Even the Wingless for several years but never read it, because I lean towards genteel, fluffy fantasies and this is a story full of sexual violence and torture.
But recently, I've been in the mood for something dark and intimate, and with the third book in the series just out, I figured I would finally give it a try.
Somewhat to my surprise, I loved the book.
It does have some weaknesses: it's a book about diplomacy between two interstellar nations, the Alliance and the Empire, and the complexity of politics on that massive scale is glossed over. The backdrop of nations feels more like a painted image than a living thing that twists, turns, and wreaks havoc behind the scenes. Further, there were points where I wanted the characters to succeed by brilliance and instead the results felt more like chance.
This aside, the story has a lot to recommend it. Lisinthir is delightful, especially in the first half of the book, where his wit, courage, and insight all shine. Watching the Slave Queen evolve over the course of the narrative is remarkable, and the way the two characters rely on each other's strengths is wonderful. I especially liked that the Slave Queen's ability to simply endure, which looks like helplessness, was in its own way a power.
I'd expected to have my suspension of disbelief tested by the set-up: The Alliance and the Empire are described as "allies", but the Empire openly enslaves, tortures, and rapes Alliance citizens at their court. Yet it hangs together well: they are not "allies" in any usual sense of the word" rather, the Alliance is attempting detente. The Alliance doesn't want to start a war unless they have to, and they're not sure they'll win if they do. So they are tolerating things that, say, the modern USA wouldn't tolerate. (And of course, even the USA has put up with some pretty flagrant crap: the Iran hostage crisis comes to mind.) The Empire is technologically sophisticated yet their court spurns the use of any weapon that's not innate; this makes sense in the context of their culture and the entire heirarchy on which it's based. It's not obvious how they became an advanced society while retaining a horrific feudal culture that seems more likely to stifle innovation, but there are hints that suggest possibilities. It worked.
The book's core strength, its true glory, lies in the portrayal of the relationships between the main characters and the complexity of their emotions. The story navigates a whole range of emotional states: fear, pain, horror, pleasure, love, hatred, anger, hope, despair, and more. These are powerfully, at times overwhelmingly, depicted. The transformations of all the characters -- and everyone is strikingly transformed before the end -- are difficult and plausibly conveyed. It is an intimate, personal story.
The book is full of depictions of rape, sexual violence, misogyny (oh the MISOGYNY), dominance contests, humiliation, etc. None of this is written for titillation: it is not a remotely erotic novel. Nor is there any sense of authorial approval or even liking for it: none of this is okay. None of this is remotely okay. There is a certain fascination with the power exchange involved, with the emotional response of characters to all this horror. That gets a fair amount of loving detail. Most of the abuse itself is dealt with in few words and not explicitly described.
I found the work as a whole compelling and engaging, the kind of story that devastates in the best way, and that uplifts by the end. I rate it a 9.