Strong Wine, by A.J. Demas

4 Mar
Cover for Strong Wine, where a short haired man in a short Roman-ish tunic holds up another man, who has long black hair and is wearing a long tunic, in an embrace. It's nighttime and there are two swords on the foreground.

What 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, they are that good. And by the by, am I glad I did not have to wait between books!

Reader beware: xenophobia, transphobia (one of the leads is a formerly enslaved eunuch–not by choice–and non-binary–entirely by choice), homophobia (the other lead is a bisexual man), a bit of violence, and some graphic sex on page.

Strong Wine, by A.J. Demas

The events in Sword Dance took place in Laothalia, on the north coast of the island of Pheme; now we return to the island, this time to the city itself, as Damiskos has unfinished business there, now that he’s finally retired from the legions and has moved in with Varazda and his family in Boukos.

The story is told in third person from both Damiskos’ and Varazda’s alternating points of view, which is fitting given the breadth of the story. I continue to be taken by both the worldbuilding, which is not just consistent but also so very detailed, and the characterizations, which are consistently wonderful.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s the blurb:

Retired soldier Damiskos and his lover Varazda have been living together in Boukos for a month, and their future is beginning to look bright. Then Damiskos receives a letter summoning him home to Pheme—where his parents are deeply in debt, his brother is being hunted by loan sharks, and an unwanted arranged marriage looms.

And that’s before Damiskos is charged with murder.

Fortunately, he’s not alone. Old friends are back in Pheme. And Varazda—eunuch, sword-dancer, and spy—has solved mysteries before. But saving his lover from execution and from marriage will take time, and with only days until Dami’s trial, time is running out.

Strong Wine is the third book in the Sword Dance trilogy, the conclusion of Dami and Varazda’s story from Sword Dance and Saffron Alley. This time with fake fortunetellers, real courtroom drama, and … fertilizer?

Damiskos return to Pheme is even less auspicious than he already expected, given that his family is quite dysfunctional. His father is one of those bombastic, self-absorbed asses who doesn’t really notice what anyone else feels or needs. His mother is a lot more observant, and comes across as much kinder by comparison, but she’s also shallow and selfish enough to go along with Philion’s plans rather than deal with life’s problems.

Then there’s Damiskos’ younger half-brother, and that story does so much lifting regarding character building; so does the story of the arranged marriage, in fact. It’s pretty brilliant how Ms Demas keeps adding threads and plotlines, then just knotting them off one by one, all the way to the end.

Speaking of knotted threads, Nione’s and Aradne’s relationship made my heart grow three sizes.

As in the previous books, the worldbuilding is very immersive. The characters talk, and do, things according to their cultures, their religions, and their status; we have merchants, slaves, aristocrats, slumlords, prostitutes, advocates, philosophers, and more, and their dialogue and behavior are consistent with who they are. I especially appreciate the inclusion of two characters, of vastly different social status, who are clearly neurodivergent without being clichés.

At this point, Damiskos and Varazda have known each other just over two months, and have been lovers for about half that time. Their relationship is still growing, and some of the people in Damiskos’s life do put a strain on things–and really do wear on Varazda. However, as one character puts it, “I think that these two have been blessed by the gods to have found each other, and I think they know it”.

It is lovely that, despite those rather irksome moments, and people, it’s always clear to the reader that these two will fight for a future together, and that this is also clear, pretty much from the get, to both of them. There is urgency–Damiskos is accused of murder, after all–but the angst is external, not about the relationship.

Also lovely how they admire each other’s competence, courage and resilience, while also understanding and accommodating for each other’s needs and weaknesses–and that they continue to communicate these to one another, with less hesitation each time.

Strong Wine is a most excellent conclusion to Damiskos’s and Varazda’s story (yay, HEA!), but I dearly hope it’s not the last we see of them, and of this world.

9.50 out o 10

3 Responses to “Strong Wine, by A.J. Demas”

  1. victoriajanssen 06/03/2022 at 5:53 PM #

    I have a library hold on Sword Dance. Looking forward to the trilogy!

    • azteclady 06/03/2022 at 9:47 PM #

      Oh, I hope you let me know how you like it when you’ve read it.


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

    […] Mediterranean world as the Sword Dance trilogy, and in fact, one of the secondary characters in Strong Wine returns a a secondary character here. However, it really isn’t necessary to have read any of […]

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