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Sword Dance #2

Saffron Alley

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A month ago, eunuch sword-dancer and spy Varazda collided with ex-soldier Damiskos at a seaside villa during a dizzying week of intrigue, assassinations, and a fake love affair that—maybe—turned real. Now Varazda is back home in Boukos, at the center of a family and community he dearly loves, and Damiskos is coming to visit.

Things aren’t going according to plan.

Varazda’s family members suspect Damiskos’s motives. Varazda grapples with his own desires. Add in a horrible goose, a potentially lethal sculpture, and yet another assassination plot, and any man other than Dami would be boarding a ship straight back to Pheme.

It’s going to take all of Damiskos’s patience, and all of Varazda’s strength, to make this new relationship work. After all that, solving one more murder shouldn’t be too hard.

Saffron Alley is the second book in the Sword Dance trilogy, the continuation of Dami and Varazda’s story from Sword Dance. It crosses over with One Night in Boukos, but you don’t have to have read that book to enjoy this one.

270 pages, Kindle Edition

First published February 16, 2021

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About the author

A.J. Demas

6 books307 followers
A.J. Demas writes about love and imaginary politics in a fictional ancient world. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and cute daughter.

A.J. also publishes fantasy and historical fiction with a metaphysical twist as Alice Degan.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 126 reviews
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 57 books7,890 followers
September 9, 2021
Sequel to the marvellous Sword Dance, set in Demas's wonderful alt-ancient Mediterranean world. The first book was a thrilling spy/soldier romance at a villa party with dark secrets and plotting. This one is much gentler--in fact, it's primarily domestic, as we see Varazda's life with his found family in Boukos, and the tentative beginnings of a more grounded post-dramatic relationship with a visiting Damiskos.

It's a lovely romance. Damiskos is a caring, deeply kind hero as well as a hard man and commander when he has to be. Varazda needs that: he was enslaved as a child, made a eunuch and sexually exploited, and this is very much something he struggles to face head on as he and Damiskos develop the relationship, including sexually. It's sensitively handled as far as possible for such a grim premise--his two cohabitees are also eunuchs and all three have very different approaches to living with that. Varazda is also genderfluid, again IMO handled really well.

There is a mystery/thriller element but it doesn't really kick in until the last quarter of the book: this is very much an 'after the credits' story where the people who've fallen in love in dramatic circumstances are now getting to grips with how that might work in normal life. As such it doesn't deliver the same sort of read as Sword Dance, but what it does works very well on its own, quite different terms. We sink into Boukos, Varadza's family and friends and neighbours and food and city, until it's hard to remember it isn't real.

I am hugely looking forward to book 3 in this series.

(I had an ARC from the author but I hit a horrible reading slump at the time.)
Profile Image for  ~Preeti~.
637 reviews
December 3, 2021
Saffron alley is the 2nd book in the Sword dance trilogy and the continuation of Damascus and Varazda's story, a month after the events of Sword Dance. Where the 1st book focused more on discussions around politics, and the suspense plot focused on a bunch of pseudo-philosophers discussing the future of the republic and ideal male-female behavior. 

And, even though this book has a mystery subplot, a large chunk of it focussed on the relationship development between the couple and also between Dami and Varazda's found family and his community.

Things I loved about the book

1. Dami(our ex-soldier MC) is on a visit to Varazda's home city for a week. The author was very particular with the atmospheric details, the culture, and even minute details of daily life.
2. In the previous book, I wanted to know more about Varazda's sexuality. He was captured and turned into a eunuch in childhood, then made a pleasure slave and now 5 years after his freedom, he is a dancer, a father, and a caretaker of his found family. 
The author didn't disappoint, and we get to see Varazda's as HE identifies himself every day. And, as SHE when she likes to dress up and dance.

3. I love that this book was from Varazda's POV. So, we get to see his insecurities. Even though he has this super grumpy/ I care not attitude, he is vulnerable. 

4. The best thing that I liked about the book is the relationship development. If we didn't know Varazda's past, I could have called it fluffy but having known Varazda's traumatic past as a pleasure slave, I would call the relationship beautiful (The past trauma is never discussed on the page but we do get the gist by his insecurities). 

5. Again, the sexual exploration and Dami's attitude towards Varazda's insecurities is perfect. See, that's why I love these big softie MCs. I love how Dami says 'I am easy babe' without actually saying it.

6. The relationship of Varazda with his found family and how Dami had to work hard to win them. Especially Dami's attitude towards Varazda's daughter Rami. 

7. Delightful side characters. Even the angry pet goose is so amusing and not to forget Rami, Varazda's adopted daughter.

8. I couldn't solve the mystery plot till the end.

Overall, I am much happier with this book than the previous one. Varazda's POV, exploration of his insecurities, the RD, the found family. Plus, I enjoyed that in this book the author used a more contemporary tone while still maintaining the atmospheric details. And, unlike book 1 we see more diversity and acceptability since the story is set in Boukas. 

P.S- I am so tempted to give extra 0.5 stars to the perfect book boyfriend Damascus(Dami).🥰🥰
Profile Image for Kaje Harper.
Author 73 books2,498 followers
February 20, 2021
This book is a treat for those who loved the main characters in Sword Dance - it would not stand alone. Told from Varazda's point of view, it's a more domestic book, one of trying to figure out a new relationship amid the small stresses of family and work and local custom, as opposed to the bigger drama in Sword Dance. There is a small child (who is cute but not too perfect,) a belligerent goose, and found family who are protective, sometimes in the wrong ways.

There is also a minor mystery that progresses to violence, which gives the book a plot thread outside the slow burn romance, and allows Damiskos to exercise some of his personal expertise.

I loved the romance part of this - the doubts and minor misunderstandings and the flashes of deep connection, and the simple companionship when things were going right. I liked seeing how Varazda's past and his preconceptions created roadblocks and fumbles to be overcome. Dami's patience and good nature are on full display and I adore the man.

I also really appreciated the expansion of Varazda's non-binary identity. We get to see that he is genderfluid (occasionally moving into she/her pronouns) and male-romantic. And it is made clear that this is not because he is a eunuch, but intrinsic to him. Of the two other eunuchs he shares his home with, one strongly identifies as male and het, the other appears to identify as male and ace (whether due to inclination, or past trauma, isn't as clear.) The exploration of Varazda's identity is done very naturally, as it works along with the plot, and with his uncertainties in his relationship with Damiskos.

