Review – Whisper of Shadow & Flame (Book 2, Earthsinger Series)

Whisper

From the publisher:

The Mantle that separates the kingdoms of Elsira and Lagrimar is about to fall. And life will drastically change for both kingdoms.

Born with a deadly magic she cannot control, Kyara is forced to become an assassin. Known as the Poison Flame in the kingdom of Lagrimar, she is notorious and lethal, but secretly seeks freedom from both her untamed power and the blood spell that commands her. She is tasked with capturing the legendary rebel called the Shadowfox, but everything changes when she learns her target’s true identity.

Darvyn ol-Tahlyro may be the most powerful Earthsinger in generations, but guilt over those he couldn’t save tortures him daily. He isn’t sure he can trust the mysterious young woman who claims to need his help, but when he discovers Kyara can unlock the secrets of his past, he can’t stay away.

Kyara and Darvyn grapple with betrayal, old promises, and older prophecies—all while trying to stop a war. And when a new threat emerges, they must beat the odds to save both kingdoms.

Review:

Note: I have not read the first book of the series.

A great epic fantasy captures you in an alternative world and envelopes you in its magic, but also delivers characters who live up to the call to adventure and the pursuit of goals that require resilience and self-sacrifice. L. Penelope’s Whispers of Shadow and Flame does exactly that. In book 2 of the Earthsinger Chronicles, the world-building is internally consistent but the characters of Kyara and Darvyn ol-Tahlyro are so well written, you have no choice but to follow helplessly in their wake.

One thing I always look for is excellent writing and L. Penelope’s writing is perfect for the story she writes. She builds a world that is on the edge of war, the tension razor sharp at every turn. The scenes are tautly written and no one is as they appear. As a romance reader, I was also deeply satisfied with the primary romance. The protagonists are the epitome of opposites – Kyara is a Poison Flame and Darvyn is the most powerful Earthsinger in the Kingdom, which makes their relationship fraught with all the contradictions of bringing life and death together in the bond of love. Watching them come together was an intense experience.

Plus, the covers!

Highly recommend this series.

I received an ARC courtesy of Net Galley.

Where to buy:

 

 

 

Review – Hurricane Reese

Hurricane Reese

From the publisher:

Tony award-winning musician Reese Matheson’s life resembles a natural disaster, and caregiver Jude De La Torre is caught in the eye of the storm. Can the love these two opposites find together survive caring for an ornery octogenarian with wayward balls and a meddling family insistent upon tradition?

A public break-up is not what Reese expects upon returning from the successful run of his musical in London. All he wants to do is spend time with his beloved grandfather and musical mentor, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Reese knows he doesn’t have much time left before the elder Matheson doesn’t remember him. In classic “Hurricane Reese” form, he moves into the cottage by the sea, displacing Jude, the intriguing caregiver he’d hired two years before. When Grandpa proves too much for Reese to handle on his own, Jude comes to his rescue, taming Grandpa… and the Hurricane as well. Soon all Reese can think about is how to get Jude out of his scrubs and into his bed. Permanently. Will Hurricane Reese destroy everything in its wake, or will this gay odd couple learn to harmonize together?

Review:

A fun, quick read, I found the characters to be delightful and moving. Merrill tackles difficult subjects like Alzheimer’s, religious intolerance and coming out in a non-sensationalist way. I found the writing to be solid and the pacing good, except for the second half of the novel but that was because I was impatient for the characters to come together, and not a writing flaw.

Reese is impulsive and overbearing and Jude is stubborn and hard to read. But their character defects made them relatable to the reader and even complimented each other. Jude is Filipino and I really appreciate the author using Filipino culture in a meaningful way, addressing not only their food and religion, but she also captured the importance of family. Refreshingly, family also matters to Reese and it is another place in which their compatibility intersects. His care of his grandfather feels authentic and endears the reader even more to Reese’s character.

The book is part of a trilogy. I look forward to reading the other books in the series.

Booksellers

Dreamspinner Press     Amazon

Review – The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

ladies-guide

From the publisher:

As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away.
As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away.

Catherine St Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested.

While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?

