From the publisher:
If you love someone, set them free…
I thought I’d be okay when Caspian Hart left. He was a brilliant, beautiful billionaire with a past he couldn’t escape. And I was … just me: an ordinary man lost in his own life. It would never have lasted. It should never have happened. Not outside a fairytale.
And I am okay. I’ve got my job, my family, my friends, and everything Caspian taught me. Except it turns out he’s going to marry his ex-boyfriend. A man who doesn’t understand him. A man who almost broke him. And I’ve finally realized it’s not enough for me to be happy. I need Caspian to be happy too.
Problem is, I’ve already done all I can to help him. I’ve followed his rules and broken his rules and learned his secrets. And he still won’t believe I can love him. So now it’s his turn. His turn to fight, and trust, and hope. It’s time for Caspian Hart to choose me.
Check out my combined review for the two previous books:
Warning: Contains some spoilers
Initially, this review was intended to be a joint one together with my friend, handsfullmama. We’d broken down all the elements to discuss but realized, 5k words later, that maybe we’d taken the task beyond its intended purpose. Plus, 5k is very long for a review so we decided to cancel that project and take our observations back to our respective sites. As it is, this review is still insanely long so I apologize in advance.
So this series – I almost wish I could go back and review the series all over again with the third book in mind. What started off as a rejoinder to 50 Shades of Grey has in fact turned into a genre-challenging novel on sexuality, sexual abuse recovery and the subversion of the most toxic elements of mm romance. When looked at in its entirety, I have to kind of sit back and take a deep breath because there is a lot to work with here. I’m going to start with the craft stuff.
TL;dr – This series is excellent and worth all the stars. All. The. Stars.
Proceed at your own risk.
Obviously, being the third act of a trilogy and the post cliffhanger book, the beats differ from a standalone novel. There is a significant portion in the first half of the novel where Arden and Caspian do not spend actual time together on page. But Caspian’s presence is everywhere – he’s always on Arden’s mind as Arden actively works to get over him. Still, there’s lots of emotional tension from not knowing what form the resolution would take. It’s a credit to Hall as a writer that, even writing in the romance genre where an HEA is guaranteed, I was genuinely unsure until the very end if he would pull it off.
My favorite character after Darian and Ash in Glitterland. Perfectly drawn, distinct voice, thinks like an English major steeped in pop culture. There’s a comment his aunt makes about Arden that sums up his character – he’s not a cynic. I don’t want to exaggerate his perfection because he’s not – Nathaniel wasn’t too far off base to call out Arden for wasting the privilege of studying at Oxford. But Arden’s faith in the goodness of people and general openness to life makes him precious. The way he sees Caspian is the perfect counterpoint to the way Caspian sees himself. Arden sparkles and you want to keep him safe even though he doesn’t actually need it. Arden is strong because he knows who he is, a sense of self that gets stronger as the narrative progressive. He also has a solid moral core, the result of being well-loved, and an intuitive understanding of what is right and wrong.
Ah, Caspian, Caspian. He did not give me the kind of satisfaction as a reader that I wanted from a romantic lead. Hall does a good job of retooling the character of Christian Grey, with his need for control and his extensive emotional damage, to give us Caspian Hart. And considering the prime material, it’s a miracle we got what we got. Caspian has a lot of shortcomings. He pissed me off so many times because his own issues caused him to hurt Arden.
However there is no moment in the narrative where I doubted that Caspian loved Arden. Through all his misguided decisions, his self-loathing (“such a self-masturbatory vice”), his gift for hurting Arden, I knew he loved him. Caspian is himself wounded in so many ways and honestly, for as much as I kick and scream and whine about him, I get him. I’d have a hard time giving in to something that I felt reduced me as a human being and reminded me of my trauma. And if I considered my preference to be beyond deviant (the way Caspian describes himself, you’d think he was eating newborn babies), then I’m going to question who and how I love.
Arden fights this toxic belief throughout the series. It goes back to a persistent theme in Hall’s novels – that sexuality is fluid, that your preferences are your own and it doesn’t matter why want who you want, it’s the wanting that matters, if that makes sense. Arden keeps telling Caspian this – it’s just sex in the end. Who cares where your compulsions come from? It’s who Caspian is now. But Caspian takes a long time to accept what Arden is saying and he is still hesitant by the end of the novel.
His damage wrecks my heart. But he hurts Arden and really, I’m #protectArden all the way.
Also, as I’m rambling, this reminds me of a blog post that Hall made about Buffy the Vampire Slayer where he talks about the amorality of love – you can be evil and cruel and still be able to love someone. It isn’t that love, objectively speaking, is some sort of redeeming trait. Anyone can love. They may not love well, but they can love. Consider Ellery and the way Caspian responds to her. Caspian loves her but he has a tragic way of showing it.
After finishing the novel, I reread the blurb – “So now it’s his turn. His turn to fight, and trust, and hope. It’s time for Caspian Hart to choose me ” I can’t help but feel that, yet again, it’s Arden, who fights to the bitter end and eventually saves Caspian.
Billionaire Dom trope is completely upended. Caspian is a reluctant dom. I can see this being frustrating for readers who are ready for a bit of tie-em-up (and they get that through a secondary relationship) but Hall demonstrates a deep understanding and great respect for the experience of sexual abuse survivors. We never get to see actual BDSM between Arden and Caspian on the page and, given where the characters are in their personal development and in their relationship, this is appropriate. Not only, but the role of the dom and sub are subverted. Though Caspian will certainly take the lead in the role playing, it is Arden who is most at ease and will have to follow Caspian’s readiness and teach him to be comfortable.
In 50 Shades, we see an (overbearing) Christian Grey navigating Anastasia into a poorly interpreted BDSM space. In this series, the hesitation is on Caspian’s side, because of the association he makes with his sexual abuse, complicated by the fact that he takes too much responsibility for what took place. He is coming from a place where he sees his preferences, and by extension, himself, in a dirty light. Whereas James asks us to take at face value that Grey’s predilections were caused by his own abuse and can be “cured” by love’s true light (give me a moment while I barf), Hall has his Caspian suffering through the connection he has made between his abuse and his preferences. Caspian then enters into a truly toxic relationship with Nathaniel because it reinforces this image of himself, assumptions Arden continues to challenge. It is a neat role reversal and it works, again, because it’s very respectful of the experience of sexual abuse.
Another trope that is essentially trashed in this novel is the slutty bisexual trope. Because Arden is so sex-positive, he embraces the exercise of his sexuality like a maniac (yasss, son!). However, he then turns its ear completely because he is insanely in love with and committed to Caspian. He’s comfortable with the fluid nature of his sexuality and expresses pleasure with George without guilt (as well he should) but emotionally, he is all about Caspian. He demonstrates his commitment to Caspian by fighting for him to the very end, even when all evidence of Caspian ever reconciling with him seems absent. I’m all about smashing this trope. I honestly think you can’t label Ardy’s sexuality and that’s the point. We shouldn’t. Wherever our impulses come, they are valid, and sexuality is as much a part of a person’s character and their temperament as their other preferences.
So did I love this series? Sometimes I didn’t, but not because it wasn’t good. It was hard and demanding and intense but it was worth the roller coaster ride. There are so many fun references to pop culture and literature. Jane Eyre and Roland Barthes keep popping up (Barfes!). I’m not much for the post-structuralists but I’m going to have to go back and read something of Barthes now, dammit. All in all, this series is worth reading and rereading, as long as you don’t mind being emotionally shredded along the way.
Check out my combined review for the two previous books:
ARC provided by Netgalley