Saffron Alley, by A. J. Demas

25 Feb
Cover for Saffron Alley, showing a man with short hair, wearing a Roman-ish short tunic, sword belt and holding a round shield aloft with his left arm, his right hand on the waist of a long-haired man wearing a long sleeveless tunic, who's holding a sword on his left hand, his right forearm over the first man's left shoulder as they face each other. The sun is behind the shield.

It has been a long time since I’ve been able to glom an author and enjoy it, and I must say, I’ve missed it.

And yet, I read the second and third books in the Sword Dance trilogy in one day, and now I’m torn between being grateful the author only has five books under this pseudonym/in this world, and bemoaning that there are only five books in this world. 1

In part it’s just because my reading has been shit for almost seven years, but I’ve also grown a lot more grumpy and a lot less forgiving of writing tics. Spacing out books by the same author benefits everyone here.

Readers, people. We suck.

Reader notes: there’s some graphic sex and just a bit of violence, mostly near the end. One of the leads is bisexual, the other is a eunuch (not by choice) and non-binary (entirely by choice); also an undercurrent of xenophobia.

Saffron Alley, by A.J. Demas 2

At the end of Sword Dance, our lovers have been temporarily separated, but finally the time has come for Damiskos to come to Boukos and meet Varazda’s family. And, as the previous book was told entirely from the former’s point of view, this one is told exclusively from the latter’s.

We get to meet everyone else who matters to Varazda, and to see Dami from his eyes, and it’s just so lovely. The family dynamics are as chaotic, and as close and complicated as with any family; people who care deeply about each other often don’t see everything the same way.

The blurb:

A month ago, eunuch sword-dancer and spy Varazda collided with ex-soldier Damiskos at a seaside villa during a dizzying week of intrigue, assassinations, and a fake love affair that—maybe—turned real. Now Varazda is back home in Boukos, at the centre of a family and community he dearly loves, and Damiskos is coming to visit.

Things aren’t going according to plan.

Varazda’s family members suspect Damiskos’s motives. Varazda grapples with his own desires. Add in a horrible goose, a potentially lethal sculpture, and yet another assassination plot, and any man other than Dami would be boarding a ship straight back to Pheme.

It’s going to take all of Damiskos’s patience, and all of Varazda’s strength, to make this new relationship work. After all that, solving one more murder shouldn’t be too hard.

The world building continues to be topnotch; there is a lot of detail given in unobtrusive ways through the narrative, painting a rich world populated by three-dimensional people, all with their own lives and interests, backgrounds and preoccupations.

One of the author’s strengths is her dialogue. Even though we see everything only from one character’s perspective, the way everyone else speaks is as important as what they say or how they move, etc; it makes them full individuals. We know that Aristos is young not because we are told in so many words, but because his words, his manner of speaking and moving, tell us he’s young; and the same with all the other characters.

I like that the narrative addresses how the events in the previous novel, specifically the violence, are still affecting Varazda, and through him, his family.

One thing that authors should always be careful with, when writing about cultural differences, is using stereotypes in lieu of characterization. Ms Demas has a very deft hand in highlighting some of the ways in which Zachian and Pseuchaian mores differ, making true understanding between Damiskos and Varazda’s family a touch more complicated; especially given how their lives in Zash had already marked and traumatized them all.

I don’t want to say that the mystery aspect isn’t well done–it is!–but what makes this one work for me is the relationships between the characters. The yearning for each other, the awkwardness of wanting so much but not feeling yet comfortable enough with the other, secure enough in each other, to take anything for granted.

The tentativeness between Damiskos and Varazda is particularly poignant, given Varazda’s past. Captured, castrated and enslaved for most of his youth, he has spent the years of his freedom healing. Partly through his work for the government of Boukos, partly through his dancing; mostly, through the building of his family. And in all of his life, he has never had an affair of the heart.

So this capable, self-assured and courageous man who takes care of everyone he loves, suffers the torments of the damned trying to figure out his feelings and how they may meet Damiskos’ expectations of this thing between them that Varazda doesn’t even have a mental model for.

The approach to consent in Saffron Alley is excellent, on both sides, and consistent with how we saw their relationship begin in Sword Dance; Dami is always checking with Varazda, making sure he’s not crossing any lines or taking anything for granted. This care extends to the rest of their relationship. Dami is not just willing to take care, but sees taking care as his privilege in loving Varazda.

Varazda’s gender fluidity is more present here than in Sword Dance, both as characterization and plot (there’s a festival), and oh, it’s just so well done. (I was trying to skim the book, just to check a couple of details in order to review it, and here I am, at quarter past two in the morning, lost in the world again.)

Saffron Alley gets 9.00 out of 10.

* * * *

1 I have thousands of digital TBR books, and the print TBR has taken over my house, so the gratitude is real. On the other hand…these are SO GOOD!

2 Saffron Alley crosses over with One Night in Boukos, but you can read the former without having read the latter.

2 Responses to “Saffron Alley, by A. J. Demas”


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

    […] a wonderful conclusion to the Sword Dance trilogy! As I said last week, I read Saffron Alley and Strong Wine literally back-to-back, then read them again when I was writing my reviews. Yes, […]

  2. Honey & Pepper, by A. J. Demas | Her Hands, My Hands - 25/03/2022

    […] mentioned in my review of Saffron Alley that I was torn between relief that there were only five books in the author’s backlist set […]

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