GET IT? THE FANGS ARE HIS PENIS.
This Christmas, My Other of Some Significance (MOSS) included in his gifts a romance novel, which he had happened upon during a shopping trip at a superstore. Purchasing romance novels for a fanatic can be a dicey process, since part of the pleasure of romance novels is whether or not they fulfill your particular interests. I can read the heck out of a disability-themed novel (“I MAY BE A CRIPPLE, BUT YOU DON’T SEE ME CRYING ABOUT IT”), but I don’t have much patience for baby-themed books (“THIS BABY NEEDS A FATHER! I SURE HOPE A PENIS WANDERS OVER THIS WAY”).
Harlequin series romance is the most recognizable to the average non-romance reader, and it is statistically more likely to be baby-themed.1 Picking out a category romance is a far more difficult process, since non-romance readers aren’t familiar with the codes of romance publishing. I can scan the spines of romances at the bookstore and have some idea of which ones are right for me. To an average person, the array is bewildering, and the back copy seems all the same.
The book MOSS picked out, however, was a perfect gift; that is, it was something I wanted, but which I wouldn’t have bought for myself. MOSS picked out J.R. Ward’s newest paperback, Lover Mine; a reader of this blog had recommended that I check out Ward’s work, but I had yet to get around to it. I ended up reading the book in two days. While I am a speedy reader, it’s still a positive sign when I finish a 600+ page book in less than a week.
Under the fold is a summary of the various plotlines of the book. Caveats: Lover Mine is the last in a series, so there is a possibility of spoilers for the entire series; there are scenes of rape and imprisonment in the novel, which necessitate a trigger warning; and, finally, there are several vampire boners. Although if you have a problem with pointy-toothed men with raging boners you should just go away, because there’s nothing for you here. Nothing.
The main storyline is the romance between Xhex and John Matthew. Xhex is a half-symphath, half-vampire. As a symphath, she feeds on emotions. As a vampire, she feeds on blood. When I read that, I had an awful thought that she was going to get together with a woman who has really intense PMDD. But no! She has previously boned, and goes on to bone, one John Matthew, a mute and manly vampire.
When we meet Xhex, she’s trapped in a house by a Lesser named Lash. Lessers are vampire hunters, but are less like Buffy and more like baby-powdered Prince impersonators without hearts. Lash routinely stops into the house where he has Xhex trapped in order to rape her. Most Lessers are impotent, but Lash is half-vampire and half-Lesser and can maintain an erection. Handy for your raping needs, I guess.
— INTERLUDE: Cautious Reader asks, “How bad are the rape scenes?” —
It was not played as sexy in any way, which I unfortunately found refreshing. Sometimes authors (in general fiction, not just romance) will write a rape scene that both condemns the rape while offering the reader a rape fantasy. I call this “having your rape and eating it too,” and no, I do not get invited out much. This is not the case in Lover Mine, happily. The sexual violence is alluded to, through physical injury (bruising, especially) and conversation between the characters. However, Ward does manage to communicate the feelings of helplessness, rage, and sorrow that Xhex feels quite well, and some of the plot is told from the perspective of her rapist. It would no doubt trigger readers who have issues with enclosed spaces, helplessness, and physical/sexual violence.
— END INTERLUDE —
John Matthew is part of the team that’s searching for Xhex. No one knows how invested he truly is, however. He and Xhex have made sweet vampire boners together. Xhex just wasn’t that into him, though, or at least pretended she wasn’t. Nonetheless, John loves her like a baby loves electrical outlets. He even gets her name tattooed on his back, like the ultimate stalker failboat only it’s okay because he’s the hero (these are not the droids you’re looking for).
Eventually John finds the house where Xhex is held prisoner. But there is a twist! Lash’s spell means that no one can see Xhex, even when they’re in the same room with her! Xhex gets to watch John have a fit of the screaming weepies in between huffing her blood-spattered pillow, which sort of sucks. Luckily, the arrival of the vampire search and rescue team weakens the spell. After they leave, Xhex manages to break out of the house and flee. Eventually John and she are reunited, and he manfully sacrifices his love on the altar of manliness, promising to love her (with his body) and leave her (EXCEPT IN HIS IMMORTAL SOUL and oh right also HIS TATTOOED BACK).
Xhex wants to have sex with John, but initially faces difficulty because of her rape by Lash. The process of recovery was treated more thoroughly than in your average romance novel, without the kind of “I’ll never orgasm AGAIN, let’s have painfully awkward SACRIFICE SEX because that’s REALLY HOT!” histrionics that you find in Mary Balogh’s novels. Ward does have an advantage over Balogh: the vampire element acts as a deus ex machina which makes Xhex’s recovery speedier. Since Xhex has been alive so long, and been through a ration of shit in those years, she’s ostensibly better able to recover. I don’t think that’s actually accurate, per se, but in the logic of the book it makes sense.
The remainder of their story is mostly: no-strings sex, Xhex learning sign language, sex, Xhex finding out about the tattoo and not filing a restraining order (?), sex, Xhex getting a tour of John’s really radically screwed up childhood, sex, Xhex finding out that John’s a rape survivor as well, more sex, sex, falling in love while having sex, John helping Xhex kill Lash, sex. I was satisfied with the amount of sex in this novel.
In addition to this main storyline, there are three or four subplots. Chapters of these subplots are interwoven with chapters of the main storyline, which just about ruins the flow of the book. There’s one where the past mysteriously replicates the future; one featuring Qhuinn and Blay: Gay Vampires In Denial; one where a woman in Vampire Heaven yearns to be free, finally gets Pollyanna’d by having her back broken by her sparring partner, and bonus! finally hooks back up with her twin upon leaving Vampire Heaven (?????); and one where a TV producer of a supernatural reality show discovers a vampire (named Muhrder!) living in the attic.