Review:

I read this novel over the summer, picking it up for several reasons, but primarily because of the lavish cover and the promise of a fascinating f/f romance. Rich and passionate, the novel delivers on the promise of its cover. It is a particular delightful read because it is smart, gets the science right and captures the concerns of scientists of the time. But more importantly, and central to the primary romance, is the depiction of the way women were relegated to supporting roles in the lives of male scientists, even when their contributions and insight were far more significant than their spouse’s. Or in the case of Lucy Muchelney, that of her recently deceased father.

I’ve read a few ff romances and I find they are either euphemistic in their approach to feminine passion or they emphasize the sweetness of the affection of the characters and not the passionate nature of their love. While there is a great deal of affection and respect between Lucy and Catherine, their physical passion is also powerful and the author does not hesitate to show that. Each love scene increases in intensity as they give themselves over to their mutual attraction, giving both women their due agency and sexual expression.

Excellent novel – I enthusiastically recommend it.

Where to purchase:

AvonIndieBoundAmazonBarnes & NobleGoogleiBooks

Review – An Untamed State

untamed

From the publisher:

A Haitian American woman survives a brutal kidnapping in this “commanding debut novel” from the New York Times–bestselling author of Bad Feminist (The New Yorker).

Author and essayist Roxane Gay is celebrated for her incisive commentary on identity and culture, as well as for her bestselling nonfiction and short story collections. Now, with An Untamed State, she delivers a “breathtaking debut novel” (The Guardian, UK) of wealth in the face of crushing poverty, and the lawless anger produced by corrupt governments.

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she lives in the United States with her adoring husband and infant son, returning every summer to stay on her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. But the fairy tale ends when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, just outside the estate walls. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As her father’s standoff with the kidnappers stretches out into days, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who despises everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a “breathless, artful, disturbing and original” story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places (Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings).

Review:

I needed days. Days to recover from this book. It is not a book for the faint of heart. I’m only going to say this – if you are a sexual abuse survivor, heed all the warnings, because this book is not written to be comfortable and easy. It is made to confront and challenge the dominant narrative about women’s subjugation and abuse at the hands of a patriarchal society and what it takes, at the level of individual and culture to recover from that.

I’m not going to waste my time on review and summary. I had to walk away, cry, and bite my fist to get through parts of it. There’s a telling sentence in this novel – it’s the women who bear the price of what men want. The protagonist bears it all during 13 days of captivity, and spends the novel after her experience returning from a personal hell that renders politeness and easy conversation impossible. PTSD is depicted, not in a superficial way, but in all its terrifying implications. Gay has taken the powerlessness of victimhood and womanhood and augmented it a thousand times, forcing the reader to stay with Marielle during the entire ordeal. The signs are written into Mireille’s body and soul and the reader is not spared one moment of her torture.

Besides being intensely personal, Marielle’s trauma is also useful metaphor for the trauma that the Caribbean islands have experienced at the hands of the West. But make no mistake – while Gay also puts on striking display the way history has victimized the island of Haiti, this does not distance the reader from the intensely personal and visceral consequences of Marielle’s captivity and abuse. We are not allowed to use pat cultural narratives to anesthetize us against what as many as 1 in 5 women will experience at some point in their lives, experiences we are told repeatedly that we are responsible for, that are not as bad as we say they are. She shows rape, trauma and recovery in all its unmitigated horror. Nothing in this novel spares us from this truth.

Where to purchase:

Amazon     Barnes&Noble    Kobo     iBooks

 

Review – One Day to Fall

One Day to Fall

Booksellers:

Kindle      Google Play     Harlequin     Barnes & Noble     Kobo

From the publisher:

Of all the taxis in all of Cape Town, Sophia Roux had to stumble into his.

She should be at her “perfect” sister’s bedside, awaiting the arrival of the newest member of her family. But the thought of spending hours at the hospital with her suffocating relatives has Sophia hailing the first taxi she sees. Only to realise too late that the man at the wheel of her getaway car is the most unpleasant one she’s ever had the misfortune to meet.

Parker Jones, the handsome yet surly driver in question, is used to dealing with baggage of the family variety. And it just so happens he’s in need of temporary escape from his own. Witty banter with a beautiful—if exasperating—woman while chauffeuring her around the city on a gorgeous spring day makes for an ideal break from reality.

But a lot can happen in twenty-four hours: babies can be born, family can reconnect. And maybe the most unlikely pair can fall in love.

