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.
I’ve been thinking about how when I first started getting a handle on the genre–was relatively new to it but had read enough to understand that there are tropes, and what those were–I was fascinated by how authors played on those tropes. Now I am more likely to find books derivative. But I’m not sure whether the change is in me, or the books. Both? I think some of the difference is in how strong the voice and the writing are; does it feel as if the author is deliberately, confidently, playing with familiar tropes, or as if she couldn’t do better than copy? And part is in whether she finds something new in those tropes, or whether the book just feels like a kind of in joke (or, I guess, fan service). If you want fan service, all well and good, but if you don’t or aren’t a fan, such stories don’t have a lot to offer, I think.
I also wonder about this in terms of the complaints about books that “aren’t really romance” lately. Don’t get me wrong, when I read something labeled romance I want a happy ending. But I do see a lot of resistance to development and change, too, and I think that’s a problem (even if the current changes often aren’t appealing to me). If we won’t let the genre grow past familiar tropes then it’s only going to get more and more derivative. Because there are only so many things you can do within the existing confines, especially if expectations for subgenres are firm (your werewolf MUST be very alpha, etc etc).
Derivative is definitely not new; I think of all those Regency trads that copied Heyer. Most were forgettable, but some authors developed distinct styles of their own, while others were playing with the form from the beginning. It’s certainly partly me, but I think it’s the books too. The “me” part is that I see patterns where the author may never have intended them (for the first book, I have no idea whether she’s a Heyer fan, those are just the references that came to my mind). And in both the first and the third, there’s plenty of interesting stuff going on. They’re definitely not just like every other book out there.
And that ties in with your second paragraph. I saw reviews for all three books that dinged them for too much mystery and/or not enough romance, and the third book for having infidelity and an unlikeable main character. The book has been promoted as different and edgy, presumably because of the infidelity thing. That’s all about romance norms and not at all about what fits the characters or the storyline. It’s frustrating to me that m/m romance has this firm no-screwing-around rule, even when the characters haven’t committed to a monogamous relationship.
I’m probably not so closely aligned with the m/m readership that I can be said to be a “typical” m/m reader – I think I’m a bit of an outlier actually. But if a couple haven’t committed to an exclusive relationship, it doesn’t bother me that one or both (or more) parties have sex with other people. As long as there is a HEA/HFN I can work with that. Cheating is another thing of course – but I don’t see “having sex with someone else” as cheating unless there is a monogamous commitment first.
I’ve read a couple of books by Cara McKenna which play with non-monogamy recently. I think they’re an interesting addition to the genre – even though some aspects of the stories didn’t work for me, many did and the problems I did have weren’t around the non-monogamy aspects. I think the genre is big enough that it *can* be interesting and different and still fit within the main genre requirement of the HEA/HFN. But because I tend to be an outlier in some areas, I can’t tell if it’s just me or whether this is a common feeling among romance readers.
Non-monogamy before the committed relationship seems like a way to expand some of the story options without losing the core genre elements, especially in contemporary m/f and most m/m. And I think there are readers who are open to that (the third book has lots of 4- and 5-star reviews where the readers go with the setup). There will always be pushback, but I hope authors realize that there are readers out there who are OK with it. I don’t think you and I are total outliers on this, just perhaps still in the minority. I can understand why people who write menage or poly relationships don’t want readers to equate multiple partners with infidelity or lack of commitment, but this is just your basic “you’re ready for commitment, I’m not” idea, at least that’s how I see it playing out. As long as you get them both to a committed space by the end, HFN or HEA, it seems to me to be workable. In this particular instance the unwillingness to commit was attributed to childhood trauma, which I wasn’t thrilled with. I’d rather see it treated as a trait rather than a character weakness or side effect of abuse.
Yes, I think, especially in this day and age, exclusivity isn’t a given. It’s opt-in not the other way around. I read menage and poly books as well and I can go with a HEA/HFN which involves more than two people or even a HEA (in concept at least) in which couple has “special guest stars” – it will depend on execution (but that is the case for all of the books I read, let’s face it). I don’t think non-monogamy has to be related to a childhood trauma – that does a disservice to people who aren’t monogamous. I’d much rather have a character who is honest about themselves and their abilities than a cheater who lies. I think there’s scope to do some really interesting stuff in this space actually.
That’s a really good point. If two people disagree in ways that aren’t rooted in some trauma or backstory, then it’s not a matter of “fixing” one of the people, it’s a divergence of desires or preferences. That’s at least as interesting, because then they have to weigh their options and find common ground in a process that’s quite different from what we often see.
I find that Avon, more than any other publisher, has a “type” of book it publishes. And the requirements are on the narrower side. Is it the editing that makes it that way or they acquire only a certain voice in authors, I don’t know. So it’s not surprising that even an m/m is made to follow the norms. Did the book read like an m/f made into an m/m or was the story integrally m/m?
