Review: Enslaved by Kate Cotoner

Injured crusader Falk du Plessis survives the Battle of Hattin only to be sold at the slave market in Acre. He’s bought by Sinan, a mysterious Saracen who takes care to hide his true identity. Falk has the feeling they’ve met before. Their attraction is instant and mutual and their destinies are inextricably entwined, but duty and loyalty to their respective masters threaten to drive them apart.

Review by Vashtan

This review has a bit of a backstory. First of all, to get the legal issues out of the way, I was planning to buy this and asked one of my writer friends who is associated with Torquere to buy me one, since Torquere doesn’t accept PayPal. Instead of charging me, he gave it to me as a gift.

Here’s the backstory. A few month ago, Torquere Press put out a call for submissions for a historical anthology titled “Chain Male”, which then, sadly, didn’t happen, with Torquere citing that they didn’t get enough quality stories to do this. Be that as it may, Kate Cotoner’s story “Enslaved” is what is left of the anthology project, and was published in Torquere’s “Sip” line of stand-alone short stories.

Looking at the generic cover and reading nothing but the blurb, I admit a little trepidation. Would this be one of those famous “slave fics” that have a large and loyal following? Would this feature BDSM, humiliation and power games and a crusader reduced to a whimpering sex slave? The crusades are probably my favourite subject in the vastness of the Middle Ages, and I admit to feeling even more protective of them than of the rest of history.

So I braced myself a lot before opening the file.

And relaxed. Relaxed some more. Slowly, a smile started to spread, and in the end, I was so pleasantly surprised that I read the story two more times. For the review, I’ve read it twice more. I’m happy to report this is not your typical slave story. I’m even more happy to report it has actual research (!) in it.

But first things first. Falk du Plessis, the squire of his brother, a Templar Knight, survives the battle of Hattin, the medieval equivalent of Gallipolli, in short, a disastrous, all-out battle that decimated the already thin-stretched military resources of the crusader kingdoms to breaking point. At the time when it happened, our historical witnesses tell us that they didn’t think the knightly orders would recover from the loss of men and materiel. It was a turning point in the rich history of the Crusades, an iconic battle with a bloody aftermath, when the prisoners were put to the sword rather than ransomed, and the rest sold on the slave market.

Falk is lucky, he gets sold as a slave. But instead of the all too typical “woe is me” scene in the slave market, we get a Falk who’s actually optimistic. He’s a strong character, calm, and just damn glad he lived. I really enjoyed that inner strength that is so far removed from all the melodrama a lesser writer would have put in there to make an impact in such a short story (16 pages, a total of 6-7thousand words). But Kate Cotoner is not a lesser writer, in fact she’s a pretty damn good writer who has clearly made an effort to make this real, human, authentic and true.

I’m quoting you the first page here:

The second day of the slave auction drew only passing interest from the crowd. Falk stretched his tall frame, thankful to be free of the cramped quarters in which he and his comrades had been imprisoned. Herded into the adjacent market, linked together like cattle, they were shoved into line on a raised wooden platform.

Falk had watched yesterday’s auction through the barred window of the cell and knew what came next. The young and good-looking men would be sold later in the day when more traders and buyers were abroad. The morning was reserved for the older, injured, or less comely slaves who’d fetch a lower price. Falk thought of himself as neither handsome nor plain, and knew his inclusion in the morning’s dregs was due to the injury he’d received on the battlefield.

A glancing blow across his ribs had produced a gash that looked worse than it felt, and the barbed arrow he’d taken in his leg had created a bleeding mess when he’d pulled it out. Though the wound hadn’t suppurated, it was slow to heal and he’d started to favor his left leg, limping

whenever he walked.

He flexed his feet to restore the circulation, pulling against the rope that tied him by the ankles to the men on either side of him. The man to his right, a surly fellow from Swabia, turned and cursed in rough Norman French. “Stop it! We don’t want to attract attention.”

Falk gazed at the scattering of onlookers who’d gathered in the market and saw a few of them staring back at him. “Attracting attention is the only way we’ll get sold.”

“I don’t want to be sold. It’s shameful and it’s un-Christian!”

“I would rather preserve my life than concern myself with shame or Christian duty.” Falk glanced at the Swabian and lowered his voice. “If even half of what they say is true, the Templars and Hospitallers are all dead, and perhaps the King with them. The True Cross has been stolen and Saladin is advancing on Jerusalem. If we don’t get sold, we won’t survive long enough to regain our freedom. The slave traders are killing unnecessary, unsold stock. Do you understand? Getting sold will save us.”

“Being sold to a Saracen will damn us,” the Swabian grumbled.

“At least Saladin’s army has moved on. It’s likely we’ll be bought by merchants who may be sympathetic to our cause. Acre is one of the biggest trading centers in Outremer no matter who rules here — there’ll always be a need for dockhands and laborers.”

The Swabian shot him a suspicious look. “You sound cheerful.”

Falk smiled. “No point in being pessimistic. We’re still alive.”

“I’d rather be dead than a slave to an Infidel!”

Falk abandoned his reply when the slave trader came forward and hauled the Swabian to the front of the platform, forcing Falk and the others to shuffle after him. During the subsequent bidding on the Swabian, Falk studied the gathering crowd. The women barely spared a glance in their direction and instead examined goods for sale at the stalls set up around the edge of the marketplace. Men stood back and assessed the line of slaves, comparing notes with their neighbors and occasionally calling out a question to the trader.

You see? Just a day on the slave market. No high drama, and that really stood out for me. It’s a more quiet, more real story than you usually get, with a character who’s gay, has some experience, and even that rang true—little drama about forbidden homosexuality here, mostly because Falk is usually careful (he has reason to) and because he is not of high enough status to make this political for him. When he gets bought by a Syrian, Sinan, their relationship is not typical of a “slave fic”, either.

It’s a sweet, gentle romance between two men who share more than divides them, and it’s also not soppy at all. Cotoner trusts her characters to let them tell the story, and the actual love/sex scene is delightfully free from men shouting each others’ names in the throes of climax, or confessing undying love five minutes after meeting.

I have to have one little niggle – there’s this:

Falk frowned. Saracens bathed often and scented themselves with exotic fragrance, which made the Franks consider their enemy effete. Crusaders went for months on end without immersing themselves in water, and though they stank and their clothes crawled with lice, at least they were godly men and not perfumed like whores. Besides, everyone knew bathing was unhealthy.

Bathing culture in the middle ages (the battle of Hattin places this story firmly into the late 1180ies) was actually doing alright. The “unhealthy” reputation of bathing came when the Plague and likely syphilis spread via the beloved and often-used bathing houses. We still have a few Roman baths, sometimes surviving as parts of monasteries, but in general, our European ancestors did like being clean. It’s in the 14th century and later that that goes slowly down the drain. Not bathing, however, was part of the ascetic ideal, so very holy people wouldn’t bathe to mortify the flesh (yeah, I’d be mortified, too), but those are extreme cases.

So, a short, sweet read that went completely against my expectations, well-told, with an ending that promises more between the two characters. In fact, these two should be a match made in heaven, and I’d really like to read more about their adventures during the decline of the crusader states, or wherever Cotoner takes them.

Author’s Website

Torquere Press

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