The secondary characters were an interesting mix, but the apparent Zashian reluctance to ask personal questions head-on meant that Varazda seems to give them privacy and leeway and make assumptions, rather than have deeper conversations, particularly with Yazata - who shares Varazda's home and his history, and yet who is a bit of an enigma as to his motivations. People with a history of the kind of trauma these guys faced need a light touch from each other, but there were times I really wanted Varazda to sit down with Yazata and have a deeper conversation.

The mystery is tangential to the main characters for the most part, which gives it less immediacy and lower stakes than in book 1. That helps keep the focus on the personal exploration and relationship development. The ending is sweet and warm, but leaves room for more - I would definitely read a book of Damiskos finding his place (maybe something more suited to his soldier instincts than the paperwork of his current post) in a new city and with his new love (and child, and goose).
Profile Image for Elena.
826 reviews83 followers
July 5, 2021
3.5 stars

I still find A.J. Demas’s writing style very enjoyable and easy to read and I like Varadza and Damiskos, so my reading experience with this second book was very pleasant.

Unlike the first book, this one is in Varadza’s POV and it was good to get to know him a little better. The downside was that Damiskos ended up feeling a little too good to be true. He’s a very nice guy and it’s hard to find a flaw in him even when the story is told in his POV, but seen from Varadza’s side, he comes off as pretty much perfect. He’s always so patient, loving, kind, polite, calm, reliable, adaptable, accepting. I like him, I really do, and that’s the only reason it didn’t bother me too much, but if I stop and think about it, the guy hardly seems human. I guess I could ascribe it to Varadza not being exactly unbiased, since the book is in his POV, but still.
On the other hand, the other characters don’t have that problem at all. I liked getting to know Varadza’s family, but I really despised Yazata’s behavior.

Varadza and Damiskos’s relationship straddled the line between rock-solid and in-progress, it’s perfectly clear that they’re both fully committed to each other even while they’re working out the details of how their life together will look like. I particularly liked how the sexual aspect was handled, Varadza’s doubts and thought process always rang true to me, especially

The plot around the was a little slow at first, at one point all the walking around searching for a person reminded me of One Night in Boukos, and then it became a little too convoluted by the end, with some small inconsistencies thrown in. I didn’t mind much, though, in my opinion this author’s strong points are the characters and the writing style, I can close an eye on the rest.

Side note for the cross-over with One Night in Boukos:
Profile Image for Linda ~ they got the mustard out! ~.
1,555 reviews100 followers
July 7, 2021
This wasn't what I was expecting for a follow-up to Sword Dance by any stretch of the imagination. There is a follow up to the intrigue that started in that book, after a point, but this was really just Damiskos visiting Varazda and getting to know his family and them figuring out if the connection that was so instant between them a month earlier was still there. And I was totally fine with all that.

Demas has a way of writing that is calming and reassuring, even when her characters are put into tight spots. And she has a deft hand with understated humor. Yes, this is an insta-love romance, but Dami and Varazda can tease each other and laugh with each other, on top of just being respectful of each other most of the times. And the few times there are slips aren't intentional but more the result of psychological hangups of one of the characters, but those are addressed and corrected. This, more than multiple orgasms, is what I judge a relationship's staying power on, and these two have it in spades. (And they have orgasms too, don't worry, lol.)

This was a truly pleasant story, if not a particularly fast-paced one. Thanks for the BR, Rosa and Elena!

Edit: I forgot to mention the one thing that kept me from giving this an extra half-star: I felt that there were times when the characters were made to act OOC for no other reason than to serve the plot. For instance,
Profile Image for Tamara.
955 reviews30 followers
March 1, 2021
This was a great sequel to Sword Dance. While Sword Dance was about Varazda and Damiskos starting to understand each other despite being total opposites at first glance, Saffron Alley is about two of them growing into their relationship and what they mean to each other. I loved them both, as well as all of the side characters and Boukos itself. Looking forward to the next book!
Profile Image for Kit (Metaphors and Moonlight).
876 reviews120 followers
March 1, 2023
I am just loving this series more with each book! This was so good. I love these wonderful characters, and I love their beautiful romance.

This one had a lot less intrigue and mystery and danger. Still a bit, mostly near the end, but it was overall more focused on the relationship between Varazda and Damiskos, how they were going to make it work, and Varazda’s family. This time, the conflict was mostly lots of things trying to interfere with their relationship, and the author did a great job of making me feel the frustration he and Dami were feeling (I do mean that in a good way, I wasn’t frustrated with the book, just frustrated on behalf of the characters).

I just seriously adore this romance. What these two have is so lovely and beautiful. They’re so caring and understanding of each other. So gentle with each others’ feelings and needs. And I especially love the portrayal of a character who has a limited range of sexual activities he’s comfortable with and a partner who is 100% ok with that, perfectly happy with and loving whatever they end up doing. Most romance books are so focused on sticking body parts in other body parts, and it’s so important to the characters, which is fine, but it’s so nice to find a book that shows something different. And the sex scenes are hot and just as gorgeous as everything else in their relationship.

I enjoyed getting to meet Varazda’s family too. As frustrating as some of them were at first, it was only because they cared and because they had their own traumatic pasts that colored their perception of things. They were good people, and the relationships Varazda had with them were so nice. The way Dami was so understanding and patient with them, even when they were being jerks, was nice too. As was their eventual realization that Dami was actually pretty great. And Remi, Varazda’s daughter, was so cute!

It was also nice getting Varazda’s POV this time! Gave me more insight into his life, his feelings toward Dami, his struggles and insecurities and worries, his feelings about his gender. I won’t go into a whole paragraph again, but I love this nonbinary rep.

Overall, another wonderful book, and I cannot wait to read the final book about Damiskos and Varazda and their lovely relationship!

*Rating: 4.5 Stars // Read Date: 2023 // Format: Ebook via TTS*

Recommended For:
Fans of Book 1 in A.J. Demas's Sword Dance series. Anyone who likes fantasy worlds without magic, beautiful and gentle romance, a bit of action and intrigue, characters trying to heal from physical and emotional scars, and nonbinary characters.