Review:

One Day to Fall is the second novel about the Roux sisters set in South Africa, though in the interest of full disclosure, I did not read the first novel. This is an oversight I hope to rectify, as this novel was a pleasure to read.

Beharrie’s romance takes place in the course of an intense and emotional day. There aren’t many circadian novels, and the ones that come to mind are not romances, such as  Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Saturday by Ian McEwan and Christopher Irshwood’s A Single Man, so I was particularly excited to see her take on this particular structure and execute it so well. The emotional intensity is heightened but it is punctuated with moments of humor that keep the narrative from being claustrophobic.

A further variation that I truly enjoyed in this novel is the Sophie, a heroine who is prickly, bad-tempered and not in a particularly good place, emotionally. Parker, the driver for the car service who picks her up and with whom she falls in love, is also suffering from his own personal complications. They essentially use each other to distract themselves from the distressing facts of their lives but in doing so, discover that they have stumbled on the one person who might understand them better than anyone else in their lives.

I also enjoyed the way the author used the premise to treat readers to a tour of Cape Town, the setting of the romance. I’ve never visited so my natural wanderlust was stimulated by the descriptions of the places they visit.

A well-written, thoroughly satisfying romance.

ARC provided by Netgalley.

 

Review – American Love Story (American Dreamers Series)

ALS

Available Here:

Harlequin| Amazon|Barnes & Noble

From the publisher:

No one should have to choose between love and justice.

Haitian-born professor and activist Patrice Denis is not here for anything that will veer him off the path he’s worked so hard for. One particularly dangerous distraction: Easton Archer, the assistant district attorney who last summer gave Patrice some of the most intense nights of his life, and still makes him all but forget they’re from two completely different worlds.

All-around golden boy Easton forged his own path to success, choosing public service over the comforts of his family’s wealth. With local law enforcement unfairly targeting young men of color, and his career—and conscience—on the line, now is hardly the time to be thirsting after Patrice again. Even if their nights together have turned into so much more.

For the first time, Patrice is tempted to open up and embrace the happiness he’s always denied himself. But as tensions between the community and the sheriff’s office grow by the day, Easton’s personal and professional lives collide. And when the issue at hand hits closer to home than either could imagine, they’ll have to work to forge a path forward…together.

Review:

American Love Story is the third novel in Adriana Herrera’s American Dreamers series. I’ve enjoyed this book series so much, both for its multicultural aspects and the relationship between the love stories and social issues. Every novel in this series addresses some aspect of power and race, featuring leads from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. But nowhere is this concern illustrated more powerfully or compellingly as in the romance between Professor Patrice Denis and Assistant District Attorney, Easton Archer.

The relationship between Denis and Archer throws into sharp relief the issues of institutionalized racism and the responsibilities of those in power to agitate and work in favor of change. Even allies who see the repeated aggression against oppressed peoples and identify with the victims at times hesitate to act because of internal pressures that hinder positive change, thereby making them complicit in the abuse. The police harassment of young men of color (specifically, black men) in the fictionalized version of Ithaca, New York offers the opportunity to both test the growing relationship between Denis and Archer, as well provide an illustration of how environments in which police feel enabled to profile and misuse their power are often allowed to flourish while allies turn away from fear of reprisals, or simple indifference.

The actions (or lack thereof) on behalf of the DA and the Sheriff’s offices have real consequences on the circle of friends that constitute the core characters of this series. But the consequences on the central love story are direct and immediate, and drive the romantic plot forward. It’s a credit to Herrera’s writing that she can center the issue of power and law enforcement in a narrative that never forgets that it is, first and foremost, a love story. The attraction between Denis and Easton is explosive and leaps off the page, but there is also genuine respect between the two leads derived from common values around serving the public good. I’ve read reviews calling out Denis for being strident in his beliefs and allowing them to potentially sabotage a relationship he deeply wants and needs. But the fact is, if you live our life constantly aggrieved by microagressions and you are victimized for things you can’t control (your race, culture or sexuality), then situations that are merely abstract for some become realities for others. This reality is lived every day and I absolutely love that the novel doesn’t relent in showing this.

