Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lover at Last (Black Dagger Brotherhood #11) by J R Ward

I am trying to write a summary that I normally preface every review with and my brain decided to inflict narcolepsy on me at the very idea. Why?

Well, I’ve shaken this book, looked around the edges, skimmed through it again, double checked, skimmed through it the other way in case there’s a secret code – I’ve even put on my Enigma Brain and looked for some kind of secret code.

But no, despite being over 500 interminably boring pages long, there is no plot in this book. None, none at all. There are random events but nothing actually happens, not one damn relevant thing. Let me sum up the gazillion unnecessary storylines in this 590+ page book.

Blay & Qhuinn:  Angst! Convoluted reason why we can’t be together! Angst some more! And some more! Ridiculous misunderstanding that drives us apart! OMG MORE AAAAANGST! And secrecy and ANGST!

Xcor and the Band of Bastards: RAWR. Well, growl anyway. More biding our time. Which is code for doing nothing – except stalking Layla in a tragic romantic fashion that’s totally not creepy honest

Layla: I’m pregnant with the baby Qhuinn and I randomly wanted out of the blue without any forethought! Yay! No I’m not, ANGST!  Yes I am, YAY! Oh and still fixated on violent, vicious traitor with no redeeming features – this is romantic and not a sign that I need a serious intervention or a slap upside the head!

The Lessers: Rawr! Actually, no; rawr suggests we’re doing stuff. We’re kind of hanging around being evil. Go Evil! Still evil!

Sola: Hi, I’m a completely new character dropped in because even the teeny tiny side characters you don’t give a damn about simply must have a love interest! Assail looked at me and I am now smitten for life and completely ruined for other men. Despite my utter pointlessness, you get to spend several pages in my POV! Funsies! Seriously, a ride around in Wrath’s dog’s head would be more interesting and relevant.

Luchas, Qhuinn’s brother is alive and stuff! Yay… I guess? Was there a reason I was supposed to care about this guy?

Assail: remember me? Probably not because I’m a completely unnecessary side character and little more than a clone of Rehvenge anyway. I’m here for no damn good reason and no-one should care about me but I’m apparently important, who knows why. I have a love interest now – let the creepy stalking and threats commence! Yay romance!

Trez & iAm: Hey you finally get to learn about the Shadows and our culture, who we are and what we’re doing! Hah, just kidding! No Trez is a sex addict who is running away from an arranged marriage, deals with that by sleeping with every other woman in the city, possibly the state and is now fixating on yet another woman as his one and only twu lub forever after glancing at her once, from a distance. Ho-hum. Creepy stalking and angst will, no doubt, commence in the next book.

I think that about covers everything. Wrath is the king and being kingly, the glymeria are still pointlessly wasting their time plotting pointlessly about pointless things. There’s some random fight scenes for the sake of fighting and we get an eternally long sequence of Quinn flying a plane because funsies (and I am resisting the urge to say something about motherfucking vampires on a plane, I hope you realise this)!

Which covers most of the book – nothing actually happening, all the plots kind of drifting in the breeze, the Brotherhood serving more as comic relief than as any actual warriors and all delivered with JR Ward’s… signature writing style. Hopelessly overwritten with ridiculous descriptions, the longest winded possible ways of describing anything and three styles of dialogue: a grossly stilted formal to show how posh people are; an archaic style which includes lots of “o’er” which is damn unpronounceable and I don’t believe anyone has ever used in actual English, ever and then this terrible, awful fake street-tough-guy-wannabe-ghetto talk that is the Brotherhood’s trademark which is made only MORE ridiculous by the book opening with a Black character from the poor side of town complaining about a middle-class to rich White kid mimicking his way of talking to sound cool. Tell me that was an attempt at self-satire! Tell me! Because I can’t believe an author can be aware enough of this issue while writing 11 books of the Black Dagger Brotherhood’s dialogue!

Really, after that the excessive “h’s” in everyone’s names is becoming much less an issue. In fact there was considerably less of the mockable old tongue for me to poke and laugh over. I’m quite disappointed. Or disahppointehd

As for the main relationship of the book – Qhuinn and Blaylock – well, I expected it to be much much much worse than it was. This isn’t praise – the previous 10 books of this series have been really offensively homophobic – I approached this book with immense amounts of dread because JR Ward’s record here is plain nasty. It wasn’t as nasty as I expected but it was far from good.