Original Review @ Metaphors and Moonlight
Profile Image for Rosa.
623 reviews6 followers
July 7, 2021
I liked this one but not at the same level of the previous book in the series. I had problems with the story pacing and I found some of the character's doings OOC. I get why some of those things happened, and as I discussed with my fellow BReaders, they were the consequence of Varazda's past and the image he has of himself, but still, I think it could have been done more "smoothly".

Profile Image for Joyfully Jay.
7,385 reviews418 followers
February 16, 2021
A Joyfully Jay review.

4.75 stars

Saffron Alley is the direct sequel to Sword Dance in the Sword Dance series and these books must be read in order. The foundation for Varazda and Dami’s love affair is established in the first story, as are their individual histories. I throughly enjoyed Sword Dance, but I loved Saffron Alley and it’s all because of Dami and Varazda.

Dami and Varazda are one of my favorite couples in fiction for the simple reason that they read as incredibly honest. Given the nature of Varazda’s work as a spy, Dami’s work with the military, and Varazda’s specific sexual needs, they have no choice but to be honest. In order to balance the realities of their world, they must communicate and their acceptance of one another is absolute.

I adore Dami and Varazda and their romance comes with an honesty that reads as both genuine and as a natural extension of the unusual circumstances surrounding their lives together. As with Sword Dance, the world in which they live is fictional, but it feels Greco/Roman/Persian and I think it’s safe to call it historically inspired. If you enjoyed Sword Dance, then you will love Saffron Alley and I hope we get further books about Dami and Varazda in the future. Consider this one recommended.

Read Sue’s review in its entirety here.

Profile Image for Hart_D (ajibooks).
355 reviews9 followers
September 27, 2021
Between four and five stars.

I really enjoy spending time in this world. Varazda and Damiskos are one of my favorite fictional couples ever, because they're so considerate and loving with each other at all times. I love that the author has created a culture in which it isn't totally unremarkable to be queer and/or trans, but it's also possible for everyone to live openly. These don't feel like characters with modern values transplanted into a historical fantasy world.

Ariston is an interesting character and I thought his voice was especially good. His speech really sounds like an enthusiastic young man, and he's sometimes a bit of an irritant to others, but always well-intentioned. The author does not outright tell us much about him, but his character comes shining through in his dialogue. I also liked Yazata a lot. He really pulled at my heartstrings, and I spent much of the book wanting to hug him and tell him he didn't need to be afraid.

I'm really not sure if my one problem with this book is because of my own preferences or if it's a real shortcoming. I feel the mystery/intrigue plot has some pacing problems. It was part of the story from the beginning, but we never (or barely) meet some of the relevant characters until the last few chapters. I think needed more fleshing out, especially. The intrigue and romance plots of Sword Dance worked really well together, so I was expecting something similar. I feel that the intrigue here could've been woven into the rest of the story more effectively.

There is a lot of domestic fluff in this book, as well as a domestic conflict, and I loved all of that so much. I would read ten books about the everyday life of all of the characters in Saffron Alley. So I'm very pleased that we actually spent so much time in this home. It was a great read for me in that way.

I'm looking forward to reading the third book, but I know both Sword Dance and Saffron Alley will be frequent rereads for me.
Profile Image for Terri Jones.
2,073 reviews26 followers
February 14, 2021
I got to read the ARC, and I type this at you with a grin. Perfect last line!

I enjoyed every character, and it was lovely to watch this new relationship find its feet despite lies and intrigue and mistrust and other hurdles. What a good story. You don't have to read Sword Dance to enjoy this one, although a few moments will make better emotional sense if you do.

I love the worldbuilding, I love that this one is in Varazda's country, I love their dynamic. Just glorious. But most of all, Damiskos is the best of men and I'm so glad he exists. :)
Profile Image for Chiara D'Agosto.
Author 5 books55 followers
February 8, 2021
4.5 stars :)

When I first started diving into A.J. Demas' books during the first lockdown we've had here in the UK, I wasn't honestly expecting to fall SO HARD for her world. But I did, and it was so easy.
I believe the setting of all of these stories is indeed their best characteristic. Not just the "setting" in general, mind, but the whole, extremely complex universe each of these characters lives in. It is a character on its own, and a beautiful, layered one as well.
As a Classicist, I might find this more endearing than others, but I truly appreciate how the author is capable to convey concepts, customs, descriptions pertaining to the divide between the Greek and Persian world, to then apply all of it to her own, unique narrative.
In Saffron Alley I found all the same things I had loved about Sword Dance, One night in Boukos and Something Human. Honestly, the descriptions of Boukos, of Saffron Alley, and the society and tension in the city were just wonderful. It felt so alive.

Then, it was of course about the romance. I was looking forward to reading this story from Varazda's pov, and I wasn't disappointed. He's a lovely character, resilient and fragile, cheeky but cautious, insecure but brave. There's a lot going on in his character, and I was happy to read about all the themes only just touched in Sword Dance come to life properly. Varazda has fought hard to build his own place in the world, and as I did in the first novel, I came out of this one respecting the hell out of him, and it's kind of a weird feeling, when related to a fictional character! One of the few I would love to have as a friend, if that makes sense. I was deeply moved by his fierce sense of protection towards his family, especially by his relationship with Tash and Yazata. The first, who's trying so hard to fit in and to be a man, and the second, who can't understand what Varazda feels for Damiskos and tries to protect him at all costs from what he considers dangerous. I loved it, honestly. The dynamics between this found family was so moving. And I enjoyed a lot the theme surrounding the juxtaposition between Varazda and Tash: two people who have been subjected to the same mutilation, one of them living his life after having dealt with it and cutting for himself a new identity, and the other, still struggling with what he "can't be". I don't know, it brought me to tears, especially how Damiskos kinda dances around them because he's afraid some of the things he's ok to say to Varazda would offend Tash. He was so careful.

