolerance and acceptance of the fact that the only method available to transmit the virus is near constant coitus, the more partners Rhys has the greater exposure to different variations of the strain he requires.  I will admit that I was skeptical of the science behind this experiment at the beginning.  Thoughts of injections, blood exchanges or other field methods that an army medic would have at their disposable, even on the go as this company is, rose up to make me question the plausibility that such extreme measures as they require of Rhys and Jacob.  But again, the author managed to answer all my questions, convincing me of the science behind it and the medic’s explanations as the story progresses.  All it takes is sticking with the story, even if you have to stumble past those sections that make you cringe.

Then there is the sexuality that prevails throughout the story.  It is crude, harsh, with elements of voyeurism, D/s, bdsm, and other kinks.  It is noncon, almost noncon, sprinkled with “boy”, dirty language, and the need for pain and humiliation.  That is most likely the biggest hurdle of them all.  Rhys and his initiation into sex by such a horrific requirement is the element that will give most people pause.  I think my take on the events and changes that occur within Rhys might vary from those found within.

Gormley takes Rhys from virgin to one who adjusts his morality to include casual sex among partners while still needing to have relations with someone who cares about him, all within a month’s time.  Towards the end he has adjusted his outlook to become more flexible in his thinking and morality.  Here is Darius’ take on Rhys somewhere in the middle of the story:

“Of course given the way that Rhys seemed to like a rough and dangerous edge to his sex, maybe it was time for that to change. Toby and Jie might be right up his alley.”

For me this is by far the largest issue here. My opinion is that if you take a 19-virgin who has been isolated from others and made to feel that sex is for procreation, including the idea that same sex feelings are a perversion, you have an almost fragile blank canvas in the person of Rhys. Then by  subjecting  him to constant near rape, you are practically hardwiring him to not only accept the role he has been made to play but also that casual rough sex and domination are the norm because he doesn’t have any other frame of reference.  It verges on Stockholm Syndrome in my opinion.  That odd lack of recognition that Darius and the group’s treatment of Rhys might have played a role in the formation of his sexual preferences makes this aspect of the story its biggest obstacle in my opinion.

So why stick with this story and why give it such a high rating?  Because for all those elements, and distasteful to some, storylines, Strain is a well written and absorbing novel.   The further into the novel the reader gets, the deeper the reader sinks emotionally. It grabs onto your heart or should I say Rhys does, and, refuses to let go.  Trust me when I say you will be sobbing at certain junctures within this story.  Rhys will break your heart over and over.  And not just because of his current situation either.

You will find yourself getting angry or disgusted at times during the narrative.  “Why should that happen to Rhys?  It’s all so unfair” you might find yourself saying, conveniently forgetting that Rhys and the injustice of his situation are the product of a fine imagination.  Truly despicable characters along with those that pull at your heartstrings come not from poorly layered constructs but from wonderful characterizations.  If at times you forget everything but the world the author has created, then that person, in this case, Amelia C. Gormley, has done their job and then some.

This is a HFN story.  Indeed given such a post apocalyptic world and constant peril, it is the only reasonable ending the author could apply.  For some people, Strain will be a difficult book to read, for others a complete joy and for still others, the wide array of strong elements pose just a mild discomfort, a small price to pay for such a complex and compelling tale.  Take a moment to think and make the decision for yourself.

This is how it all starts:

D eath smelled like old wooden pews whose varnish and cushions had become saturated with acrid layers of dust. It smelled like mildewing carpet rotting from rain that had leaked through a roof he’d never had the skill or resources to repair. The hymnals had long since been used for tinder, but the musty scent of old books—once so comforting but now vaguely nauseating—remained.

Cover Art by Kanaxa.  I think the cover fails to deliver any idea of the story or character within.  Rhys is rail thin, disheveled, a survivor.  The model here looks the very antithesis of Rhys Cooper.

Book Details:

ebook, 375 pages
Published February 17th 2014 by Riptide Publishing (first published February 15th 2014)
ISBN13 9781626490710
edition language English
 Book was received as an ARC through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.