Friday, April 5, 2013

On Baby Mama Drama: A Review of Lover At Last by J.R. Ward

Lover At Last (Black Dagger Brotherhood, #11)Okay kids, strap on your shitkickers and bring out your bullshit shields, because today we're going to talk about the latest BDB volume--Lover At Last. I'm not going to lie about the fact that my relationship with this series has been rocky at best over the past couple of years. I jumped onto this series back when book three had just come out. I have years of my life invested in these goddamned vampires and their stupid names and their weird little frat house that they live in. And their gang wars and their social drama and all of the leather that they wear. Make fun of me if you want, go right ahead, but books two and three remain two of my favorite books of all time. All. Time. See Ward, I can do one word sentences with unnecessary emphasis too. But yes, I love this series and these characters, and it's because I love them and because the bar is set so high that I take any flaws or dud books so hard. For example, Lover Unleashed (Manny and Payne's book, in theory), was hugely disappointing for me, and had me considering a permanent boycott of the books. I didn't follow through on that because, as I said, I'm invested. This newest installment rewarded me in some ways and...screwed me sideways in others.

Team Quay

If you have read any of this series at all, you know that the Blay/Qhuinn relationship has been brewing for awhile. They were first introduced as young boys in book three, as part of John Matthew's training class. By that point, they are already best friends. Following their transitions to full of vampires, the sexual tension between the two begins to develop. Once Blay realizes that he's gay, he's pretty quick to come out to his friends about it, and even tries to explain how he feels to Qhuinn. Qhuinn, however, has major commitment issues and just issues in general, so he turns Blay down flat, and so on and on we go for like five more books. After all of that, a full novel to deal with their relationshit is not only justified, it was necessary. I was totally in line with other fans who just really wanted to see them work it out and get mated, in whatever form that might take, and I applauded Ward for going the full novel route with it.

The fact that we are seeing a full length, hard cover romance novel in a mainstream series dedicated to a gay couple likely has more social implications than I'm qualified to talk about. Ward is not the first mainstream romance author to write about openly gay characters, or even to award them a happily-ever-after, but she is one of the more popular and successful authors to do so (in 500+ pages, with sex scenes). As a comparison, Suzanne Brockmann had Robin and Jules in her Troubleshooters series, and they got a novella in which all nookie faded to black at the bedroom door, if memory serves. I want to take this as a sign that readers are becoming more open to reading about sex and sexuality in it's more diverse forms--but again, I'm probably not qualified to discuss this.

Sex, Sexual Orientation, and How Things Work in The BDB Universe

Now that I've brought up the fact that this book has sex, I of course have to go into my issues with how mating bonds, sex, and sexual orientation work in this universe. I'm going to start with the sex, because that's the easiest to complain about. I'm going to ignore the fact that vampires apparently don't need lube of any kind, because...I just don't need to go into that. No. My issue is the timing of the sex in this book. Blay and Qhuinn are hot together, but they have some seriously messed up timing. They don't talk things out, they don't deal with their issues, they just keep having sex. Revenge sex, angry sex, sad sex. Lots of sex. The one that stood out as the most inappropriate for me was when Layla is having issues with her pregnancy--Qhuinn is pretty sure he's going to lose the daughter he so desperately wants. And Blay and Qhuinn have sex. I can't actually think of a less sexy situation to be in, and I can't imagine getting turned on under those circumstances.

Ward's approach to how sexuality is handled in the BDB universe is at once interesting and terribly frustrating. Blay has the best case scenario when it comes to coming out of the closet--accepting friends and family, no hang ups, almost no self doubt. Qhuinn, on the other hand, is resistant to being labeled as gay or bisexual or anything else, never really "comes out", per se, and more or less implies that he only swings that way for Blay. He's had sex with other men, but only as a dominant party and usually in situations involving women as well. Blay is the only person that with whom he's acted as a receiver, and he thinks of it as losing his virginity, and insists that nothing he's done prior to that act marks him as gay. It's interesting to me that, at least in the mind of this one character, the only truly gay act is the most submissive one.

Now, Ward's couples have always been fated mates. The formula is that they bond at first sight, there is a psychological and biological need to get together, and when they're separated they both end up depressed--especially the male. With Blay and Qhuinn, the emotional and biological imperative seems much less pronounced. They certainly want one another, and they ultimately bond, but it's no where near the level of intensity we've seen with some of the male/female pairings. I'm not sure what this is supposed to imply, and I'm not complaining exactly, but it seems to me that Ward has mate Blay and Qhuinn's mating less fated and more voluntary. Make of that what you will.

Ward goes out of her way to let us know that all of the "good" characters are cool with the gay couple getting mated, and the only homophobes in this universe are the glymera--a group of people we already dislike. This black and white portrayal of the issue smacks of a certain naiveté. In the real world, reactions to sexuality still vary across a spectrum. Some people will be understanding and unbothered, some will be uncomfortable but choose not to show it, and some are going to be assholes. The fact that everyone from the old school males of the brotherhood to sheltered young Layla are totally happy for them with no persuading is pure sugarcoating, and it belies the struggle that real world gay  couples cope with.

Baby Mama Drama

I'm not a fan of Layla, and I never have been. There's something far too passive and dull about her. The fact that she's having Qhuinn's baby is annoying, because it meant that I had to care what happened to her in this book, instead of quietly praying for her to be hit by a bus. Anyway, she's pregnant and she really wants to stay that way, and it's a BIG FREAKING DEAL. To be clear, I want Qhuinn to have his child and be happy. I'm just bummed that it had to be with this vapid little bitch. What's worse is that, at a couple points, I actually felt sorry for her. Yeah. I know. The fact is, though, her pregnancy drama was not something I wanted to read about--not something I found entertaining or enjoyable.

One thing that really irritated me was how everyone behaves about the pregnancy. Beth hangs around Layla because she's hoping for a little contact fertility, despite the fact that her husband does not seem to want children. Havers, the only competent vampire doctor, tells her she's just an incubator, and he will only address her mate (which of course she doesn't have). Phury, who is primale and therefor morally responsible for Layla, treats her like a child who has been wronged and doesn't understand her situation. He automatically assumes that Qhuinn must be solely responsible for her condition, and that she was pressured into pregnancy, when in fact it's quite the opposite. Nobody makes an effort to just be her friend and treat her as an equal, because the only friend she's really made (Quinn) is tangled in the middle of the drama.

New Characters and Subplots

This universe is getting a bit full for my taste. I've never been in love with Ward's habit of switching POVs all of the time, but it's especially annoying when it's new and seemingly unnecessary characters. While I'll admit that Assail seemed somewhat interesting in some ways, he felt out of place in this book, and so did his little romance. Ward's narrative has never been cohesive, but it gets more sporadic with each passing book. That's not to say that any given part bored me or angered me, but just that it didn't all need to be there. Given a choice, I would have preferred more development for Blay and Qhuinn--particularly Blay.

In Conclusion

To sum up, this book was very flawed and yet entirely addictive. I think you have to be a fan in order to get immersed despite all of the many, many problems, but if you are that sort of fan you'll find it to be a page turner. So yeah, I guess I am still deeply invested in this series, and will continue to look forward to the books in the years to come. 4 stars.

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