College roommates Aniyah and Miyuki expect a summer vacation rich in opportunities for hanging out and having intense discussions about gender and orientation. Thanks to their ever-so-helpful chums Timothy and Craig, what they actually get is kidnapped, mindwiped, and sold to the faerie lord Master of Masques.
Keoki is in the wrong place at the wrong time; his good Samaritan instincts get him abducted and sold as well.
There’s a slight delay between their arrival at the Master of Masque’s otherworldly arena and introduction to their new roles. During this time, older captives try to learn as much as they can about their new fellow slaves.
There’s a lot to figure out. Captives are mindwiped, but the wipe is usually incomplete. There are just enough memories left to niggle, to tease, to drive the slaves to try recovering their old selves.
The slaves have lost memories, but gained new abilities. These are apparently triggered (in humans) by the transition to the faerie realm. Who gains what seems to be entirely random. Slaves with desirable abilities are more valuable to their faerie Master. Slaves with undesirable gifts … well, let’s just not think about that. It’s unpleasant.
Slaves are sorted by apparent gender. Those deemed men are consigned to the arena to fight for the enjoyment of the Fair Folk. Eventually the combatants’ luck runs out and they are killed in the arena. Those deemed women are used as sexual rewards for the men. They are often abused or even killed by cruel or overexcited gladiators … who are never punished for aggression.
Escape seems impossible. But to stay is to die.
Why are these fairies so wedded to a strictly binary gender scheme? Is it that they cannot be bothered to make finer distinctions? Or is this is just one more way that the faeries have found to be assholes?
This is a fairly straightforward story about strangers figuring out how to cooperate against a shared foe. Mardoll avoids the pitfalls of predictability by handicapping xer characters in a number of ways. They’re amnesiac. The gladiators are assured that sex is their right and privilege, so they often become rapists, even abusers and murderers. The slaves learn to distrust each other, which is of course a plus from their owner’s point of view. Divide and conquer. Escape will be impossible unless the slaves can learn to cooperate … and to welcome some even more unlikely allies.
One might excuse the abuses by saying “Well, they had amnesia; they did not know better.” But memory loss does not seem to affect Keoki’s ethics (or Miyuki’s gender identity, for that matter). The offending gladiators came from our world; they carried with them a propensity to abuse. Partial amnesia is no excuse.
The cast of characters is an unusually diverse one, at least compared to other secondary world portal fantasies. It’s a definite strength for the book, although the fact that it stands out as much as it does is a sad commentary on the white-bread casts preferred by other writers and their publishers.
I often get asked if books are standalones. Survival Rout is part of a series, but a reader new to the series can read this novel without reading the earlier book. Or even being aware that there was an earlier book. But I should perhaps add that there is definitely a hook for a sequel at the end.
This is my first exposure to Ana Mardoll’s work. It won’t be my last.
Survival Rout is available here.