Firstly I don’t like Blay or Saxton – because they’re not characters. They’re walking love interests, they are gay men, that’s pretty much the entire summation of their characters. Blay’s entire life pretty much revolves around Qhuinn; Saxton, even with the job the king gave him, pretty much revolves around Blay. Also why does Qhuinn  constantly call Saxton a “slut”? Especially since Qhuinn probably has more lovers than anyone ever and, in fact, none of the other men have ever been called that even if their bedrooms have revolving doors.

The whole relationship is hounded by angst that is utterly pointless – and this is even by Black Dagger Brotherhood standards. Before relationships were complicated by social status, different species, revealing the big secret of the vampires. This relationship was complicated only by the constant dramatic sabotage of Blay and Qhuinn themselves – they took an age to be happy simply because they refused to be so and kept getting in their own way – something we’ve only previously seen with the Bisexual Vishous, which is rather telling.  There was no reason at all for Blay to decide to lie about his relationship with Saxton ending – it was there just for angst purposes. And that means their relationship was built on a dodgy foundation – Qhuinn thought he was helping Blay cheat on Saxton, there's a "and that's when we fell in love" story for the ages. This required both Blay and Qhuinn to hide, to lie, to duck and be illicit about their relationship, to be embarrassed about being caught, to worry about being caught. It’s like we had to have a desperate convoluted reason to make them keep it under wraps – with all the guilt and shame and difficulty involved – so we could have the sense of a closeted relationship without the awkwardness of making the brothers homophobic. How many of the other relationships have had this kind of skeeviness to begin – cheating, even multiple love interests? Even without the lie, the book was full of misunderstandings, anger, tantrums, inability to communicate, more misunderstandings – which ended up with 90% of the book being characterised by angst, sex and tantrums with minimal actual affection between them. In fact that was how they both tried to present the majority of the sex they had – just sex, no emotion. Actual affection and emotion between them is tucked in at the end of the book and positively sprinted through; the rest is just angst and sex, no affection, limited non-grief emotions, no real connection - sex and angst, angst and sex.

And I can’t get behind Qhuinn because his bisexuality was a blatant retcon with JR Ward inventing a vast sum of male lovers he suddenly apparently had after books and books of him only sleeping with women. His internal angst is so desperately clumsy and often involved him taking a label then abandoning it and still has a strong streak of “gay for you only!” crap about him (especially with that retcon). It’s ham-handed to say the least.

It’s not fun, it has some unfortunate implications and patterns but it’s not especially offensive. What destroyed the whole thing for me though was, well, the sex and the way they talked about sex. I admit, I actually highlighted passages and gathered a group of my fellow gay men and read them aloud with shots so we could laugh so uproariously at this heterosexist hot mess.  Several sex scenes – all in one position, all pretty formulaic and so much missed out. And Qhuinn’s precious rhapsodising over his “anal virginity”? Seriously? No, really, I kid you not – losing his anal virginity to Blay makes Blay Qhuinn’s first lover (never mind the gazillion girls and guys he slept with before this) and oh-so-special and shiny and beautiful and perfect and... it’s unreal. Now, I do think bottoming for the first time would have been memorable for Qhuinn – but only because Blay apparently has a penis the size of a crowbar, he does no prep, thrusts in in one fast, hard move and neither of them have ever heard of lube (which ISN’T an essential – but when someone’s making such a big big big thing about their “anal virginity”… yeah) well, let’s just say that’s going to be a memorable experience alright. For that matter, the sex in general, not only samey, repetitive and missing so much but the way it was described was painful – perhaps, in between all the pounding and hammering and impaling you might want to use some pleasure adjectives? Maybe?

There were some decent moments – like the acceptance of Blay’s family and the brotherhood, Blaylock commenting on the glymeria forcing gay men to keep their relationships secret – but they were basic, don’t make up for the previous books and the forced conflict that seems created just to make their relationship clandestine and painful. I also don’t like the fact their relationship has Layla as well – especially since the only other relationship that had anything approaching a similar 3 person dynamic was Vishous, who is bisexual. It felt like this was the only way Blay and Qhuinn could have a family, or be a real family, is to drag a woman into things as well - which is doubly reinforced by the damn heterosexist world that means they have to feed on a woman - leading to that icky scene with Qhuinn, Blay and Selena that reduces her to a non-entity and inserts a woman into what is repeatedly called an intimate moment for Qhuinn and Blay.