And yet, despite the constant possibility that things will go sideways, love flourishes. Denis and Archer share a relationship that is built on mutual trust, vulnerability and the desire to learn and grow, to be active in their support, not only of each other, but of their beliefs. Easton, as a privileged white man, does not hesitate to be humble, to admit he is still learning, and willing to be guided in his desire for justice. His allyship is a verb and exists independent of his relationship with Denis. It makes their romance that much stronger because they already come to it with similar values.

Romance, at its heart, is always about the negotiation of power. Romances contend with power structures that inform the settings and cultures of the main characters, whether the author is conscious of this or not. I love that Herrera’s romance doesn’t shy away from showing how central this negotiation of power can drive a narrative, with consequences that are a reflection what is happening in the broader culture. It is a different kind of idealization from the one we come to expect in romance. This version of the romance fantasy says that, even in an imperfect world, where injustice is a rot that must be battled constantly, love and dignity can flourish. One informs the other, but in the best scenario, you can have both love and justice.

I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Review – American Fairytale (American Dreamers Series)

Fairytale

From the publisher:

Fairy-tale endings don’t just happen; they have to be fought for.

New York City social worker Camilo Santiago Briggs grew up surrounded by survivors who taught him to never rely on anything you didn’t earn yourself. He’s always dreamed of his own happily-ever-after, but he lives in the real world. Men who seem too good to be true…usually are. And Milo never ever mixes business with pleasure…until the mysterious man he had an unforgettable hookup with turns out to be the wealthy donor behind his agency’s new, next-level funding.

Thomas Hughes built a billion-dollar business from nothing: he knows what he wants and isn’t shy about going after it. When the enthralling stranger who blew his mind at a black-tie gala reappears, Tom’s more than ready to be his Prince Charming. Showering Milo with the very best of everything is how Tom shows his affection.

Trouble is, Milo’s not interested in any of it. The only thing Milo wants is Tom.

Fairy-tale endings take work as well as love. For Milo, that means learning to let someone take care of him, for a change. And for Tom, it’s figuring out that real love is the one thing you can’t buy.

Review:
American Fairytale is the second installment of Adriana Herrera’s American Dreamer series. I read the first book, American Dreamer, and fell in total love with Nesto and Jude (check out my review here). This book is a perfect followup to the brilliance of her debut novel.

American Fairytale centers on the relationship between Camilo (Milo) Santiago Briggs, a Cuban/Jamaican social worker, and Thomas Hughes, a wealthy, Dominican/American tech CEO who, together with his two friends and co-owners, sells the company for an obscene amount of money. Milo and Thomas have an explosive hook up that, over the course of the novel, results in a relationship based on hard-earned understanding and mutual respect.

There is so much to unpack in this novel, so much that is done well. The negotiations between Milo and Thomas, given the huge wealth differential are critical to their blossoming relationship. They also share cultural understandings that can only come from people who come from a similar background. Kudos to Herrera for representing mixed identities in romance, something that doesn’t get depicted often. Both protagonists are of mixed parentage and this influences the way they navigate the world and their romance.

The only tiny complaint I have is that, at the end, I grew a bit exasperated with both characters – Thomas is a bit pig-headed about throwing money at problems after he is told, over and over, not to do so. Camilo, though, is also very stubborn about accepting help and complicates his existence in consequence. However, this also makes the novel more realistic because sometimes our biggest obstacles to happiness are not in external conflicts but in our own inability to get over intrinsic flaws that cause us to repeat the same damned mistakes over and over. Refreshingly, our protagonists are guilty of just that.

And can I say, I love an m/m romance that features every kind of relationship, including straight ones in a non-toxic way? Especially friendships with straight women.
I get the feeling sometimes in m/m romances that women and straight folks are characters-non-grata and, while I understand why this is the case, in the real world, things are a bit more nuanced. So kudos to Herrera for depicting that dynamic and generally giving primacy to healthy friendships as well.

Booksellers

Harlequin Amazon Barnes & Noble

Review – Weird & Wonderful Holiday Romance

Weird

Booksellers

From the publisher:

Helmed by USAT Bestselling Author Caitlyn Lynch, 18 authors explore several lesser-known holidays. Featuring sweet country romance and sex in the big city, there’s something for all romance readers. Polar bear plunges. Sexy neighbors. Even a cute shifter or two. This anthology has it all!

Come celebrate the year with us!

