Lover At Last by J. R. Ward
The crack is back. This book will either allow you to exit the BDB world satisfied…or suck you right back in with a vengeance.
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This is the book that most Black Dagger Brotherhood fans have been eagerly anticipating ever since the Butch/V bromance turned out to be strictly platonic (if you ignore the occasional voyeurism and ambiguous moments of male bonding). I’m going to try and do this with as few spoilers are possible, but I can’t guarantee not to let details slip, so consider yourself warned.
Blaylock and Qhuinn have been best of friends even before they transitioned (the BDB vampire equivalent of puberty), but between Qhuinn’s indiscriminate and rampant sexcapades, and Blaylock’s homosexuality and unrequited love for his best mate, it’s really all they can do to be in the same room without descending into the sort of delicious angst that has made this series so addictive. Bad timing and some ill-chosen words have led them to believe that their more-than-friends feelings will never be returned by the other.
Qhuinn and Layla are expecting a baby, and Blay is in a committed relationship with Saxton, but they’re all living in the Brotherhood mansion, and they keep running into each other. At the gym. Half naked. With bulging biceps. And rampant and spontaneous erections. (People prone to stiffies shouldn’t really be going commando.) As you do. In one of my favourite scenes—because, come on, how cracktastic is this?—Blay finds the Room of Requirement and indulges his wanksting in a spectacular way. (This is what happens when boys don’t go through puberty in the usual way.)
Blay is probably one of the most well-adjusted BDB characters, so it’s Qhuinn who has to undergo a big emotional journey in this book. In typical BDB fashion, he is filled with self-loathing, mostly over things over which he has no control. Qhuinn’s issues stem from his family’s rejection of him, to the point where his brother was involved in bashing him up almost to death. His desire for a traditional family, to be a father, and his inability to reconcile this dream with a possible relationship with Blay is the biggest hurdle in their relationship.
As far as conflicts go, it’s pretty tenuous, especially when one considers that almost everyone in the BDB—from Wrath to the lowest lesser—suffers from a crisis of self-worth. This isn’t one of the things I love about the BDB, and this book delivers self-esteem issues in a big way, across different characters—more on that soon. It’s also not a conflict that is easily sustained in a 600-page book, so it’s not surprising that author J. R. Ward spends a fair bit of time developing two separate subplots—one involving drug dealer Assail, and one involving Trez—and the continuing subplot around the Band of Bastards.
Assail’s storyline is creepy in a BDB kind of way, which almost certainly means he’ll get his own book and soon. Ward sets him up with a potential heroine, who is probably one of the more assertive and independent female characters in the BDB word, aside from Xhex. Although I can see how the sparks between them could appeal to readers, their interactions are too stalkerish for me to enjoy.
Trez suffers from man-whorishness, a common BDB syndrome, which leads him to sleep with a lot of human women and, because they were willing to have casual sex, see them as fast-moving consumer goods. Ward tries to put some kind of emotional context around this, but hey, I’m on the side of the humans. He’s in an arranged marriage with royalty, but he refuses to go home and honour the commitment. He’s also set up for his own romance when he gets that whoa feeling upon setting eyes on a certain woman. We love the whoa feeling, no matter how inconvenient it is or how much of a man-whore he is. Right? I’m mildly interested in Trez but I dislike what Ward, through Trez, implies about women who sleep around, and it’s not the first time she’s done it. It may be through the characters’ eyes, but it’s an awful message about how to treat women and I find myself less and less tolerant of it in romance as time goes by.
Layla gets her own subplot with the dreaded Xcor, who…actually somewhat redeems himself in this book. Layla develops a backbone, although it’s mostly spurred by her love for her foetus, so I’m not sure it’s much of a feminist statement, but considering where she started, it’s still something. The love angst between this couple is fabulous—if you can ignore the usual self-loathing—but there are aspects of this subplot that will no doubt grate on readers.
Also, at the rate we’re going, there will be no bad guys left. And if you’re at all sensitive to the way in which women are portrayed and treated in romance, this is not the book for you. They are all there only to serve the male characters’ story arcs.