The subplot that was most addictive for me was, of course, the gay one. Qhuinn has sex with anything that moves– except for Blay, his best friend. Blay is a gentleman with a fever– and the only cure is Qhuinn’s dick in his mouth. Blay watches Qhuinn have sex; Qhuinn watches Blay watching Qhuinn have sex. Qhuinn doesn’t want to bond with Blay because then he’ll have to give up his vampire aristo privilege; Blay just wants access to the public park that is Qhuinn’s loins.
Blay eventually meets Saxton, Qhuinn’s cousin, and they go on a date. Following a homophobic encounter, Saxton gets beat up. Blay tends to him, and — after requesting one more chance to get on Qhuinn’s probably-threadbare penis — finally makes the sweet off-screen nookie with Saxton.
On the whole, I was appalled by how much I enjoyed this book. What follows, however, is a short summary of why exactly I was so appalled:
Slang: J.R. Ward is hep to the cool kids’ jive. This means that she works such happenin’ terms as “hella” (to mean very) and “jel” (to mean jealous) into her writing. It is extremely square for the reader.
All of Your H Needs: Aside from the slang, the vampires have their own words, seeming holdovers from eons past. These words are like normal English words, but with one extra h. For example: a symphath (like “sympath”), or a whard (like “ward”), or even Qhuinn (Quinn is the mere mortal spelling). I don’t know what the real explanation is, never having read the other books; the only explanation that makes sense to me is that the fangs give vampires a lisp.
Jism: About two minutes after his first insertion into Xhex (I am so great at sexy terminology), John Matthew blows his proverbial wad all over the proverbial place. “Well,” I thought, “That’s– certainly a first? I have yet to see a hero who deals with premature ejaculation.”But then John Matthew just kept… inserting.
And then jizzing.
Cut to about forty money shots later — in the third or so sex scene — and I started to think that vampires were different. Anatomically different. I discussed this with a friend, since that is what you do when you are perplexed by the amount of spunk in a romance novel (have I mentioned I don’t get invited out much?). She suggested that male vampires have an inordinate number of auxiliary testicles, which descend in semi-automatic fashion whenever the vampire is engaged in coitus. This is, of course, the only logical explanation. You’re welcome.
Missing Porn: I was satisfied by the amount of hetero porn in this book, even with the veritable sea of semen that would erupt from poor John Matthew’s schlong. The homo porn, however, was severely lacking. I was annoyed that Blay and Qhuinn didn’t get together by the end of the book, of course, but my annoyance could have been assuaged by the minor inclusion of a little frottage between Blay and Saxton. I’m not particular! I’ll settle for a misdirected dryhump! I didn’t even get that, though. It was the old “fade to black.” If you’re going to include a gay subplot, in my opinion, there’d better be at least a slightly porny outtake for your more perverted readers. I suspect that, while the average romance reader might have been put off, the reader of 600+ page vampire erotica novel would know how to skim.
Mute Magic: John Matthew teaches Xhex the American sign language alphabet. He also proves that he is a capable lip reader. Neither of these things is effective for communicating paragraphs of emotional exposition, as Ward seems to assume. Fingerspelling more than a couple of words is exhausting, and John Matthew and Xhex sign this way for pages. There’s one particular scene where he’s leaning in, his face nearly touching Xhex’s… and he’s somehow both signing in a way that she understands and lipreading. I can’t come up with anything sufficiently snide to say about the impossibility of that. Very well then.
Your Homophobia Is Unrealistic, Dammit: Here’s a handy guide on how to tell if an author of gay-themed narratives is straight or not! First, there will be an instance of overt homophobia. Second, this overt homophobia will be the first time the gay characters explicitly become aware of their surroundings. Finally, the overt homophobia will involve physical violence and/or slurs.The problem is that truly virulent homophobia is very rarely dressed in a paunch and hateful gaze, making threats and roughing up your boyfriend. It’s more often a snide comment, a really determinedly open-minded face, and uncomfortable questions from the restaurant host. When violence does happen, though, there’s always a way that it’s the gay person’s fault. He was hitting on them, after all. They were holding hands, in a neighborhood that isn’t friendly to that sort of thing! He was so obvious. It’s an abusive narrative, and abusive narratives rely on the victim always thinking — somewhere deep down — that they deserve it.
In Lover Mine, Blay and Saxton go to a cigar bar. They’re accosted by an overweight, drunk businessman who makes snide comments. They leave, and later Saxton is beaten up by– I’m not sure who, the businessman’s friends? First, of course the businessman is overweight, because fat is a handy shorthand for nasty and mean. Second, the cigar bar wouldn’t have tolerated that sort of bullshit, because gay men are perceived as classy clientele, and that’s good for business. Finally, it’s just too clear-cut an example of homophobia, the poor gay man getting roughed up (somehow– even though HE’S A VAMPIRE) by those out-of-nowhere homophobic thugs. Unfortunately for non-vampire queers, it’s hardly ever so easy to prove that you didn’t provoke it, that it wasn’t really your fault somehow.
LET’S END ON A DOWNER NOTE, SHALL WE? OKAY.
…VAMPIRE BONERS FOREVER.
1 – It seems like every other series romance is titled something like “BABY GETS A DADDY” or “AND DADDY MAKES THREE.” The remainder have titles like “MISTRESS OF A MILLIONAIRE” or “THE SHEIK’S STIPULATION.” This is perhaps a post for another day.