Review:

I had the pleasure of reading this collection this week and was satisfied with both the quality of the stories as well as the variety. The anthology features both USA Today bestsellers as well as fresh, new writers and the result is a collection that will have something for everyone. The organizing theme – that of unconventional holidays – is a unique one and results in some interesting entries. For example, there is one of my favorite days, Pi Day, offered as the context for a lovely m/m romance, National Pride Day, the holiday for a Latinx F/F coupling, and an absolutely bonkers and delightful entry for Pins and Needles Day that features an M/M/F pairing that is as witty as it is sexy.

The anthology itself is very reader friendly, listing the Holiday, the day, a well-defined heat rating and, most importantly, extensive trigger warnings. It’s one of the most comprehensive I’ve seen in a collection of this type and, as a reader who may want to avoid certain topics, the listings are very considerate. I would highly recommend this anthology as an entry point for getting to know new writer as well as established ones in a way that is very accommodating to readers.

I was provided an ARC by the publisher.

Review – All Hours

All Hours

Amazon

From the publisher:

A RESTLESS ROMANTIC
Felix Pascual misses being someone’s boyfriend, which is why he’s willing to get set up by the only Hernandez he’ll admit to liking (out loud)—Lola. But when he gets to the restaurant he finds that Lola has matched him up with none other than Joaquin Delgado, a man who has never shown one iota of interest in him.. And Joaquin doesn’t seem any more open to Felix’s unique charms this time around . . .

A SKEPTICAL SUITOR
Joaquin will do anything for his grandmother. Even give a foul-mouthed, flashy Puerto Rican caterer who gets on his nerves—and makes him thirsty all at once—a chance to run his kitchen after he’s injured. After all, it’s just a few weeks. And he won’t be tempted since he’s given up on dating anyway . . .

A MATCH MADE IN SOUTH BEACH
But Felix won’t give up without the satisfaction of getting Joaquin to admit that he wants him. Felix is stubborn, and his growing desire for Joaquin is about proving a point. After all, it can’t possibly turn into something real . . .

Review:

I picked up this book, excited because it featured Puerto Rican leads. Given the growing interest in diverse characters, I was thrilled to give this book a try.

There are many aspects of the novel to recommend it. The characters are likeable and there is a lot of chemistry between them. They have great dialogue and their motivations are clear. Joaquin is a work-a-holic who could use some training in employee motivation and retainment. Felix is getting over a broken heart and plan on moving to New York for a new chance at life. There’s no question that the conflicts in this story promised to be strong, internal ones and I was ready for it.

However, I quickly got lost. Part of the problem was certainly me – perhaps I should have read the other installments of the series. There were a lot of assumptions about things I should have known but simply didn’t. For example, what could have been a great chance to reinforce the nature and importance of extended family in Latinx culture ended up being a kind of name-dump because I missed out on the earlier installments. As a result, I couldn’t assign importance to anyone outside of the main pairing and Lola.

This carries me to my next major point. These are Puerto Rican/Cuban/Caribbean folks. But I just didn’t feel it. Like, what about the food and the language, the code switching and the Spanglish, the funny habits and quirks that make us who we are? There is the fact that there is no one way to be Latinx but perhaps a concession would have made me happy. For example, Lola is a transplant – what else is she besides match maker? Again, I lay the blame squarely on myself, for reading the books out of order so I’m going to assume that her background, as well as others, was addressed and developed in those books.

Structurally, the beats were good and the leads adorable together. I felt the conflict could have been solved with a quick conversation. Roman was not a formidable villain and was almost cartoonish. However, he was intriguing because he served to make Felix desirable and sometimes, that’s a goal in itself.

Overall, I’m giving it a 4 because it’s a quick, fun and engaging read that you’ll certainly enjoy more if you’ve done the work of reading the other books. Now I’m off to look for a book featuring Lola 😊.

I received an ARC from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Review – How to Belong With a Billionaire

HTBWAB

Booksellers

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.

Review

Check out my combined review for the two previous books:

How to Bang a Billionaire

How to Blow it With a Billionaire

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.

Structure/Beats

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.

Characterization

Arden

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.

Caspian

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.

Tropes

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:

How to Bang a Billionaire

How to Blow it With a Billionaire

ARC provided by Netgalley