If you’ve become jaded toward serial paranormal romances, you should give the genre one last try. Caged Warrior is an excitingly fresh beginning to what promises to be a quality new series. The story is complex and demanding, the hero is both brutal and somehow innocent, and the premise, well, that’s just insane.
First the premise – The Dragon Kings are a race of beautiful, supernaturally powerful beings that live alongside humans. They are dying out because of extremely low birth rates, due to which entire clans are almost extinct. There is one doctor that has the secret to Dragon King fertility, but his services are not cheap. He’s psychotic and a sadist, and payment for fertility treatments is for family members to join his underground, gladiator-style, cage fights where the doctor earns a mint when the betting is heavy. The more popular a fighter and the longer they can last equals additional births and other privileges for the family members that remain free. The hero, Leto, has been a collared cage fighter for most of his life, earning the opportunity for his sisters to procreate. It is into his world that the heroine, Audrey, is thrust.
For the crime of marrying a human and giving birth to the first natural-born Dragon King in a generation, Audrey sees her husband slaughtered, and she and her young son are imprisoned and tortured in the doctor’s lab for a year – in the interest of “science”. When in a fit of duress Audrey uses a previously unknown power to destroy part of the lab, it is decided that she’ll go to the cages to fight. She awakens alone in a damp, filthy cage, wearing nothing but a paper gown. Desperate for her son, Audrey immediately starts planning her escape. She is soon introduced to her trainer, Leto, who convinces her that the smartest plan is to become the best fighter she can, in order to stay alive. But in a cruel twist, Leto is made to become Audrey’s fighting partner, not just her trainer, which puts his life on the line as well.
The plot is actually much more involved than the bare bones minimum in the previous paragraphs. The sinister natures of the doctor and his demented son play a large part in the motivation of several of the secondary characters as well as Audrey and Leto. These men are horrible, but their activities are tolerated by the Dragon Kings because of the valuable service they perform. A parallel could be drawn between the plot and the unwholesomeness of some of the things our society tolerates in the interest of the greater good. Audrey chides her cousin, the head of the ruling council, on this very subject. In a note she sneaks out of the lab, written in her own blood, she asks how much is too much?
Leto is a great hero. Not at first, it must be said, but later, when he starts to think past his training. At first he’s clinical, unsympathetic, and brutal. Making sure that Audrey submits to him in order to facilitate her training is his agenda. Period. Audrey’s feelings are immaterial, as are her personal problems. Leto needs to make sure his family is cared for properly, and if that means submitting to a collar that restricts his powers, constant fighting, even hurting a woman like Audrey, he’ll do it to achieve his goal. He’s been in the cages since adolescence, and his life experiences are stunted. All he knows beyond survival basics is fighting, and sex. But contact with Audrey, seeing the disgust she has for his lifestyle and his choices, knowing she’s frantically worried for her son’s safety affects Leto and he learns empathy. These two are completely unsuited for romance until Leto experiences some emotional growth, but the author makes it work and work well. You spend a lot of time in Leto’s head and it’s easy to see his changing perceptions.
Beyond the main characters there is a lot to enjoy. The Dragon King society, about which the reader learns a pretty good deal, is a welcome departure from your vampire covens or shifter wolf packs. Members of the ruling council, other fighters and villains, several different allies and others round out the cast, and for the most part are highly detailed characters on their own. The author is a veteran writing under a pseudonym, so the book is technically competent. The love scenes are not numerous, but are nice and warm. The plot has a really nice twist, a shock that occurs that’ll have you dashing through the pages to find out what happens. Caged Warrior is highly recommended.