We’re on evil ex-boyfriend two out of nine, but also 85% of the way through the book. So, clearly that sequel (and presumably one or more others, at this rate) was planned in advance. This one runs into a Hell world and seeks refuge with his level a billion demonic patron. Alaria tries to confront him and negotiate for her ex-master’s life, since the demon lord doesn’t seem super fond of him anyway, and then the demon lord just decides to take Alaria for himself, Ian tries to intervene, it ends poorly for him.
“Go ahead and kill me, asshole,” I said, just waiting for the new ten-second counter to hit zero.
“No,” the demon lord said thoughtfully, “I don’t think so. I know your kind. Warlocks like you are not bound by the normal human rules of death. If I kill you, you’ll just come back to bother me again, like some unnatural pest.” Shit. I had never run across an NPC who understood the mechanics of respawning – but this bastard certainly did. He was right – and both he and I knew it, unfortunately. “No,” the demon grinned. “I think you will serve far better as a slave in my mines.”
Wow, what an awful gaming experience. “Face off against NPCs who know you can respawn and will instead contrive to imprison you forever, rendering useless your toon who you poured dozens if not hundreds of hours into leveling!” Again, Succubus runs into the drawbacks of being an MMO and not just portal fantasy.
“Do you think he loves you?”
Her eyes flickered up at me again, and then she looked down, shamefaced. “Yes. That was why he came with me to kill Odeon.”
Now, see, just a few pages ago I extended Succubus the benefit of the doubt that maybe Alaria being awful may have been going somewhere after all, that maybe the book knew she was abusive. I didn’t really consider it likely that it might also go so far as to recognize that Ian is also awful, because he is the vehicle for shitty wish fulfillment, but hey, at least it could fill in one of the three holes it had dug itself. That third one is the tonal whiplash problem, which just can’t be fixed with any amount of reveal or character development. Regardless of what happens here at the end, the fact is that the beginning involved rape used like sprinkles on a cupcake in order to establish that our villains were bad, and that our hero was heroic for not liking them. Even if Ian turned out to be an actual good person at the end, no one could be blamed for giving up on Succubus at around the 25% mark when Ian staked out his claim to heroism as “opposed to rape.”
I’m not even willing to buy into those first two holes being filled in, though. Ian got within spitting distance of actually standing up for himself, but he didn’t actually do it. In fact, Alaria just immediately turned that around on him and used it to extort sexual favors out of him, and Ian was right back to being wrapped around her finger – despite having just got finished saying that yes, he was unhappy with how she treated him. This isn’t just a relationship that would be abusive if it happened in real life but which our protagonist emerges from unscathed by the power of a naive author, Ian actually is suffering from Alaria’s emotional abuse. That realization lasts all of about a page and a half before we instead have six pages of oral sex. I’m not complaining that the book contains a lot of sex. It’s a book about sex. That would be a weird thing to complain about. I am complaining that the book portrays an abusive relationship and doesn’t seem to realize it’s abusive, but instead devotes multiple pages to how great the sex is, and none at all to how this is bad for Ian. It mentions that it is bad for Ian, but that’s not an actual plot point. It’s foreplay, used by Alaria to set up a sex scene entirely on her own terms, for her own satisfaction.
So when the book shows a brief sign of self-awareness here by admitting that Alaria has used Ian, I have no confidence that it’s going to actually result in the narrative admitting that Alaria is an abuse victim turned abuser who isn’t ready to have a healthy relationship with anyone. For starters, that’s a really weird direction to take for a book about succubus fucking. It’s not a harem plot. If Alaria gets herself eliminated from the running on these grounds, there are no other love interests to take her place.
Malfurik let go of Alaria’s bat wings, and she fell to the ground with a clang of metal against stone. Then he stepped closer to Odeon. “Do you know what I would most like to do with her?”
The old man gulped. “I can only imagine, but – ”
“I would have her submit to me willingly. How would you suggest I go about such a thing, warlock?”
Odeon’s stuttered, “I-I’m sure I don’t know – ”
“How could you, after decades forcing others like me to act against their own will?” Malfurik chuckled. “But I have an idea how to win her heart.”
“And how is that?” Odeon asked.
“By giving her yours.”
Before Odeon could react, Malfurik plunged his hand into the warlock’s chest.
The old man screamed as Malfurik pulled his hand out with a creaking, bone-snapping crunch.
In his palm he held a beating human heart. Odeon gasped, opening and closing his mouth like a fish – and then collapsed lifeless on the throne room floor.
‘5000 XP’ floated up in front of me.
I guess if an ex-master died it got credited to me, no matter who killed him.
Not that the experience points really helped me right now.
Malfurik laughed, then set Odeon’s heart ablaze and cast it down in front of Alaria, who looked at it with curious detachment.
“For you, my love,” Malfurik chortled. “A gift – one heart in exchange for another.”
She looked up at the demon lord, tears streaking her cheeks. “I will never love you.”
