Review: Tales of Amaranth: The Boxed Set by Thom Lane

In Amaranth, there are two kinds of men: slaves and the men who own them. It's a dark world, full of sex and magic, where privilege rules everything but the human heart.

Note: All of the books in this set have been previously released as individual titles

(averaged over all six books)
"I almost forgot to be scared. Not quite, because slaves never do quite forget, and if we did the collar’s weight around our necks would remind us. By the time he turned to face me, though, it was his hands and strength and temper I was scared of, not his powers: the master, not the mage. As it should be."
If like me, your tastes run towards some well written master/slave fantasy then I believe you will be in for a treat with this gem of a collection. Admittedly this is probably a niche market, but for those who like gritty fantasy, this is erotica with bite.

I was captured by the artistry of the stories depicting a harsh a world where neither slavery nor magic is uncommon. The world building is immersive and depicts cruel pragmatism, without being overblown or angsty. I think these tales are clever in their weft of texture and nuance drawing the experiences of flawed characters living in a disturbing world.

Each of the six tales (of various lengths and perspectives combine to create a satisfying and thought provoking read). Indeed it feels strange to be back in the real world now that my visit to Amaranth is complete...

Whether you are a returning visitor to Amaranth or a completely new traveller to this world as I was, I highly recommend the journey. The narrators make good travel guides to a world and culture different from our own.

Let me give fair warning that in Amaranth the approach to slavery is unyielding, and that these tales do not fall close to the tropes in which slavery is consensual or where a 'reasonable' Master and his slave strive for equality at least in private. If a non consensual lifestyle creates a moral stumbling block for your reading preferences, my advice is do not enter these pages.

The Tales of Amaranth is distinctly unusual, the genre of slave fiction often depicts an emotional journey between Master and slave towards some fundamental recognition of equality even a subtle shift. The beauty of Amaranth is the starkness of the Master/slave dynamic.

The static nature of the Master/slave dynamic is disconcerting to accept, slavery is not varnished or easily dismissed. It brings a piquancy to the books around the fragility and uncertainty of autonomy. Once a slave in Amaranth there is no option but to accept the situation. Some slaves are born into the life, others become slaves when found guilty of a crime and some find their freedom lost via nefarious means.

In each of the tales, slaves resolve to make the best of bad situations and find joy in the littlest of things, a smile, a stroke of the hair, enjoying a morsel of food slipped to them by their master (slaves here often eat only one meal of gruel per day). You might expect these tales to be grim reading instead the writing is crafted beautifully and glisters with insight. Amaranth is magnificent in its starkness. In this world, slaves are insignificant and of shockingly little value, less most probably than a stick of furniture. The callousness is incredibly well depicted and yet these stories are not dark, they sparkle with ingenuity and close observation of human interaction.

Most definitely not romance; but certainly erotic. The moments of tenderness are remarkably hot with elements of BDSM (though by default none of it safe, sane or consensual).

Some slave fiction has me curling my lip and walking away, not so with Tales of Amaranth, I found each of these stories intriguing I was greedy for more. As for the cover art it deserves a mention all on its own, as beautifully emotive as the stories themselves.

The Tales are told from differing perspectives, sometimes from the slave's perspective alone, sometimes only the master's point of view is given and in one story the tale has a dual perspective. All of the telling shares integrity, it may be skewed and a million miles away from what is acceptable in a non fantasy world but I found the characters believable, the plotting intense and the world of Amaranth immersive.

Let me give you just a flavour of what to expect, each of the books could be read a standalone pieces:

Dark Heart (Tales of Amaranth #1) - Five Hearts
'I waited. So did he. I thought time itself had paused, all the world hung still on the poise of that moment, elegant and cruel...'
Told from the perspective of Tam a slave owned by the Wayfarers’ Guild. He describes himself as 'broken to the collar', meaning he has come to accept life as slave. Having spent his young life on the streets, Tam was caught and collared for thieving, 'All inside an hour, my life taken from me and my freedom too...'

Tam now behaves with almost blind obedience, but glimpses of his irrepressible personality shine through bringing optimism and vibrancy. He plays down his intelligence and independence to avoid punishment, but is easily adaptable when circumstances arise.

Assigned to serve Master Mage Lucan who is staying temporarily at the Guild, an attraction builds between them. Lucan is hired by the Guildmistress to solve the mystery of who is maliciously targeting guild houses. Lucan uses Tam as a resource in this task.

Most people fear Lucan, but Tam sees much to be admired in his stern new master. The writing is subtle and seamlessly weaves complex ideas about conformity, expectations and social structure.
Some readers believe Tam to be dumb and compliant, I do not agree; I think he is realistic and resourceful and it is his strength of character that eventually draws the notice of the darkly mysterious and formidable Lucan to Tam.

The competent writing brews complex flawed characters and the use of magical elements exquisitely captures the dangers and nuances of an unpredictable world.

Tam craves the domination of a single Master, but Lucan may not be anything close to what he imagined.

Healing Heart (Tales of Amaranth #2) - Four Hearts

This brings a whole different vibe from 'Dark Heart'
'No slave escapes the whip, but sometimes the hand that holds it can prove not only strict but tender too. Maybe no slave escapes dreaming, either. I wasn't fool enough to dream of freedom, but perhaps I'd dared to dream of love...

Told from the mixed point of views of Master and slave this explores the life and relationship between two young men who have their lives just starting out.

Coryn is finding his place as a Master Mage, having only graduated. People may not yet fear him as much as they might although his powers are formidable.

He literally bumps into Raff a fleeing slave running for his life, a victim of plague and hunted by some thugs who want to kill him to ensure the plague does not spread. Coryn heals the slave and decides to claim ownership, he names his new slave Raff.

