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REVIEW: Saffron Alley – AJ Demas

Saffron Alley - AJ Demas

Genre: Historical, Alt-History, Ancient World

Reviewer: Dan

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About The Book

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 center 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’ 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’ 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.

Saffron Alley is the second book in the Sword Dance trilogy, the continuation of Dami and Varazda’s story from Sword Dance. It crosses over with One Night in Boukos, but you don’t have to have read that book to enjoy this one.

The Review

A follow up to Sword Dance, this book takes us to another country and gives us the POV of the other half of the couple from the first book, Varazda. He is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Damiskos and contending with the strange attitudes of his family toward the matter. The only one who takes Dami’s arrival (and Varazda always calls him Dami) in stride Varazda’s daughter, Remi, who is only a toddler. In fact, Remi takes most things in stride. It comes to be that Dami and Varazda have more to contend with than just disgruntled family members: they’re also thrown into a murder investigation. The story takes place over just a week, all the time Damiskos could get away from his job, from which he had attempted to resign.

It’s fascinating to get inside Varazda’s head and see him in a more fully realized way. In Sword Dance, he carries so much mystery and a hint of exoticism, but Saffron Alley strips that away. It gives us the truth of who he is, more than a glimpse of a spy on a mission in a foreign land ever can. The navigation of the relationship, sexual and romantic, between him and Dami is beautifully done – they are not without their flaws, but that makes it better. The book gives a wonderful, gentle exploration of sex and sexuality, love and romance, and family. 

There were parts of this book that made me want to cry. Happy tears. And that’s a feat. There’s something about the care and gentleness with which the author treats Varazda that is refreshing and tender and honestly beautiful. Varazda is not a person with an easy backstory, but he is never painted as a mere victim, nor is he callous and uncaring. He’s not a ‘normal’ character, either, but nor is he overblown in to some exceptionality, some strange ideal. He is flawed, but he is real. Getting a nonbinary character that’s well-written, treated with respect, and an entire person is a rare treat.

The scenes in the story between Varazda and the other members of his family can be a little overwrought at times, especially the later reconciliation between Varazda and Yazata, but that may well be a reflection of my personal bias and experience with family. However, the residents of Saffron Alley prove a wonderful testament to found, rather than biological, family. They are not perfect, but they’re complex and well-written and they love each other.

Characters from another of Demas’s novels show up as secondary characters, which I enjoy. It showcases the thought that went into the world and cultures. The worldbuilding, of which Demas is a master, is excellent.

The book was too short. I don’t mean to say that it was incomplete, or lacking, or in any way abbreviated, but it was too short. I kept trying to find another page when it ended. I desperately wait the third installment. I highly recommend this read to everyone.

The Reviewer

Dan Ackerman is a writer and educator who has lived in Connecticut for their entire life. They received their BSED from CCSU in 2013 and wrote their Master’s thesis on representations of women in same-sex relationships in contemporary Spanish literature and cinema. Currently, Dan is studying for a second MA in ABA and works in a center school for students with a variety of intellectual, developmental, or multiple disabilities. In their spare time, Dan continues to read and write, supplemented with a healthy amount of movie marathons and gaming.

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