The "romance" side of this story was lovely as well, but I wish these two had more occasions to spend some time together alone! This was one thing I found lacking in the book: there was so much going on around them, so I understand why they didn't have that many scenes alone together to talk and relax and enjoy each other's company. But I felt constantly nagged by the fact that Damiskos was soon going to leave, and the stolen chances they have to "be together" didn't quite feel like enough while I was reading. In the end, I was left a bit dissatisfied with this side of the story, even though I enjoyed very much their cautious approach of sex and sexuality in general, and as in Sword Dance I loved Damiskos because he's a gentleman :) Still, I just wish they shared more time talking vis a vis about personal stuff. You know, deep stuff. Not like they didn't, they did. I just wanted more because I'm greedy, I suppose.
I would absolutely be thrilled knowing there's a third part to this story coming out eventually. I can't get tired of spending time with these characters, and in this world.

An ARC copy of this book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!
Profile Image for Catherine.
926 reviews24 followers
March 5, 2021
Varazda felt an anticipatory shiver chase down his spine. Sparring with Damiskos was thrilling. Almost—well, not almost, but very nearly somewhere in the same region—as good as sex with him. — Varazda

Saffron Alley has ties to Sword Dance. While you can maybe read them stand alone I would not recommend it. The case that Varazda is chasing in Sword Dance is still being dealt with in Saffron Alley. This picks up a month later the day Damiskos, referred to mostly as Dami in this book, is due to arrive in Boukos to see Varazda and his family. While Sword Dance was from Damiskos's perspective, Saffron Alley is from Varazda's. We get to meet his family and see the place he has made his home. His family are wonderful and not quite what I expected. They were freed by the Zash ambassador 7 years earlier, Ariston is now 21, Yazata's age isn't given but I suspect he's about the same age as Varazda. Yazata is a bit of an introvert, his life prior to being freed was ugly, he's a homebody. He feels the need to protect. His coding appears to be as an aroace. Ariston is more outgoing and an apprentice sculptor, a lot of his good adjustment is down to Varazda.  Much of the story revolves around him. Both Yaz and Ariston are suspicious of Dami and his reasons for being there, due to the closeness of their family bond they are all they have. Their houses are stunning, and I would love you see a visualisation of it, they have shared houses with knocked out walls communal spaces and huge practice space for Varazda. There were some guest appearances from the characters in One Night in Boukos Marzana and Chereia, I thought I remembered seeing Bedar's name as well but apparently not. I haven't read that book, and don't really have much of an interest. Marzana and Chereia are both lovely.

On the names in Saffron Alley. In Sword Dance, Varazda has two names, Varazda his Zash name and Pharastes his Pseuchaian name. That pattern of names continues in Saffron Alley with his family but with a complication. Yazata is also called Iasta by Pseuchaians. Remi is called Umit by Yazata, Ummi is her true name, I really appreciate the cultural aspect displayed there. The character that Varazda always referred to as Tash (Pseuchaian name was Tasos) now uses the name Ariston for everyone. Effectively meaning Varazda is deadnaming him. Personally, I like the choice to have Varazda deadname Ariston. It makes it interesting for a reader. We are in the head of someone who is truly trying to change their thought processes but its a long term habit. The change is recent even he is astounded when people call him by the right name at times, Damiskos studiously refers to Ariston as Ariston despite Yazata, Varazda and members of the community slipping and calling Ariston Tash. Remi is an angel she is so good with Ariston's name, Varazda's pronouns and Damiskos's appearance in her life.  Varazda is trying to change, trying to adjust through the book there is this interesting disconnect where he will call Ariston Ariston when it is spoken but think of him as Tash. It's imperfect and that is why I like it. Even though Ariston hasn't changed his gender, it's remains something to adjust to and he must be shown that respect but I can't imagine how hard it must be for families to be to adjust to a name they have used for a long time. It's not an instant switch for fiction to treat it as such is in a way disrespectful. On some Greek Mythological ties. There are a number of very clear mythological names in this. Kallisto struck me straight away. Mythologically she was one of Artemis's nymphs, seduced by Zeus and then cast out eventually meeting her end by either Hera or Artemis (depending on the version). Her father was Lycaon which is quite similar to Lykanos. Though Lycaon was a whole separate mess. Leto is a goddess of motherhood. I'm guessing there are others I missed. I suspect all the names are used in an ironical sense.

“He looks very nice—and I do mean very nice—but more importantly, Marzana had nothing but good to say about him. We just didn’t know you were … well. Quite frankly, we didn’t know you were in the market for handsome soldiers—but perhaps you didn’t know that yourself?”
“I … I did and I didn’t.”
— Chereia and Varazda

Random quote and annotation dump for this one.
“I think all that makes sense.” He’d been quiet because he was listening raptly to his friend and his lover finishing each other’s sentences. — This was Varazda about Dami and Marzana. It would be one thing to witness lovers complete each other's sentences, quite another to watch your fairly close friend and your lover.
“The Asteria is in honour of Kerialos.” “Oh, right, of course. The one where the women take over the city.” Varazda nodded. “And men are expected to stay home unless they have a chaperone.” “I’ve heard they can be quite strict about it.” After a moment, looking at Varazda thoughtfully, he said, “What do you do?” The question pleased Varazda. He liked that Dami didn’t take it for granted that he knew which side Varazda would fall on, when the city divided itself by sex. — The whole idea of Asteria is so much fun to me. The rules are great. This whole interaction made me smile and is a brilliant demonstration of Dami's attentiveness. Also Asteria, another Greek Goddess and titaness, sister to Leto, mother to Hecate.
• She was the kind of woman you might call “striking rather than beautiful.” — Not sure if this is intended as vaguely insulting. I think it's a pretty good descriptor.
• “I think,” said Varazda slowly, “that maybe we should stop using the word ‘normal,’ because I’m no longer sure what it means—but falling in love with someone and wanting to be with them is pretty common. Even somebody older or younger—or the same age—or who has a strange job or comes from a different sort of family or any of that.” — I really think this is just good advice.
• she was what a goddess of battle would really look like: naked and bloodied and powerful, with her hair down around her shoulders and weapons in each hand. — I mean yeah. She really does. The lady is an absolute badass when she needs to be.
• But it can be useful, sometimes, to have a few imbeciles whom one can deploy when one does not want a job done well. — This is one of the best quotes I've read in quite a while. I laughed.

