by TA Chase, historical/fantasy (2008)
Liquid Silver Books, $5.95, ISBN 978-1-59578-418-6
The Vanguard is set in a time and place when men run around wearing cute little armor that shows off their torso and thighs while howling about heroism and freedom and crazy evil emperors. Of course, the author also goes ahead and does the right thing by eliminating any mention of annoying beards and let the men do what they want to do so badly to each other's hard-muscled bodies. Yes, people, this is a gay romance, although anyone who has read any of this author's titles in the past should already know that.
Okay, we have two warring countries. Villious - nothing to do with one's small intestine, I'm sure - and Launioc have been going at it for a long time now. On one side we have Rathian, the Prince of Launioc and "Imperator of the Vanguard". He is sulking in the training yard of his home one day, thinking about important matters like how the war between his father and the Queen of Villious is making everybody suffer, when lo, an injured Villious prisoner is brought before him. Our prince is clearly an emo liberal peace-loving tree-hugging dipstick who no doubt composes long poetry about world peace on his Livejournal in his free time, but he is also one of those guys who get turned on by the sight of an injured yet muscular and hot bloke. Maybe it's all that blood flowing along the injured fellow's treasure trail that does the trick.
Stakel, our Juliet to Rathian's Romeo (or maybe it's the other way around), can do all kinds of zen tricks with his mind, like going into trances and what not. He's also a loner who doesn't feel at home even among his own people and he's naturally suspicious about the hospitality given by Rathian's people. In this story, the Launioc folks, or at least Rathian's entourage, are understanding people who love peace and treat everyone nicely because they are all about the united colors of Benetton that way. The better for Stakel to realize that he is finally home, he is free to love, et cetera, of course. But since the two countries are at war, a happily ever after may not come that easily to our two lovebirds here.
The Vanguard is actually a very transparent and hence predictable story, right down to the archetype roles played by our two fellows here. I personally find it most cheesy how the author has portrayed Rathian as this understanding, sensitive, harmonious, sage, and wonderful bloke to minimize any potential conflicts that can arise in this relationship into mostly external ones. Any guy who gets a chubby when confronted with an injured man has to have some bloodthirsty side if you ask me. Rathian is one-dimensionally bland and sweet. Likewise, Stakel is just as bland and obvious in his role as the tortured loner who is looking for some TLC from our sensitive new age bloke prince. The chips fall into place way too easily in this story, with conflicts and resolutions being solved or overcome too conveniently for my liking. As a result, I can never get into the story because it feels ersatz. The story is too tidy or too sanitized, if you will.
But I do like how the author plunges the story into some fast-paced action sequences towards the late quarter or so. The early parts of the story can suffer from moments of obvious information dumping but the author's technique improves tremendously as the story progresses, culminating in a pretty exciting read towards the end. I especially like how Rathian and Stakel stop being annoying emo twits and start doing things.
The Vanguard is, therefore, a mixed bag where I am concerned. There are some very readable moments here, especially as the story progresses, but at the same time the story also comes off as being too artificial for its own good.
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