“In time. For now, fondness is all I ask.” Malfurik looked over at me. “Enjoy the mines, little warlock – and think of all the things that I will do to your love when she finally submits.”
The extremely liberal paragraphing is the book’s formatting, not mine, incidentally, although the problem is made worse by the size of the quoted text.
The greater point here, though, is that the book shows what might be mistaken for signs of self-awareness here. Malfurik is the big evil demon baddie that will presumably be our climactic antagonist, and he’s basically going to try and Nice Guy his way into Alaria’s pants the same way Ian has been. Which seems like it might be about to make a point.
But no, when Ian guilt trips himself, it’s not about the shitty stuff he actually has done, it’s about this:
As I toiled on the chain gang, the reality of slavery was all around me. Everywhere I looked were brass collars and manacles, chains and misery. The night was filled with despairing cries, the crack of whips, and bloodcurdling screams.
Besides the stink of sulfur, there was the stench of something else: despair and suppressed rage at our collective helplessness. It hung over everything like a cloud.
For the first time, I realized exactly how cruel I’d been to put those collars on Alaria and Stig.
Alaria has previously described herself as being “in limbo” between summonings. Unless limbo is a reference to one or more of the Nine Hells, it seems like she’s in stasis between summonings. Even if it is a reference to one or more of the Nine Hells, she made a beeline for her evil exes pretty much as soon as she realized that Ian would let himself get dragged along wherever she went, yet hasn’t seemed to have made any progress on that mission prior to being summoned by him. When asked if she’s killed them, she says “not yet” rather than “not all of them.”
What I’m getting at here is, Alaria’s goal requires her to be present in the mortal world, and Ian can only summon her into the mortal world by binding her into a collar. This binding does give him the capacity to enslave her, but he has never once used it. He did briefly command Stig against his will, but stopped almost immediately. It’s not clear what Stig’s in this for, but he keeps turning up to help Ian even when not commanded to and when Ian has proven repeatedly that he won’t punish insubordination even when it leads pretty directly to his being harmed. Ian did absolutely no harm to Alaria by collaring her, and only briefly did any harm to Stig (even ignoring that they’re both NPCs incapable of being harmed, because their intelligence is indistinct from that of the computer, who merely pretends to be different people as part of the game). Just because he could have harmed her doesn’t mean he did. The moral lesson Ian is taking from this has nothing to do with what he’s actually done wrong. This willingness to guilt himself over things that aren’t actually wrong is only a further character flaw.
While Ian muses about the hopelessness in the slave pits (which he spends several hours chained in, so either he’s got a huge kink for hard labor this game has mind read out of him or the game doesn’t know he’s trapped and really wants him to give up on this toon and start an alt – again, this would make so much more sense as portal fantasy):
I had something worth living for – and worth fighting for. She was up in that palace.
Just in case you were worried that Ian had any chance of recognizing either what his actual Nice Guy shittiness was or that Alaria had been an abusive shit to him.
The ending is not good. Ian starts the least thrilling slave revolt of all time. This book has never had good action scenes, and its reliance on them for its climax just means the climax is really boring. Tactical summary is used to describe the entire fight until the throne room, and even then there’s not a back and forth to the fight. Ian flings his slave army at the boss monster, and then summons the goddess with his special staff power, and then breaks a mirror, and each time it shaves a bunch of HP off of the boss, and none of it is particularly more exciting when written out in full than the quick summary I just gave. Any chance of recognizing that Alaria and Ian’s relationship as deeply unhealthy is forgotten as Ian’s love for Alaria saves the day. Once again the narrative briefly flirts with recognizing the flaws in this relationship…
She hung her head shamefacedly. “But… I did things just to get you to help me kill my ex-masters. You still want to give me my freedom, knowing that?”
“I went along with it because I wanted to sleep with you.”
She gave me a look like, Well, of COURSE.
I laughed and shook my head. “But that means I did it for my own selfish reasons. I didn’t love you – not really – because otherwise I would’ve done what was best for you.” I put my hand on hers, the one wrapped tightly around the choker.
“This is me doing the right thing, because I actually do love you now. You’re free… and that’s what I want for the woman I love.”
…except 1) they immediately afterwards fuck, so this isn’t actually a rejection of the Nice Guy morality, it is the final affirmation of it, and 2) rather than admit that she isn’t ready to have a relationship that isn’t coercive one way or another and maybe she never will be, the succubus’ character flaw vanishes immediately after having been called on it once. Rather than an actual character arc, the succubus’ flaw persists unchanged through 90% of the story and then spontaneously combusts on contact with the climax.
And in the morning, after a night of furious love-making, she’s abandoned him to pursue her agenda alone. Not because she’s recognized that she’s full of hate and vengeance and has no model for a consensual relationship at all and she’s leaving because she’s afraid of hurting him. Because she wants to be a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man and finish her vengeance quest by herself.
And for all that she moans about how sad it makes her, she didn’t even care enough to explain that in person.