I'm not sure what sort of book this is in a way it isn't strictly plot-driven and it isn't driven by the characters. But the characters are why I came to it. I adore Damiskos and Varazda. Varazda is a wonderful enby who holds his family together by the power of his own will alone and through a terrifying amount of sacrifices. Which leads him to be willing to give up the one thing he has wanted for himself in a long time. During the Asteria festival, we get a look inside Varazda's head when she in a female mood. I found this whole section stunning. She rode the tide of exhilaration raised by the communal dance, the easy flow of it, the mixture of masculine and feminine that might have been made for her, but was really a high mystery of the Boukossian women’s festival. She looked for Dami on the benches, and there he was, watching her." Damiskos is gloriously attentive to Varazda at all times. While he is not quick to anger, he gets angry at the men that hurt Varazda in his past, and I personally find that highly romantic. He is more than willing to do what gives Varazda pleasure and always puts Varazda first. There is a repeated line ‘I like a lot of things.’ which is honestly one of my favourite lines when it is explained. Damiskos's willingness to respect Varazda's boundaries and limitations even when Varazda is drunk and begging him is something I really appreciated. When they first come back together they aren't sure how to behave reading them find their beat again was enjoyable. The great joy? Their chemistry as they perform together. Varazda as a dancer and Damiskos as his accompanist. That dance... I want to see it performed.

I found Saffron Alley really slow it start and slightly difficult to get into but it ends beautifully. There is a lot of happiness. I didn't really expect those players on those roles. For the endgame but it is effective. According to a reply by A.J. Demas in February 2020, there is a third book in the Sword Dance series, I did originally read this was a trilogy (somewhere). But I don't see where it goes from here. The story arc from Sword Dance itself and the arcs in this appear to be wrapped up. There is the option of Damiskos and Varazda going on a spy mission together (given their chemistry especially when they are performing) or maybe something in Zash. But at least in theory, Varazda can't go back to Zash without dire consequences. Just some things to keep in mind there is a scene of domestic abuse, deadnaming, enby-phobia. I think I'm missing something.

“What else did he say? Oh, I remember. ‘My brother is so comfortable being himself. I wish I could be like that.’ I remember wondering what he meant by that, but now I think I see.”
“Do you?”
“I think he meant that you don’t try to blend in. Not even a little bit. I admire that.”
— Kallisto and Varazda (given that Varazda is an enby I feel like this is a huge compliment)

A representative gif:

Profile Image for Hirondelle.
877 reviews181 followers
October 11, 2021
The plot continues straight (after a month) from Sword Dance and picks up unresolved plot points and even conversations from it, exploring how this romantic relationship is going to develop and it is a very different kind of book from SD.

It is novel length but feels almost like a novella, and it is wonderfully cozy somehow (apart from, you know, the whole slavery thing being normal. Apart from that...) but there really is not MUCH bones to it. (I am bad at ratings, or knowing how to rate things, I am oscillating between 3 and 4 stars).

Damiskos visits Varazda's home, meets (and is audited by) his family and friends, there are some mystery plots which will tie somewhat to the political plot in SD, character development and that is it. I enjoyed it a lot but I did not love it or found it as gripping as SD. Also somehow not as sharply funny even if there are plenty of madcap bits here (like a scary pet). The PoV character is Varazda, perhaps that is it, there is less of that tension of the unknown, or maybe I just loved Damiskos´ PoV or maybe SD just used a lot of tropes I love. I did not love this book as much, or even close to as much, but it was still lovely. And cozy.

Book 3 releases in a couple of days which was excellent (unaware) timing from my part at picking this series to read, I definitely want to read it soon.
Profile Image for Ash.
15 reviews12 followers
Want to read
December 5, 2020
From author's Twitter: "My next book, SAFFRON ALLEY, will be out on Feb. 16, 2021. This is the sequel to SWORD DANCE, the continuation of Dami and Varazda's story. More swords, more dancing. And a goose."
869 reviews32 followers
September 5, 2021
Even better the second time around. Stands up marvellously on its own. I look forward to rereading it with the two previous books and the next one.
Profile Image for peach.
451 reviews26 followers
November 23, 2021
Unfortunately, this book was something of a let-down for me. It's not necessarily because it's a bad book (it was still a 3-star read!), I was just expecting something else, perhaps something more, from it.

The setting is very well-developed and brought alive by the writing. There's also a lot of focus on gender and identity, which I thought was done in a very interesting way with the different characters, and I liked that we got to see Varazdas point of view in this book. My main issue with this book was the pacing and balancing of the story elements.

There are, as I see it, three major threads in this story: The conflict in the household, the assassination plot, and Damiskos and Varazdas relationship with each other. But I didn't feel like the three parts were intertwined very well, and Damiskos and Varazdas romance in particular, which I was most interested and invested in, felt overshadowed by the other parts of the book. Since they spent such a short time together in the first book I had hoped the romance would be developed a lot more in this book. But while the book somewhat dealt with how their lives could fit together, I didn't feel that they had time to substantially develop their relationship since the household conflict and assassination plot took up most of their time.

I felt that the assassination plot lacked the stakes of the first book until very late in the book, which made it hard for me to feel emotionally invested in it. At one point in the middle of the book the characters didn't even seem to have any pressing reasons to continue pursuing it, which in turn made me frustrated that so much time was spent on that and so little on Damiskos and Varazdas relationship.

While there were some minor relationship moments throughout the book, few scenes seemed to have the romance as its main focus. The handful of such scenes that we got were nice, but I wanted to see more of them. It also felt like rather than being interwoven throughout the book, some of the conflicts in their relationship just randomly popped up in those scenes only to be forgotten as the other plots took over and not thought about until another romance scene appeared, which lessened the emotional impact for me. I would have loved to see the romance be more present in the book, because I really like Damiskos and Varazdas and how they approach their relationship with so much thoughtfulness and consideration towards each other.

