Sword Dance, by A. J. Demas

11 Feb
Cover for Sword Dance; drawing of two men, back to back. Man in the front wears a short-sleeve, mid-thigh Roman-like tunic, wields a sword on his right hand. Behind him, a man wearing a flaring, long-sleeved tunic and long black hair, whirls, holding a sword in each hand. Their heads are turning, looking at each other from the corners of their eyes. It's early morning.

This novel was my introduction to the writing of A. J. Demas, after a recommendation by K. J. Charles. It is the first book in the Sword Dance trilogy, and I now own all three titles.

Reader, beware: There is graphic sex and some violence on page, as well as some PTSD and references to past sexual abuse and torture. One of the protagonists is a eunuch (not by choice) and non-binary (very much by choice); the other is unapologetically bisexual.

Oh, and while it’s very much a romance, and a very sweet one at that, it is just the beginning; this book ends in hope, with a promise to meet again.

Sword Dance, by A. J. Demas

If this was set in the genre romance Regency chronotope, 1 my blurb would be: “a house party, murder, political intrigue, comedy of errors, and romance.”

The setting is an alternative-universe ancient Mediterranean world, with complex religions and customs, as well as the usual geopolitical issues of a republic with colonies and neighboring nations competing for resources and/or allying against other forces. 2

At the end of the novel there’s a list of the places mentioned, with brief descriptions and relevant bits of information about each one, but it is not necessary to read it to enjoy the story fully; when characters talk or think about something, the context of the narrative is more than enough to keep going without laborious info dumping.

I was immersed in the world from the first page.

Here’s the (real) blurb:

Five years ago, Damiskos’s brilliant military career was cut short, leaving him with a permanent disability and scars that are not all physical. Adrift and still grieving, he tries to find meaning in an unsatisfying job.

Work takes him to the remote seaside villa of an old friend, where, among an odd assortment of guests, he meets the eunuch sword-dancer Varazda. Enigmatic and beautiful but distinctly prickly, Varazda is the antithesis of the straightforward and serious Damiskos. Yet as they keep getting in each other’s way at the villa, their mutual dislike is complicated by a spark of undeniable attraction.

Then the villa’s guests begin to reveal their true characters and motives—no one here is what they seem—and Damiskos finds himself at the centre of a bizarre web of espionage, theft, and assassination. Varazda may need Damiskos’s help, but not as much as Damiskos, finally awakening to a new sense of life and purpose, needs Varazda.

Sword Dance is the first book in the Sword Dance trilogy, an m/nb romance set in an imaginary ancient world, with murderous philosophy students, sex acts named after fruit, and love blossoming in the midst of mayhem.

The story is told in third person from Damiskos point of view, and he’s so adorably socially awkward, it gives me all the warm fuzzies. He is very observant, he just lacks the context to interpret a lot of what is happening; social gatherings of this kind are not quite his thing.

It’s really interesting how for a long time, and again in the re-read, Damiskos seems so much older than he actually is. He’s serious by nature, but life as a soldier (especially what was done to him in Zash, and why), and the aftermath back in Pheme, make him feel at least a decade older than his years, if not more. His soul is tired.

And while Varazda has plenty of reasons of his own to be both soul-tired and to-the-bone angry, he’s been free for six years, and has found a life and work that bring him joy, and it shows. He’s very aware of what he risks, and he’s good as what he does, but he’s also lighter in his soul.

The romance is very sweet, despite a setup that includes the ancient equivalent of modern right wing assholes, a murder, sword fighting, and a siege; and I love how consent is handled between them, because it’s extremely sexy and such an important element to address.

The novel takes place over the course of a few days, barely a week, which is one reason why the ending is successful for me; the feelings between Damiskos and Varazda are real and run deep, but they are adults with obligations and lives established elsewhere.

The secondary characters, especially Damisko’s friend and host, Nione, and Aradne, her steward, are fleshed out enough, but since the narrative comes entirely through Damiskos, what we get is undeniably his impressions rather than objective or detached characterization from an omniscient narrator.

A lovely book; the characterizations of the two protagonists are fantastic, the worldbuilding is so good, the plotting is tight, the ending is right for both the story and the characters; one of those books where the re-read is as good as the first read, even though you know the plot twists, because you get to enjoy every scene, knowing what comes next.

Sword Dance gets 9.50 out o 10, and now the other two books in the trilogy are mine too.

* * * *

1 Absolutely worth reading the work of author Jennifer Hallock on this topic, here and here

2 The physical descriptions of the characters do not linger overmuch on skin color, but it’s very clear this is a racially diverse world.

2 Responses to “Sword Dance, by A. J. Demas”


  1. Saffron Alley, by A. J. Demas | Her Hands, My Hands - 25/02/2022

    […] the end of Sword Dance, our lovers have been temporarily separated, but finally the time has come for Damiskos to come to […]

  2. Strong Wine, by A.J. Demas | Her Hands, My Hands - 04/03/2022

    […] events in Sword Dance took place in Laothalia, on the north coast of the island of Pheme; now we return to the island, […]

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