What about Qhuinn and Blay? I hear you screaming at your screen. You see how frustrating that was? It’s a bit like that in Lover At Last, with the secondary plots and characters taking up precious pages when all we really want is to see Qhuay in action. And the action? It’s pretty hot. One of my biggest concerns with this book is whether or not Ward will treat the m/m romance as well and as explicitly as she does her m/f couples. The answer is yes, it’s explicit…but not without problems.
The sexual dynamic between Qhuinn and Blay starts off fairly aggressively, and although in theory this makes for hot, furniture-moving, lamp-breaking, omg-what-are-you-waiting-for sex, as Kaetrin mentions her review, gay penetrative sex really requires le lhube (thank you, Kaetrin, for the new glossary entry!). This didn’t bother me as much, because there’s no lube in Ward’s m/f scenes either and some of them go on for ages and, well, chafing much? But some of the sex in this book was borderline violent—let’s say very passionate—so yes, lube would have been much more realistic. I chalked this down to the fact that vampires heal easily, so it should work itself out in the end, but there is, I think, a danger that readers will find the sex fetishised. To be fair to Ward, this happens in her other books, too—the BDSM in Vishous’s book, for example—so I can’t say it was unexpected. I also note the lack of rimming or fingers. All oral play was penis-oriented. Everything else was glossed over.
There are two more issues that m/m romance readers may find troublesome. The first is Qhuinn’s so-called virginity—meaning he’s never been the recipient of penetrative anal sex. Really? Slutty Qhuinn is a virgin? It’s the m/m equivalent of the technical virgin heroine—widowed but still a virgin, surrogate mum but still a virgin, had sexual relations but technically a virgin, etc. The second is Qhuinn’s inability to admit being gay or bisexual or, until the book’s resolution, admit to being in an m/m relationship. I felt this would have made for a much more interesting conflict than whoa-is-me-my-best-friend-
Still, the wanksting (a term that Jen helped brainstorm with me) is a sight to behold. There isn’t as much tenderness as readers might hope for, and no almost-threesomes, which, let’s face it, Ward does extremely well. There is a shared feeding scene, and we all know what happens in those. (Incidentally, the Band of Bastards has one, too, and it’s a porntastic orgy.) Ward revisits Qhuinn’s history, and his past slutty behaviour is re-examined through the prism of true lurve—he had sex with everyone but Blay to keep him distant, and Blay participated to keep Qhuinn close. Well, oookay then! The two men also have very active and explicit fantasy lives, which plays out very well for us readers. That said, and although the sex scenes are on par with the other BDB books, the story is almost an anti-climax—the tension between Qhuinn and Blay was far more interesting in previous books. The last line of the book is pure romance, though, and at the risk of sounding daggy, it ends on a very sweet note.
Ward’s prose still exhibits her tendency to misuse punctuation—the question marks seem to have boycotted this book—and exaggerate to the point where it actually affects the narrative point of view. When a character thinks about ‘a human male the size of an amusement park’, the embellishment and hyperbole serve to take the reader out of close third person and into the author’s own perspective.
When it comes to world building, the best advice I can give is to forget keeping track of canon and just accept the fact that all of Ward’s rules are made to be broken. All of them. Even the ones that are supposed to end in death. Except they don’t. There are big plot twists in this story, and you won’t see them coming, because you’re still expecting the books to make sense.
I closed this book with a sigh and an ‘aww’, despite any issues I may have had with the story. And that, I think, speaks for itself. I’m tempted to read the next book even though I said I wouldn’t do it. I wish Ward had spun off the series at the point where she introduced the Band of Bastards. It just feels like there’s no end in sight now.
Yay or nay?
This book isn’t perfect by any means, but I can’t help but celebrate that we’re finally getting an m/m romance by a mainstream author through a mainstream publisher for a mainstream audience. I thought I could read this book and say goodbye to the BDB forever, but now I’m not sure I can do it. This book will either allow you to exit the BDB world satisfied…or suck you right back in with a vengeance. The crack is back.
Who might enjoy it: Qhuay tragics
Who might not enjoy it: Homophobes
An advance reading copy of this book was generously provided by Hachette Australia.
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