It’s been a year since I first ‘came out of the closet‘ about the genre for which I’m writing. Initially, I thought I would round up the top 3-5 male/male romance stories I’ve read in order to update my original list (see link above). But then two things occurred to me. The first – two of the three series that come to mind, I’ve already written full blog post reviews for (Captive Prince and the Adrien English mysteries). The second, well…I read a series that deeply conflicted and deeply moved me in near-equal measures. I debated reviewing it all, but after some reflection and discussion with a friend, I’ve decided to do it. I’m neither ashamed of what I read nor of what I write. The whole spirit of my coming out post a year ago was based on being honest about who I am and what my intentions are.
Honest disclaimer: The series I’m about to review contains several trigger warnings, which I am providing directly from the book blurbs themselves. Triggers include explicit violence, forced incest, both dubious consent and non-consent, drug use and heavy kink. If any of these triggers affect you, or if you are under the age of 18, I seriously recommend that you don’t read any of these books.
Please note that this series-wide review will contain spoilers from here on out.
The Flesh Cartel series is one of those series that kept popping up for me. Every so often, it would scroll across my social media feed, usually on Facebook, and catch my eye. Like Captive Prince, I can’t tell you how many times I would see it, read the blurb, say HELL NO and walk away. If you read the disclaimer above, you can understand why.
But then, as with Captive Prince, I was bored, in between books and craving something different when I checked my library’s ebook-lending app. Sure enough, all five books (seasons, actually) were available to borrow. I rented the first…and then sat on it for a good 4-5 days, too nervous to read it until one particular, quiet Saturday evening.
And without further ado, this is how it went for me…
The Flesh Cartel, Season One: Damnation – This was by far the quickest and most jarring read I’ve ever known. The book is the shortest of the five, which takes nothing away from the punch it packs. We meet the main characters, Mathias and Douglas, just before they are kidnapped by an international human-trafficking ring called the Flesh Cartel. They are kept at the Cartel’s main hub, repeatedly brutalized before being auctioned and sold together. In this book, you’re able to establish a starting point for Mat and Dougie, both as free individuals and their relationship as brothers. And you’re going to need that solid foundation, believe me.
The Flesh Cartel, Season Two: Fragmentation – This book went down nearly as smoothly as the first, though it’s a bit longer. Though the brothers are sold off to the same buyer, they must first be ‘trained’. I believe we met Nikolai in the first book briefly, but it’s in this book that you get to know one of – at least who I would call – our main villains. A victim of the Cartel himself, we never truly know whether Nikolai was trained as a slave or only as a trainer. Frankly, I had a hard time believing anything he said because he was such a good manipulator. While keeping Mat tamed but unbroken, Nikolai turns the full force of his brainwashing capabilities on Dougie. Once Nikolai realizes he can’t break their bond through lies and deception alone, he resorts to truly brutal force.
The Flesh Cartel, Season Three: Transformation – This is the book during which I began to struggle. We don’t hear much from Mat’s side of things at first, only about poor Douglas, post-brutality. Though I felt for Douglas, I had a hard time watching him submit to being a slave and buying into Nikolai’s programming. We get little moments when the facade Nikolai is trying to build isn’t quite sinking in with Douglas, but we see less and less of the old Dougie. For a brief moment during this book, you really think the brothers might be able to slip away to freedom. Nope. And then…if you’re anything like me and you think there’s a certain line the story won’t cross…it does during this book and it’s as awful as you think it’s going to be. Towards the end, once the brothers are re-wrangled and broken to Nikolai’s satisfaction, they are finally presented to their owner, Allen.
The Flesh Cartel, Season Four: Liberation – During this book, we finally learn that people in Mat and Dougie’s life before the Cartel haven’t given up on them. Namely, Dougie’s foster father, Mike. FBI Special Agent Nate Johnson, along with his partner Louise, are handed their nearly-cold case. The good news is that Nate is a fan of Mat as an underground UFC fighter (I think I forgot to mention that, lol) and refuses to give up. Meanwhile, the brothers fight to find their places in Allen’s strange household. I’m going to tell you that it’s at this point the brutality begins to let up, in comparison to the first three books. Make no mistake, these last two books are still incredibly difficult to read at times, but the repeated violent rapes and torture do wane a bit in favor of the story at this point. Also by now, I’ve completely fallen in love with Mat. From about mid-book three, Mat begins to show that though he will bend to the whims of his trainers/owners when his and Dougie’s survival depends on it, he is not a broken man. And he further proves this by breaking free at the end of this book.
The Flesh Cartel, Season Five: Reclamation – And finally, the end of this long and brutal series. I’m going to be honest, from somewhere around the end of book four through this book, a few things seem a little ridiculous to me. Mat, after eleven months of brutal abuse and questionable care even at the best of times, managed to swim something like three miles to shore. Now, I completely understand the will to live. I understand that Mat is an athletic, strong-willed man. Believe me, I adore him for it. But I just don’t know if I buy him swimming that far considering all he’s been through, trained athlete or not. Once he’s free, Nate and Louise meet up with him. Though suffering from severe paranoia and PTSD, he helps as best he can before it becomes apparent that to save Dougie and take down the Cartel, they’ll have to send him back in undercover for them. This is prong number two of what I believe makes this last book or so a bit unbelievable. Follow those with the budding romance between Mat and Nate and I had to roll my eyes a few times. Nevertheless, Mat, with the help of the FBI, accomplishes taking out the Cartel and saving Dougie. For the last few parts, we watch as Mat and Dougie readjust to freedom and reclaim their lives.
At first, I wasn’t going to review this series at all. I turned to these books for an escape, for something new and jarring and different. And for the first two books, that’s exactly what I got. Then, during book three, something changed. Or rather, one of the characters shifted in my eyes…
Okay okay okay, I fell deeply in love with Mat. Like, Laurent-of-Vere deeply. It’s strange to me how these heroes find me when I need them most.
At some point during book two, in an attempt to break the bond between the brothers, Nikolai suggests that Mat make a list of things to live for that aren’t Dougie. One of the things he writes is to help people. What he thinks in his head and wisely doesn’t write for his captor to see is, to help people in situations like his and take down the Cartel. My heart swelled.
During book three, Mat contemplates suicide, to the point where he’s got a noose around his neck and he’s truly ready to let go. Just as he’s about to do it, another character, another slave named Roger, comes into his room and Mat just…stops. Though the books are told in a third-person, Mat’s thought at the end of this particular chapter is:
One more day…what was one more day? He’d let himself die tomorrow, if it came to that.
Weird side note, one of my favorite songs right now is The Mountain by Three Days Grace. Though the whole song is amazing, the quote above echoes one of the lyrics so closely, it spooked me when I read it:
When I’m lost and want to fade away, I tell myself to live to die another day.
Seriously. Spooked. AF.
Anyways, from that point forward, he never attempts suicide again. He never gives up and eventually, it pays
THE FUCK off.
Through the brutality and horror, this series really got under my skin and would not let me go. I devoured all five books in a week and a half, completely immersed and invested in the story.
For the average person, I could never in good conscience recommend this series. It is incredibly brutal and startlingly graphic about said-brutality. In my opinion, the trigger-warnings in the book blurbs don’t quite cover everything that could be triggering within this series. But, if you’re aware of all of the triggers, have read the blurbs and know what you’re up against, this series is truly an amazing read.