It did not read like a gender-switched m/f, but it had the tropes of m/f, if that makes sense? Neither character was the stand-in for the heroine, but each character had traits that tend to be assigned to the heroine. I thought the author did a good job of fitting traditional tropes into the story, but I had trouble imagining them as resembling actual men with same-sex orientations (including 19thC men). But that’s a problem I have with m/m in general, and many readers do not.
Yes, I think that is why far more women read m/m than do men.
I read Bitter Legacy without any awareness of its fanfic roots (but then, I completely missed that Lion in Winter thing, too), and I enjoyed it enough that I would be perfectly willing to read a sequel. So can somebody clue me in — what fandom does it come from? I also didn’t see James as a Gary Stu, perhaps because I was sufficiently invested in him that I internalized his lack of self-esteem. And I really liked the relationship with his father (and kind of liked his father, too); I thought the fact that he wasn’t permanently disowned, and that it was his father making all the major moves, was refreshing.
It’s rooted (or at least the author is) in the Professionals fandom, i.e., Bodie and Doyle. One of the popular depictions has Bodie as the less confident partner who longs for Doyle, who plays hard to get (or more). The way Ben was described is in line with descriptions of Doyle (long curly hair, thin but muscular and gorgeous in jeans, etc.). Ben’s personality traits track with a common depiction of Doyle as well.
I liked James’ relationship with his father too, I think that was a strength of the novel. I would have happily read more of that interaction.
Thanks. Having read the Wikipedia article about the Professional, , I don’t feel nearly as stupid as I did about the Lion in Winter thing. I also think Bitter Legacy is much further from its source material than Devices and Desires was. James’s and Ben’s back stories look pretty far removed from the back stories of the characters in The Professionals.
This is a bit off topic, but can I just say, I used to be a pretty devoted Lanyon fan, but the revelation that Lanyon was a woman really put me off. I had a similar reaction to the discovery (much belated in my case) that Madeleine Brent was a man. I also stopped reading Georgette Heyer for several years after reading a biography of her. Am I an outlier, or is it common for readers to have an internalized view of an author that strongly affects their view of the author’s work?
I agree on the relationship to the source material. I didn’t think it was repurposed fanfic (it could be, I supposed, but it didn’t read that way to me, it read like a regular novel), and you didn’t need to know anything about Bodie & Doyle for the characters to make sense. They are fully realized in the context of the story. I am not a big fan of this type of angsty relationship, or the m/m tendency (which does mirror a fanfic style) to have impossibly gorgeous people who are unsure or unaware of how gorgeous they are. But that’s a personal tic; if the reader isn’t bogged down by those descriptions, the lack of confidence, etc. is something many of us experience.
I was not put off by the knowledge that Lanyon was a woman, but I was quite bothered by the way the reveal was done, as if “everyone” should have already known that, and by the implication that people who were making a big deal about it were being silly or something similar. I thought it was extremely disrespectful to readers who weren’t privy to the rumours in the industry (or who believed and supported the rebuttals), and I also thought it was hypocritical because of the way m/m romance trades on its gender and identity authenticity when it’s beneficial. I don’t know if I’d keep reading new Lanyon books now, I stopped after Murder in Pastel because I thought it was pretty bad, and the last few books I read before that felt more like fan service or retreads of earlier work than new, interesting stories. Also, I discovered that at least two of the books began life as m/f books and then were repurposed into m/m, and a few other pieces of information that didn’t match up with the Lanyon backstory. I still love a handful of her books a lot, but I don’t think I’m her target audience anymore.
I had the same reaction as you to Georgette Heyer; I stopped (re)reading her books for a while after reading the Hodge biography. Once I read about her it was hard to read the books the same way. I eventually came back and I do read the novels again now, but more selectively.
tl;dr You’re not alone. At all.
Slightly off-topic interjection: OMG, I loved ‘The Professionals’ back in the day! Became a big Martin Shaw fan because of that series. That curly hair–so ’80s! Never really warmed to Lewis Collins. I can totally see why a segment of fanficdom would ship those two characters.
Not off topic! We’re all having fun with this. I was reluctant to name the fanfic community because I didn’t want to out the writer, but we’re a small, lightly trafficked blog, so why not talk about the interesting stuff?
I totally get the Martin Shaw love! BTW, have you watched Inspector George Gently? Shaw is Gently, and while he’s very different from his Pros character, he’s still damned appealing.
He’s Judge John Deed as well. 🙂
Oh my goodness, he certainly is! Thanks, Kaetrin, I had no idea. Now I’m off to find the DVDs.
Well, of course my husband and I have watched George Gently! We even watched the PBS mini-series with Shaw as Scott of the Antarctic, even knowing how tragic the outcome. And a bit of Shaw’s other stuff over the years…
Poor Lewis Collins didn’t fare as well–his career didn’t really flourish after ‘The Professionals’; He died in 2013, age 67 (far too young, IMO).
Of course, the other attraction for ‘The Professionals’ was the fabulous Gordon Jackson–he was in everything–my two other favorites for him being ‘The Great Escape’ and the mini-series ‘A Town Like Alice’.
Of course you did! What was I thinking? 🙂 He really is good, though. There’s something about him that comes through in all his roles.