Recent Reading (tropetastic m/m edition)
After swearing off new-to-me romance authors a couple of months ago, of course I wound up reading three new authors in a subgenre I claimed to have abandoned. It was a mixed bag, not surprisingly, but it was interesting because it gave me an insight into what seems to be popular these days (or at least popular in some niche corners of a niche market).
First up is The Soldier’s Scoundrel. This seems to be a debut, although it’s hard to tell in the romance genre, what with the prevalence of pseudonyms and reinventions. It’s definitely one of the first Avon m/m historical romances I’ve seen that is marketed exactly the way Avon markets its m/f romances. Check out the cover. If you just glanced at it you might not immediately notice that it’s two men rather than a woman and a man, but that is definitely a dude peeking over the shoulder of the abs-licious central figure.
I liked the author’s voice a lot, and I liked the mystery subplot in this book. Sometimes it felt as if there was a good cozy mystery trying to escape from the pages of a stereotypical romance, but the romance was definitely front and center. It hit all the beats of a standard Avon, complete with witty banter, mental lusting, and anachronistic language and dialogue. That last feature was the worst part of the book for me; sentences felt at war with each other sometimes, with a period term mashed up next to a 20thC phrase. The story also borrows a lot of regency-romance tropes, especially from Heyer: the opening scene reminded me a bit of Faro’s Daughter, there is a road romance middle segment, and the final stretch with the aristocratic lead trying to ruin himself to make the “scoundrel” accept him as a partner was right out of Venetia. If you ignore the plot and character inconsistencies and remind yourself regularly that these are fantasy men who do not inhabit the same world we do, it’s a pretty fun read.
Second was a contemporary m/m mystery, Mystery of Nevermore. This was a lot more frustrating and disappointing. The book is described as an “homage” to Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series, and the dedication is to Lanyon, so perhaps it was written and published with Lanyon’s encouragement. But it’s both more and less than an homage in that the plot and characters borrow very, very heavily from that series. The main character, Sebastian, has a physical disability (sight problems instead of heart trouble), he’s an antiques dealer who deals in books (rather than a bookseller), and both of his love interests are closeted cops (one on the way out of Sebastian’s life, one coming in). I mentally categorized the latter as “bad Jake” and “good Jake” from the AE series. There’s also a parent with whom Sebastian is very close, but in a not-so-novel twist, it’s the father rather than the mother.
The book also riffs a lot on Edgar Allen Poe, but that didn’t bother me as much. What bothered me was not only the feeling I’d read this before, and far better executed, but the fact that the plot was sufficiently similar that I could spot the bad guy coming from a mile away (not because I’m so good at decoding a mystery, but because he was the same damn character as in the first AE book). The writing was not great; lots of within-sentence tense shifts and some misused words, and the generic atmosphere of New York could have been pretty much anywhere. It certainly didn’t feel like today’s NYC, sometimes in ways that were quite jarring.
Finally, I read Bitter Legacy. My DA colleague Sirius loved this book and it was published by Blind Eye Books, who have released some of my favorite m/m, so despite the fact I found the prose a bit purple in the excerpts I read, I went for it. I knew from discussions I’d read previously that the author is well known for her stories in a particular fandom, but since that background isn’t discussed in her promotional materials I won’t go into details here. The book is a combination of a police procedural and a romance. The police procedural aspect was enjoyable, if a bit drawn-out; the book is 400 pages and it drags in places. But the mystery itself was interesting and when finally and fully revealed, it was both surprising and poignant. The ending made sense, but it was quite sad.
The romance, on the other hand, had me rolling my eyes a lot and remembering why I have such a low tolerance for romantic fanfic. The narrator, James, was basically a Gary Stu; he was gorgeous and brilliant and wealthy but he had zero self-confidence about his looks and personality. But of course everyone at work and in his personal life loved him (except that one guy who was jealous whom no one liked). Even his father who had disowned him came around and tried to set him up with an eligible bachelor! The love interest, Ben, was even more gorgeous, assuming that is possible, but he was a total ass to Our Hero James, over and over again. So in the end, the HEA does not flow very well from what has gone before, and it’s not believable. Ben’s behavior was explained away by his truly horrible childhood (all of the main characters here have horrible childhoods, and the links drawn between those childhoods and their adult behavior had me raising an eyebrow). But we are supposed to believe that love has made him a new person, commitment-wise. I didn’t mind his treatment of James that much, because it seemed perfectly understandable to me that a 20-something gay man wouldn’t necessarily want to settle down into a monogamous relationship, but James was basically looking for The One For Forever so there was a clash. If you know who the source characters then there’s less suspense about how it’s going to turn out (or what work the pushme-pullyou romance is doing in the story), and I treated their ups and downs as par for this particular fandom interpretation of the characters.
There is a lot of angst. A lot. They come together, Ben pushes away, they come back together, the mystery progresses, James hates himself, everyone else loves James, Ben is gorgeous but unattainable and so very mean to James when he’s not making him dinner and/or breakfast, rinse, repeat. If you like angst, this story does it very well. If you don’t, you’ll want to skip ahead to the mystery parts.
So there you have it; my first foray into m/m romance (and mystery) in quite some time. I realized, reading this trio of novels, that one of my issues with the larger genre right now is that everything feels derivative of something else. Sometimes that’s fine, but too often it just makes me long for the original. Or in the case of characters and tropes who are rooted in a fandom and retain a fandom sensibility, I long for something completely different.