Still, in the end I’m irritated, bored and vexed (or possibly irrihtahted, bohred and vehxed) by the treatment of gay characters in this book, rather than mortally offended; but then, that may simply be because my worst fears – which were very bad indeed – were avoided.

I’m also not being carried by Qhuinn’s angst. Yes, he’s got a reason for it and yes it’s very sad – but so does everyone else. Literally everyone (well, except Phury, but we still got an entire book of him moaning and moping). And we’ve had book after book of desperate sad, tortured pasts ever since Wrath met Beth. I have angst fatigue, it’s not just a JR Ward thing, I feel the same about Sherrilyn Kenyon as well. There’s only so many times you can play the desperate tragic past before it loses its power.

Lastly, I'm not all that impressed by how not involved everyone else was in their story. Blay split up with Saxton, Qhuinn split up with Layla, they got together - and no-one cared. I don't mean they should have been running around in a fury of outrage - but they should have been INTERESTED - and part of this is the secrecy which is extra annoying. Have the BDBs ever been this indifferent or kept this apart from one of the character's relationship while living in the same house? It made it separate, ultimately the act of outsiders and obvious in its different treatment. And this applies quadruply to John Matthew - seriously where was the man?! Best friend to Qhuinn and Blay, they're both in emotional turmoil and he's AWOL.

This book – this series – has a hellacious Madonna/whore problem going on – which I’ve spoken on before, with most of the men sleeping with many women they regard in contempt before finding their pure, near virginal (or “gently used”) perfect partner. Xcor and Qhinn sleep with a gazillion women before finding their virginal Chosen, Layla. Trez has a vast array of lovers he addresses either with contempt or patronising, barely seeing them as people – until he sees the oh-so-pure Chosen, Selena. Even Assail’s stalking of Sola involves us pointedly being told Sola doesn’t have many relationships and her sexual moral code. We have the desperate, nasty dirtyslutwhoredruggy over and over contrasted with these pedestalled, pure “females of worth”.

And the romance is standard – obsession at first sight (no names, no conversations, we’re talking major obsession when glancing at each other from a distance) followed by skeeviness. Xcor has declared Layla to be “his” Chosen (and why does she even like him? What one single reason does she have to not hate him?) and stalks her. Assail saw Sola and that’s it – full on stalking with an underlying level of threats and menaces. Trez is not so bad but even he’s bordering on creepy with Selena – and, again, fixated on her after glancing her at a distance.

If you see someone you think is hot and then decide to follow them around, watching their every move, tracking their car with bugs, watching them from a distance while stroking your erection, deciding this woman is now “yours”, being furiously jealous of any man near this woman – that is not romantic. It’s stalking and it’s creepy, it’s not hearts and flowers – it’s tasers and restraining orders.

There is some nice pushing back from Layla about being treated as an object, as an incubator – it was a nice moment. But it doesn’t really balance the rest; maybe it’s a sign of things to come, but I doubt it. And I don't think these worked brilliantly - sure she demanded she be treated like a person, but it was Phury and Qhuinn who made it stick. She was outraged at Havers not giving her agency over her own medical decisions but when she tells Qhuinn she doesn't want to see a doctor and wants to keep her pregnancy secret, he ignores her and gets Doc Jane and ends up telling the whole house. Just because we're expected to agree with Qhuinn doesn't mean his making Layla's medical decisions for her is any less problematic

One of the sad things about the Black Dagger Brotherhood series is that, while I’ve never been much of a fan of the dreadfully overdone and repetitive romance tropes, it had a background that was fascinating. The lesser, the vampires, the sympaths (I’m not even going to try to remember where the random h’s go), the shadows – there was stuff there, there was a story there – admittedly only occasionally glimpsed in between all the humping and stalking, but it was there, it was original and it was interesting. But now even that is lost among a vast collection of pointless extras and side plots

Ultimately, this book was a chore to read and the only amusement I got out of it was laughing at it, which is probably not anyone’s intent. The best I can say is it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected to be – and that may be the faintest praise I have ever damned a book with.