Honey & Pepper, by A. J. Demas

25 Mar
Cover for HONEY AND PEPPER; drawing of two men, one Black, big and smiling while he stirs something in crock, the other long-haired, white and slim, sitting on a kitchen counter, as they look at each other.

I 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 in this world, and despair, because there were only five books set in this world.

Shortly after I signed up for the author’s newsletter, I saw that this book was coming out soon, and I was all set to buy it. Then, somehow I lucked out to get an ARC of this, and boy, am I glad–it’s so good!

There’s graphic sex, an absolutely adorable cinnamon roll of a man who’s dominant in bed, and a villain getting what he deserves. Also, mention of a death by suicide, a whipping, and a couple of incidents of violence.

Honey and Pepper, by A.J. Demas

This novel is set in the same alternative-universe ancient 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 the previous books set in this world to enjoy this story.

The worldbuilding is just as good, as complete and complex, and as in the other stories, it’s integrated to the narrative in a way that obviates any long explanations or asides.

Newly freed from enslavement, Nikias is making a life for himself in the bustling city of Pheme, working at a snack stand, drinking with a group of anti-slavery radicals, and pining for the beautiful law clerk next door. When he sees his crush attacked in the street by an outraged ex-client, it seems it’s finally Nikias’s chance to be the hero.

Kallion doesn’t need a rescue. What he really needs is a skewer of octopus fritters (with extra sauce) and a friend. Nikias can supply both, and maybe, with the help of Nikias’s skill in the kitchen and Kallion’s excellent collection of wine, they can fight past their misunderstandings and the disasters of their pasts to something deeper.

But when civil unrest roils the city and old threats resurface, the trust these two have built will be tested. And they’d both better hope that Kallion’s vicious former master will just stay dead.

I believe that Nikias is the first true, pure, cinnamon roll hero I’ve read. He’s good through and through, without being that kind of annoying sunshiny person who can’t ever “think bad” of people who are utter bastards. He’s a realist, who’s done a lot of work on figuring out some rather deep stuff about himself; he is also just a good person who values himself for who he is, and has nothing to hide.

Kallion, on the other hand, is less straightforward, both by nature and by nurture, and is struggling under the weight of secrets and the guilt of surviving years of cruelty and abuse. It’s just lovely to see him blossom under Nikias’ care and attention.

This is one of those cases in which every sex scene matters, because it contributes to character and relationship development; it really helps that it’s well and sensitively written, and not only because of the characters’ past, but in how consent is approached.

Most of the secondary characters are fully fleshed without going into excessive detail. I don’t know if their stories will be told in later entries in the series or not; while there are several characters intriguing in their own right, there is no obvious sequel-baiting for any of them, which I like. What’s in the text here is enough to populate Nikias’ and Kallion’s world with real people, with ambitions and baggage of their own, rather than two-dimensional plot devices in the service of the main characters’ relationship.

My one quibble is that I felt that the climactic confrontation that’s set up for most of the book lacks…oomph! It’s clever, it tracks with the characters as written, and yet, I wanted more.

It doesn’t help that the tension starts building pretty early in the book, and while the resolution is highly satisfactory (villains getting their just deserts if the most perfect “righting of the universe” that genre can deliver), I finished the book feeling there was something missing there. The malevolent menace loomed too large for too long, compared to the actual resolution. Yes, I wanted more.

All that said, I read this one in one sitting, forgoing sleep to read to the end. From the setup of the meet-cute to the resolution of the threat looming over Kallion, the writing is a delight.

Honey & Pepper gets 8.50 out of 10, and I’m now back to waiting for the next one.

3 Responses to “Honey & Pepper, by A. J. Demas”

  1. willaful 25/03/2022 at 3:30 PM #

    When in Pheme, hehe….

  2. willaful 27/04/2022 at 5:52 PM #

    I decided to start here, since it seemed an easy entry. Very enjoyable! I agree with you about the Big Bad being dissapated too soon and easily…

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