Raff's previous Master and Mistress are dead from the plague, he and Coryn are contemporaries, both in their early twenties. Coryn has never owned a slave before so there is a fraction of leeway in their roles especially as Coryn becomes preoccupied with curing the town's citizens from plague. Not wishing to be as brutal as his father, Coryn sends some mixed messages to his slave whose unfortunate route to slavery is highly questionable. Coryn's naivety and lack of experience unwittingly places Raff in real danger when times become desperate, creating a matter of life and death for both master and slave.

The complexities and intricate relationship between master and slave is explored via various characters and pairings within the book. This begins to examine in some more detail the dynamic, rivalries and sometime camaraderie between slaves. The exploration adds to the overall depth of world building.

There are moments of raw sensuality and shocking brutality too that mixes magic and morality with aplomb.

Old friends from Dark Heart appear and assist in saving the day, and lend a hand in solving the mystery at the source of the plague.

I found this to be a really intriguing read with more elements of mystery than the previous book.

Hidden Heart (Tales of Amaranth #3) - Four Hearts
'...Head up, eyes down: it’s a trick you have to learn, not to slouch and not to stare around you, not to catch anyone’s eye. If you’re born slave, you learn it by instinct, growing up; if not, your first owner will usually beat it into you. Me—well. Who knew? I had the art of it now; that was what mattered...'
A much briefer story told from the perspective of Tiffin who finds himself learning life as a slave in a military fortress.

Tiffin has no memory of his former life or what brought him to this place. The fortress guards a great source of magic, and Tiffin may be the unwitting pawn in an attempt to seize power.

What is exceptionally unsettling is that the concept of slavery allows an individual no autonomy over their body, but this goes one stage further.

Tiffin does his best to be a good and obedient slave and yet even this intention is removed from his control when he loses track of time and location.

Meanwhile Tiffin falls under the sometime protection of Zander one of the soldiers at the base, but their relationship is in jeopardy if Tiffin cannot give his complete devotion.

A short story with a great deal of complexity hidden in some really artful writing and of course elements of kink just waiting in the wings to lighten the load...

This is interesting plot full of twists, my only complaint is that it is very short and I would have liked more.

There is a welcome glimpse of characters from the first book Dark Heart.

Runaway Heart (Tales of Amaranth #4) - Three Hearts

'...all the resistance left him in a rush and he stood as still as any slave, mute and surrendered, starkly terrified...'
Yet another aspect of the Master/slave dynamic is explored this time told from the perspective of a free person Marc he recounts how Finn came into his possession. I liked this tale least of all of the Amaranth stories most probably because Marc shows very few redeeming qualities.

Having agreed to a prank to steal something of value from the baron, Marc must make his escape or face capture (and if caught endure a life of likely slavery). He is rescued by a runaway who knows how to evade the chasing hounds.

Whilst owing his freedom to his rescuer, Marc concocts a daring plan to get them both off the baron's land. Regrettably he has no compunction in claiming the slave and naming him Finn.

Clearly Finn does not wish for the life of slavery he was born to, however a lifetime of servitude makes it impossible for him to resist Marc. Slavery has an element of safety where the boundaries are very clear compared to the vagaries and uncertainties of freedom.

Finn readjusts almost immediately to life once more as a slave. "...You’re way too lovely to be free.”

I found this story particularly unsettling and yet it is full of rescue, betrayal and adventure. Definitely an interesting exploration of entitlement; and there remains a ray of hope that having taken responsibility for Finn, Marc may properly re-evaluate his priorities and eventually be a worthy Master of his slave.

Gambling Heart (Tales of Amaranth #5) - Five Hearts

'... In that moment, I think I loved him: for his courage, of course, and for the sheer casual grace in him. He must have known just how deadly this trouble was, the mage was a guarantee of that; he must have been afraid, deep down; his face showed nothing but a savage contempt...'

This is one of my favourite tales of the series with the added delight of catching up again with characters from Dark Heart. Jensen is a rather charming wastrel and gambler who awakens to discover his luck has changed for the better and he has won both some money and a handsome body slave in a drunken game.

Jensen names his new slave Jay, but fears he will not be able to afford to keep him. Jay has other ideas.

Told entirely from Jay's perspective this tale provides more insights into the life and expectations of a slave. Jay believes that if he can make himself indispensable to his laid back new master, he can help secure a brighter future for them both.

Jay has always been a slave, but he senses in Jensen a kindness and (he believes that although his new master has a penchant for risk, gambling and drink) that they could build a good life together if Jensen agrees to keep him and if they can escape the clutches of Jay's former master who wants him back.

There is a mystery to solve full of dark magic that endangers not just them, but the world they live in. It will take the skills of both men as they come to rely on each other. Tam and Lucan are also make a welcome appearance to lend a hand and to thwart an evil plan of sorcery and magic.

Heart's Hunt (Tales of Amaranth #6) - Three Hearts

'The right slave could be a lifetime’s commitment, the way I saw it: like a good dog, or a good horse. You’d never choose to sell them.'
Possibly the briefest of The Tales of Amaranth series, this is told from Martel's perspective. He has plans afoot and his quarry is in sight.

Martel has been displaced due to civil war and intends to move to neighbouring Amaranth and begin a new life there.

This tale explores an interesting concept of whether someone might actually choose slavery over death. It also begins to explore the contrast between consensual and non-consensual slavery.

Once more brevity of words do not prevent an insightful exploration of the skewed morality of slavery in the Amaranth universe, where there is a stern and brutal logic to slavery. The consistent implementation of rules and expected behaviour leaves little room for misunderstanding.

Martel believes the young slave he finds in the woods is likely to be Prince Jocelyn who has a price on his head. He eventually confides his analysis of the situation to the slave allowing him to make one final decision.

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