All in all I was happy to see Damiskos and Varazdas again, but the story didn't fully work for me and the romance just wasn't strong enough for me to feel satisfied by this book.
Profile Image for Veronika.
Author 1 book69 followers
August 30, 2021
Den ersten Band fand ich so toll, mit dem hier hatte ich einfach meine Probleme...
Die Charaktere mochte ich immer noch wahnsinnig gerne, aber die Storyline lief so schleppend und teilweise extrem langatmig. Und leider gab es eine Storyline, die ich gehasst habe, wo jemand aus den besten Motiven versucht hat die Beziehung zwischen Varazda und Damiskos zu sabotieren ... und das ganze entstand aus, meiner Meinung nach, dummen Misskommunikation UND hat sich extrem übergriffig angefühlt. Also ich habe verstanden, wieso der Charakter es macht, aber es hat genervt und sich viiiiel zu lange hingezogen und einen viel zu großen Teil der Story eingenommen.
Das World Building und die Charaktere waren trotzdem, wie immer, total spannend und schön, deswegen trotzdem noch drei Sterne.
Profile Image for Amf0001.
248 reviews3 followers
March 1, 2021
Sometimes it's hard to imagine that people in the past were as bawdy and sophisticated and complex and real as we are. And then you watch fiction like Rome on HBO and it's so satisfying! That's what this book feel like. Even though it's short, it feels sprawling. There is an entire ancient world out there, and we get a sense of it's breadth and depth through these few souls that we meet. I love all the characters, but especially Dami and Varazda, who are three dimensional and complex and not twentieth century folk dressed in ancient clothes, but full inhabitants of their time and place. Such a good book! And with some really great love scenes too. An excellent find. It's part two and I recommend reading part 1 first - it's also excellent. I'm looking forward to the third installment.
Profile Image for Josie.
62 reviews1 follower
February 14, 2021
*Free arc copy provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!*

4.5 stars rounded up.

Saffron Alley picks up a month after the events of Swords Dance, with Damiskos coming to Boukos to visit Varazda’s home. We get to explore Varazda’s family and life, all from his pov and see how Dami fits into it all. The book also picks up the threads of the political tension from the first book.


After getting Dami’s pov in SD, it was great to see things from Varazda’s, the tone of the writing feels distinctly like him, very different from Dami’s more forward narration and yet they retain the chemistry from book one, especially in their dialogue.

Varazda’s family! All, except for his daughter (and the goose), are eunuchs and from similar backgrounds and yet all three perceive themselves completely differently. I really enjoyed seeing how they fit together regardless and how the addition of Dami influences their dynamic. And Remi is just the cutest. I’m always a sucker for found family and I love this one, really hope we’ll get to see more of this in book three.

Demas’s writing is as fun to read as ever. It’s easy to read and flows well, pulling you right into the story. When I started reading this, I sank right into it, as I have with all her previous novels and I read it all in one sitting, despite being in a complete reading slump before!

The world in general is very well build and gets flashed out some more in this. I’m a big fan of this fantasy version of the ancient world and I love that she doesn’t use influences from just one culture. Instead, it’s about the clash of different cultures, the similarities and differences between them. It makes the world feel vast – as it should. I especially like the exploration of sexuality through this lense (or these lenses, I suppose). It’s another staple of all her books so far, but this trilogy stands out to me in it, because of Varazda’s unique experience.

Dami and Varazda and their relationship! They are just both great characters and they fit together so well. Dami wakes up every morning and has a bucket full of respect Varazda (and everyone else) juice and Varazda sits right beside him with his jug of appreciate Dami tea and I live for it. They have big mom-and-dad energy with each other and everyone around them. It’s great to watch their relationship develop further and see the care they take around each other and Varazda’s family.


Although I love their relationship, whenever I’m reminded in the text that they have known each other for only a month and have spend only a week together when this book starts and two weeks when it ends, I’m a bit stumped. Like I said, they feel like they’re married, basically, they are a great unit and have fantastic chemistry, but when you are reminded of how little time has passed, it feels a bit unrealistic. Unfortunately this is also prevalent in Demas’s books, not just this one and I’m just not a fan. I wish she would give her characters a little more time to grow into their relationships.

The assassination/political intrigue plot was not the best. I have definitely read much worse, but I wouldn’t call this anything but passable. It’s very much in the background until the last few chapters and then suddenly everything happens. Not just that, but it also ties into Varazda’s family very conveniently. In previous books, both in this series and out of it, this mix between the romantic and the political plotline was much better handled.

I greatly enjoyed this book and have only minor complains, which didn’t hamper my overall enjoyment. I’ll be buying a copy when it’s out to support the author and plan to reread the series when the final book comes out.
Profile Image for Elaine White.
Author 40 books233 followers
October 19, 2021
Reviewed for Divine Magazine


Saffron Alley (Sword Dance, 02) by A.J. Demas
270 Pages
POV: 3rd person, one character POV
Content Warning: murder, non-binary slurs, disabled slurs, mild violence and murder

Saffron Alley is Book 2 in the charming Sword Dance series. It continues the story of Damiskos and Varazda, one month on from the events of Book 1, during the agreed-on visit to Varazda's home. Where Book 1 took place in Damiskos' comfort zone – both in terms of location, acquaintances, and his military experience – Saffron Alley is, as the title suggests, entirely in Varazda's wheelhouse. Saffron Alley is, afterall, Varazda's home street.

Throughout the story, I loved watching Varazda and Damiskos grow, both together as a couple and as individuals. Their problems from one hadn't miraculously disappeared, or become unimportant. Damiskos' leg injury was still a factor, still a recurring, prominent issue. Varazda's non-binary duality of male/female while being a eunuch, dancer, ex-pleasure slave, and discovering his limitations in the bedroom, were as important and sensitively explored as before. Both showed growth, and shared equal importance in the story, though Book 1 was told in Damiskos' POV and this one gave Varazda his POV.

Honestly, I began by reading Book 1.5, a free short on the author's website, and while it recapped the events of Book1 in Varazda's POV, I really wanted more from him. I wanted more of his experiences, more of his POV, and I was relieved when Book 2 gave me all of that and more.

As for secondary characters, I enjoyed getting to know Varazda's family. Remi was wild and cute and annoying, as all fictional children should be, constantly interrupting important conversations, running wild into scenes to ruin the moment. She was a delight. Ariston was stupidly adorable, in the way only foolish teenage boys mooning over an impossible love can be (though he's not a teenager). And Yazata was sweet, a gentle giant, a cuddly teddy bear, and heartbreakingly innocent and anxious. I warmed to all of them very quickly.

In terms of the story, I enjoyed that this was more of a domestic situation rather than a real military crime, though the plot had continuation elements of the previous book that kept it not only logical but within the realm of possibility. I liked that previous events had relevance, that nothing was cleanly swept under the rug or perfectly resolved. I liked that politics had its place, that decisions weren't always under Varazda or Damiskos' control, despite their positions of power and authority.

