There will be spoilers for the manhwa series Rent Boy.
Trigger Warning: There may be references to prejudice, racism, sex work, sex workers, possible human trafficking, pedophilia/statutory rape, assault, violence, orphans, orphanage, suicide, rape, incest/pseudo-incest, BDSM, drugging, confinement, murder, kidnapping, gun violence, death, and corruption, as it appears in the manhwa.
Anton Arnault has finally come of age. Unfortunately, his celebration isn't all that fun. Since he is a child of mixed blood, most attendees (the upper crust) don't see him as the heir to the Arnault fortune but as an invader into their exclusive world. They foresee his rise to power as the end of the prestigious Arnault name. They don't try to hide their disdain and mockery of him either, and all Anton can do is shoulder their judgment and do everything he can to prove them wrong.
Unfortunately, the coming-of-age party isn't the end of the ritual. Now that he is of age, it's time for him to visit the Cyrene Salon, a pretty facade, hiding behind it an exclusive brothel where the upper crust can explore all manner of pleasure hidden from the eyes of general society. Anton must also visit and give up his virginity to one of the many workers there to finally enter the noble world as a man. Wanting to establish himself in this society, he requests the top sex worker in the brothel, who turns out to be a young man named Arwin. Anton is instantly smitten and finds himself drawn in again and again just for Arwin.
Unfortunately, Anton isn't the only one bewitched by Arwin. As it turns out, Arwin is also his father's favorite, and Klaus Arnault isn't above challenging his son for the affection of Arwin. Can Anton maintain his foothold as heir to the Arnault family, or will he lose it all just to be with Arwin?
First off, I'm not a fan of the art style. That will probably be highly controversial, as those who've recommended this to me have described it as a masterpiece in more ways than one. It just feels awkward and plastic. It reminds me a lot of yusa's artwork, a creator whose work I plan on reviewing very soon. This is far prettier than yusa, but some similarities echo that style. This style also reminds me a lot of old-school Yaoi/BL manga, especially when looking at all of the tops with their boxy features. That's not to say this can't be beautiful. There are many panels that I'd happily hang on my wall, but overall this just isn't my cup of tea. It is unique for manhwa, though, and if you're looking for something special and different in that realm, look no further.
I'm also not too fond of how twisted this story gets. The drama is powerful, with Anton Arnault falling in love with Arwin, the top sex worker at the underground brothel Cyrene Salon, who is also his father, Klaus Arnault's favorite. There's something already so dark and twisted about a father and son fighting over a lover, but layers are added that make it all the more so. There is a question of Anton's legitimacy, and because Klaus lost his beloved wife, Anton's mother, he feels a sense of longing toward Anton that goes beyond father and son. Not only does Klaus want Arwin to himself, he wants Anton, too. It's a perverse obsession Klaus has over all those he is intimately close to, to the point that the line between familial and romantic love blurs. I love this drama. I think it's the right amount of twist. I'm not all that fond of the layers on top of it.
Arwin is popular, mainly because he is Klaus's favorite. It's the idea that people want what they can't have, so all attention is on Arwin. When Klaus casts aside Arwin, the target is put on him by all those who have longed for him in Klaus's shadow. This leads to many unsavory folks getting their hands on Arwin, especially when he is purchased from the salon, to be confined and drugged in a basement dungeon for all who want to do things not allowed in the salon. This was an interesting turn, but what ruins it all for me is the introduction of the mysterious character Maggio, this reporter with ties to the mafia. His initial role is to help Anton gain information on his father's business and bring it down so he can be free to be with Arwin, but as it turns out, Maggio is completely mad. His character doesn't make any sense, isn't fleshed out beyond the small snippets of info dumping we get from other characters, and he's just chaos for the sake of chaos. I think the ending we got could have been achieved without his character, but we end up with this chaotic villain that throws off all of the pacing and build-up. It was so disappointing.
What I do appreciate is the ending. Many people strongly feel that romance has to have a happy ending. I disagree. Some of the best-crafted stories have either tragic or, at the very least, somber endings (Metro, A Home Far Away, and December Rain come to mind). This is no exception. The end is painfully powerful, with Arwin never truly finding freedom but instead choosing to lock himself away for the sake of Anton. As he puts it, it is a birdcage of his own making. Similarly, even though his father has died, Anton still lives under his rule, feeling compelled to follow his late father's wishes because he is guilty over his passing, even to the point that he is willing to go through with an arranged marriage, all while Arwin waits for him, hidden away behind the walls of his home. They are finally together but are still caged by the dead, guilt, and codependency. It's far from a happy ending, but it's a very interesting and emotional one that I really enjoyed.
This had so many elements that I liked. It's dark, twisted, and has a refreshingly somber ending, but it was muddled up with the intensity of the drama, characters that are just there for the sake of chaos, and art that just doesn't align with my preferences. I think many people will enjoy this, especially if they enjoy dark, taboo stories in a historical setting. It's not a favorite, but it's a good one.
Have you read Rent Boy? If so, what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment? Do you not? Let me know, and comment below!