If you'd attended last week's packed-out Collins Street Dymocks book launch of Kings Rising - the final instalment of queer author C.S. Pacat’s steamy gay fantasy epic the Captive Prince trilogy - the mob of adoring fans, many of whom had picked up the novel that morning and already devoured it, would leave you in no doubt of the pulling power of this global phenomenon.
The reality is that even Melbourne-based Pacat, who initially released the first two instalments on her own blog roughly one month at a time “life-permitting”, had no idea just how popular they would ultimately prove.
The online community following the dramatic exploits of fallen warrior Prince Damianos of Akielos, held as a slave by his mortal enemy Prince Laurent of Vere, grew steadily via word of mouth, much as HBO’s Game of Thrones moved rapidly from fantasy genre niche to mainstream cultural touchstone.
Chapter one of Captive Prince attracted around six readers.
“No, they weren’t my friends, I didn’t tell anyone in real life I was doing it,” Pacat says and laughs uproariously at the cheeky line of questioning as we perch in a green leather booth over coffee and cake at North Carlton’s Green Park cafe.
By the close of sequel Prince’s Gambit, Pacat was getting tens of thousands of hits as readers clamoured to know if Laurent would uncover the truth of Damen’s hidden identity, revealing the fact that his prisoner had killed his brother on a furious, blood-drenched battlefield. Perhaps more importantly, they wanted to know whether the boiling sexual tension bubbling between them would finally combust.
“No one was interested in publishing a book about gay princes which had already been given away for free on the internet.”
With fans clamouring to get their hands on paperback editions, Pacat began to wonder if the saga had legs beyond the online realm and shopped it around to publishers and agents, proving unfruitful.
“No one was interested in publishing a book about gay princes which had already been given away for free on the internet," she said.
You can kind of see their point. In order to keep the devoted fans happy, Pacat splurged her savings and took out a loan to self-publish. Almost immediately both books raced up the Amazon charts. When USA Today reviewed them glowingly, Pacat found herself with a New York-based agent and, soon after, a “robust,” offer from Penguin Books. The rest is fantastical history, but Pacat will never forget their online origin, using the closing pages of Kings Rising to list the handles of a phalanx of the original internet readers, a group with whom she firmly identifies.
Online fiction allowed an adolescent Pacat to explore queer narratives rarely encountered in the surprisingly hetero-normative confines of traditional fantasy and sci-fi fiction, her favoured genres.
“I was so hungry for any kind of queer representation and those characters were so thin on the ground. My only literary antecedents where the world of online fiction, where people were doing lot of really weird, crazy, uninhibited stuff,” she said.
“When there was a gay or lesbian character in a fantasy novel, and there was rarely anything beyond that, they often seemed to just import contemporary prejudice into their fantasy setting, so you’d have a traumatic coming out and they’d be castigated by their society for their sexuality.
"This isn’t heroic escapism for me. I wanted completely free expression where the things I find oppressive in my daily life are not also in my fantasy.”
Noting that there wasn’t much of a tradition to draw on, Pacat lists Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles as a notable exception.
“She was one of the only authors who wrote queerness as an unapologetic fact of existence. For the most part, if there was a queer character, they had a ‘queer’ narrative. We’re just getting to the point where a queer character can have a hero’s journey narrative, or romance, or mystery detective. There are a lot of different types of stories you can tell and that’s certainly what I wanted to do with Captive Prince.”
Part of the inherent appeal in the complex dynamic shared between warring princes Laurent and Damen is that neither fits easily into genre or even gender stereotypes - a very deliberate play by Pacat.
“Damen does embody a lot of the totems of masculinity,” she said.
“He’s big and strong and very good at fighting. He doesn’t wear a lot of clothes, he’s very Conan, but he feels very deeply and can turn on an emotional hair trigger.
“Whereas Laurent, he’s the object of Damen’s gaze, so that role is often constructed as female. He’s very physically beautiful and he’s pursued sexually, but he’s the one that embodies a ‘male stoicism’. He’s not emotional and he’s highly intellectual. I wanted to show that the way we construct those qualities as masculine and feminine, that’s not the case. Those categories are arbitrary.”
Pacat drew on conversations with gay male friends for the mechanics of Laurent and Damen’s erotically-charged sex scenes in Kings Rising, finding that gay porn was something of a red herring.
“I thought it would be a road to understanding and it absolutely wasn’t. The kind of sexuality that’s expressed there is often just like a shorthand. It’s certainly not character-based and it feels, if you try and reproduce any of it, very stale and clichéd.”
The line between erotica and pornography is a fascinating one for Pacat to delineate.
“[Gothic novelist] Anne Radcliffe was once asked about the difference between horror and terror, and she said horror’s of the body and it turns you away, whereas terror is psychological and it makes you want to keep turning the page. Pornography does its job, and when that’s done, you walk away; you don’t care what happens next at all. Whereas erotica engages the mind, it intrigues you in a different way rather than necessarily just simply gratifying you physically.”
"I think that was one of the reasons that 50 Shades of Grey felt so shocking and fresh to mainstream audiences, simply by the power of being told from the female perspective."
Gender norms also play a huge role in the way we perceive sexuality in fiction, Pacat says.
“Game of Thrones is an intensely sexual book, but it’s not labelled as erotic. It’s not talked about in that mode and that kind of straight male gaze sexuality is sort of completely fine. The stuff that is much more taboo is the female gaze and queer sexuality. I think that was one of the reasons that 50 Shades of Grey felt so shocking and fresh to mainstream audiences, simply by the power of being told from the female perspective.”
Currently working on a young adult series that will also feature queer characters, I jokingly suggest fans may hold out hope for an alternate take on the Captive Prince trilogy as told from Laurent’s perspective, a la E.L. James’ Grey, to which we both burst into riotous laughter before Pacat regains serious author face composure.
“I think it’s more interesting to retain the mystery rather than explicate it,” she says.
“What would I call it?”
Me: “Ice Prince?”
“That would be amazing.”