It felt more realistic to know that some things were ignored, overlooked, missed, or unexplored due to life getting in the way, or not appearing important at the time. It was also refreshing to see them working as a team without hesitation, both with Damiskos' setting aside his military persona to become soft and flirty with Varazda, while Varazda recalled their military expedition from the previous book and became more comfortable around Damiskos. They both opened up a lot and shared more, in this book, which was nice, because it was realistic for two people who really hadn't spent a lot of time together and were still learning about each other.

I absolutely fell in love with the awkwardly adorable scenes, where Damiskos and Varazda were struggling to find their groove, after a month apart and only a week or two of knowing each other. I equally loved those moments where they accidentally fell into complete comfort and familiarity, when they turned to each other for the familiar and a moment of comfort and found each other right where they expected them to be.

The earrings and “future wife” moment was charming and adorable. It was so nice to see a budding relationship that managed to have the charm and open honesty of a long-term relationship. Both wanted permanence and made allowances for the odd behaviour of their families to make it work, fighting through ordinary, everyday struggles to keep holding onto each other. But, Damiskos was also aware of Varazda's past and put the brakes on when Varazda's was too drunk to care about boundaries. While Varazda was considerate of Damiskos' injury and needs, often silently accommodating him without admitting it.

The down sides? It was a little confusing, at first. I found the beginning of the story dragged a little, in the same way Book 1 did. It took a while to get to the point and get started, with Damiskos not appearing until 6%. Small, silly things were left confusing and unclear, such as Selene being a pet but not clarifying what kind, waiting until Damiskos arrived to clarify relationships and connections between people. And, after taking about 2-3 weeks between reading Book 1 for the first time, it was jarring to read a “historical” story with modern speech and slang, like “babe” and “that won't wash”. Sometimes the speech was entirely fitting with a historical story, and at others phrasing like this would slip in and jar. Though, despite being jarring, it was consistent with its use in Book 1.

Overall, I really enjoyed the story. It's got a quiet, subtle charm to it that makes me smile throughout, connecting and loving the characters, always eager to see what kind of chaos they'll fall into next. It's not a rollercoaster of emotion, or full of intense edge-of-your-seat thrills, but it's a family-sage style of cosy mystery that really appeals to me. It's sweet at times, hot at others, fast-paced and exciting in between, keeping a good balance between all three. It manages to be sweet, funny, and lovely all at once. I'll happily read more in this series and world, for however the author wishes to write the stories. And I'll be adding them to my paperback list.


Favourite Quotes

“I’ve never had a lover I’d have been ashamed to kiss in the street. I don’t now.” He looked Varazda in the eye. “Want me to prove it?”
Varazda’s hand flew to his mouth. “Oh, God,” he said from behind it, “no, I don’t. I—I’m sorry, but no.”
Dami laughed that growly, pit-of-the-stomach laugh. “Let me know, any time you change your mind. And,” he added more seriously, “if you don’t, that’s absolutely fine too. The street isn’t my favourite place to kiss.”
Varazda felt it was safe to take his hand away from his mouth. “Should I ask … what is?”
“Nah. I’d just have to say something dirty, and you’d start blushing again, and it would become a whole situation.”
Profile Image for Olga Godim.
Author 12 books70 followers
October 25, 2021
3.5 stars
A charming, low-key story about two people building a relationship. Ostensibly, it is a fantasy M/M romance, set in a world vaguely based on ancient Greece. There is also a murder mystery somewhere close to the end of the story. But in its essence, it is a relationship story. How it builds. How it is intertwined with our families and our self-doubts. Both protagonists are deeply sympathetic, which made the narrative more realistic than many other speculative fiction stories.
Overall: simply lovely.
Profile Image for Helen.
427 reviews14 followers
October 12, 2021
I didn't enjoy the plot of the first book, but I really liked the central soft relationship between two decent people and I wanted to revisit them.
I enjoyed this instalment much more - the intrigue plot takes a backseat, there's Varazda's found family (which I loved) and much more of Dami and Varazda's developing relationship (they're both such lovely people!). I'm now really looking forward to the final book.
Profile Image for Clemy-chan.
512 reviews11 followers
June 5, 2022
Without reiterating everything I said about the first book, I loved seeing our MCs in Boukos, negotiating a completely different dynamic than they had in the first book! (The whole "mystery"/political plot still felt redundant and convoluted to me...)
Profile Image for Tori.
870 reviews20 followers
February 15, 2021
It was wonderful to visit with Damiskos and Varazda again. I especially liked being inside of Varazda's head, and getting to know to him better. His gender fluidity is more in the forefront as well, I enjoyed seeing it.

I absolutely loved seeing Varazda's family unit. The first book was very self contained, and getting to see the universe and characters expand. I love seeing two people who love each other work to put their lives together, and in a lot of ways this book felt very "slice of life." The intrigue is still present, and it does ramp up in the second half, but for me, the real draw is the relationship between Varazda and Damiskos.

I'm excited to read more about them!

I received and ARC from the author.
384 reviews3 followers
February 4, 2021
I really enjoyed this book!

In this sequel to Sword Dance, we follow Damiskos and Varazda as they attempt to work out their relationship once Varazda has returned to his home and family in Boukos. As such it addresses one of my favourite themes - how to develop and maintain a nascent relationship that began in a time of high tension once the tension has gone, and you are faced with fewer external threats and more if the internal ones, such as family, customs, and especially your own insecurities and fears.

Told all in Varazda's POV (unlike Sword Dance), we get a great insight into Varazda's life and personality, and this worked really well for me, especially in the handling of his gender identity, and his emotions- both familial and for Dami. I was very pleased to see Varazda's sexual preferences and history respected without drama and without any magical healing coming merely from Dami's existence.

Found family is another great favourite of mine and I liked how that was developed here, especially with the very different personalities involved.

The writing was excellent, I especially enjoyed the descriptions of places, something which was a highlight for me in all of A.J Demas's previous books as well.

The only minor negative part I had was really that the mystery faded away in importance for me, and by the eventual denouement I wasn't particularly invested- essentially I just wanted more and more of Dami and Varazda's homelife!

This felt a fair bit gentler and calmer than the high tension of Sword Dance, but with a depth of thoughtfulness, care and emotion that hit deep and left me thinking and smiling afterwards.

*I received a free ARC in exchange for an honest review*
Profile Image for Em.
495 reviews11 followers
January 15, 2021
4.5 stars rounded up - I know this will be a rereadable favorite because I have already reread it!

This is a beautiful sequel to Sword Dance, a contrast in style and plot that eminently suits Varazda’s POV. It’s a little more low key, though just as sexy and full of feelings. While Sword Dance had Damiskos and Varazda plunged quickly into obvious danger, the tension in Saffron Alley starts out more run of the mill: Damiskos is in Boukos to visit, and nothing is going to plan. No one’s in mortal danger but assumptions and overprotective family members keep tripping Damiskos and Varazda up like an angry goose in the kitchen.

It’s not malicious – everyone is trying to be good to each other, but sometimes they are trying so hard they get it wrong. Varazda has conversations with Damiskos and with his family where the right words are said, but they have such different assumptions that they take away completely different things. It’s understandable and realistic, and it creates the painful sort of tension that I know they can work through but at the same time I am holding my breath waiting to see how they do.

I loved getting Varazda’s POV, especially in contrast to Dami’s view of him in Sword Dance. He works so hard to seem effortless in how he acts and we get to see more of that hard work in this book. We also get to see the city of Boukos (if you’ve read One Night in Boukos you may recognize some characters!) and all the characters that inhabit it. A.J. Demas has a talent for writing the most minor character in a way that makes them leap off the page, and it is put to very good use here.

If I have one complaint it’s that the end feels a bit abrupt. In the second half, the political plot that has been sneakily growing in the background springs to the forefront. It’s exciting and we get to see Damiskos and Varazda both being very good at their jobs, but we end on that high note with no time to come down and sit with our characters some more. I really wanted that quiet after the storm, so without a book 3 yet I went right back to Sword Dance and read them both straight through again

misc content notes/warnings:

Varazda’s gender fluidity is more present here as we’re in his head. He spends a day passing as a woman and some part of that day thinking of herself as “she”.
Varazda’s brother has recently adopted a Pseuchian name and well-intentioned people frequently forget to use it.
There is some domestic violence by and at side characters.

I received an ARC from the author. This review is also on my blog here
Profile Image for PaperMoon.
1,356 reviews56 followers
March 2, 2021
What a joy to be re-immersed in the author's fictional ancient historical worlds of Pseuchaia and Zash. As usual, the attention to socio-cultural detail, the geographic and city landscapes, the local businesses and landmarks, the uneasy tensions and alliances amongst those living in Boukos ... transport me happily to another world/place for several hours.

Damiskos is visiting Varazda supposedly on a week-long vacation, but 'meeting the folks' provides plenty of anxiety for our MCs (who readers might be aware have only really been 'enjoying each other's company / physical presence' for a total period of less than two weeks). This second book provides a calmer and less volatile environment (from that found in Sword Dance) to further explore their feelings and intentions toward each other. I thoroughly relished the internal and interpersonal dialogue for Dami and Varazda as they fumble their way toward greater emotional and physical intimacy.

I believe it was W.C. Fields who coined the phrase to 'never work with children or animals', and this axiom proved true as Remi and Selene stole every scene they were featured in; these two provided the hilarity and levity as counterbalance to the rest of the book's intensity/drama. The author provides yet another crazy Boukos city-festival as backdrop to our MC's investigation of a possible crime/murder ... bringing back a few delightful characters from One Night in Boukos; what a delight to witness where a few years had taken Marzana and Chereia!

My only quibble is the dialogue occasionally drifts into such a degree of modern vernacular that it throws me out from being totally immersed into the 'ancient Mediterranean' world; the secondary character Tash/Ariston for the most part sounds like a club-twink and in one angry discourse near the end, Damiskos comes out with a startling “no, you don’t get to appeal to us for manly sympathy, you sack of shit. You bankrolled a riot that left three men dead, you helped the guilty parties escape justice, you introduced your girlfriend to a group of dangerous criminals, and—if I’ve got this part right—you also tried to spoil your ex-boyfriend’s moment of triumph last night by making a piece of his frieze fall off the wall? You’re culpable as fuck.” O-kaaay. Apart from that, this second book in the trilogy (thank the gods there is another book coming) deserves 4.5 stars.
Profile Image for Ellie.
812 reviews162 followers
March 1, 2021
3.5 stars rounded up

I loved the development of the romantic relationship but was not sold on some of the suspense/mystery plot line. I liked the disability rep and I am intrigued by the exploration of queer identity.
I am looking forward to the conclusion of Dami and Varazda's story.

I was happy that I could read this book right after I finished the first one so I could pick up Dami and Varazda's story right where they left off.

I loved the romance here even more than in book 1 but also found the suspense, especially the whole plotline with Varazda's friend Ariston even more ridiculous than in book 1. This did nothing to detract of my joy of the rest of the story though.

Seeing Dami and Varazda becoming a couple, navigating V's family and friends, deepening their intimacy (which had its ups and downs) was wonderful.

My favourite element in the romance is how much of it is basically caring about each other, being mindful of the other person's issues (Dami's disability impairs his movement and V is also considerate of that without making a big deal about it; V's trauma impacts his ability to be intimate of Dami and Dami did his best to make their intimate experiences as comfortable, as satisfying as possible for V without making him pressured or inadequate in any way).

I absolutely loved seeing them navigate V's family and domestic routines. Dami is great with V's found family, no questions, no doubts, complete understanding of V's obligations and care for his loved ones. I liked how they navigate their intimacy, made accommodations for the traumas and disabilities of the other without making it a big deal. There was awkwardness and misunderstandings, but also a lot of care for each other, subtle gestures of support, love, trust which I loved seeing on page.

This book delves deeper into Varazda being non-binary/genderfluid. I enjoyed seeing him embrace himself (and his friends' absolute acceptance of who he is) but since I am a cis person myself I don't feel qualified to judge how well the non-binary representation was done.

The story ends abruptly but with a tentative HFN and the promise of a HEA. I am excited to read the next book in the series and see how Damiskos and Varazda and their loved ones will settle together as one big family.
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