Disclaimer: I received an ARC of Marked from Bree, half of the writing team that is Kit Rocha because we are friends. Being smart humans, regular readers might notice that this makes me a touch biased.
This is an anthology of romance novellas from three of the best writers in the genre who are not Heidi Cullinan. I imagine it’s going to get hyped all over the place, but I promise, the hype is worth it. I want to point to this anthology every time someone stridently proclaims that romances can’t be feminist, because all of these stories are, to one degree or other.
The anthology opens with Kit Rocha’s “Beyond Temptation”, which is book 3.5 in their Beyond series. From their website:
Kit Rocha returns to Sector Four in BEYOND TEMPTATION. A promise to a dying friend backfires when Noah Lennox finds that the girl he was supposed to rescue is all grown up–and wearing O’Kane ink. He wants to protect her from the secrets of their past, but she wants him. And an O’Kane woman always gets what she wants.
We all know that I am Not generally a fan of the trend toward motorcycle club romances. That isn’t exactly what the Beyond series is, but people do tend to recommend them to readers who like that sort of story. Hell, I know I would myself, if our library were ever to carry any of Kit’s books.
There are two things that set the O’Kanes apart from other motorcycle club stories: the heroines are even matches for the heroes, and the setting is dystopian. The first shouldn’t need to be explained, except to elaborate that I buy Rocha’s romances so much more because the power is evenly distributed between the couple and I never feel like anyone is getting into something they didn’t consent to. As to the second, Dallas O’Kane is practically a purring kitten compared to the other criminals in the Sectors, and they, in turn, at least have a sense of freedom which the more “law-abiding” members of society, who live in the walled city of Eden, which the sectors border, entirely lack. Reading Rocha’s books, I’m convinced that, no, I wouldn’t want to live in Eden, so, yes, life in the Sectors with the criminal element is, in fact, preferable. Neither Wylde nor Ashley ever got me around to that position, and if an author can’t convince me their criminal gangs are the best choice of people to hang out with, I can’t buy it for their heroines.
Beyond Temptation” is excellent, and it stands alone. (I’ve read the first Beyond book, and have the second and third on the TBR pile. I was able to keep up with no confusion, and I enjoyed meeting both our hero and heroine.
Emma has been with the O’Kanes for several years, where she’s carved out a place for herself as the apprentice to Ace, the main tattoo artist in the Sector. She still misses Noah, the best friend of her older brother, for whom she’s always had feelings. When he turns up in Sector Four, in order to do a favor for Dallas O’Kane, the leader of the gang, Emma wants nothing more than for Noah to stay so they can explore the attraction they’ve both felt for a long time.
For Noah’s part, he wants too things: to protect Emma and to bring down Mac Fleming, the leader of Sector Five. For damn sure he doesn’t want to be distracted by Emma, who is not the innocent, naive young girl he left behind. She’s strong, capable and competent, and he finds that alluring and sexy.
Both of these characters were well-drawn. I particularly loved that Noah got to be a bad-ass alpha man while also being a top-notch hacker. It’s like people are complicated or something, and like they don’t always adhere to obnoxious stereotypes! Emma is also great. She’s tough as nails, and she’s been through a lot. She stands up for what she wants, and gives as good as she gets. Also, she juggles knives, which I love. Naturally, the two of them have smoking chemistry, which is all entirely consensual.
A lot happens in this story. Rocha drops the reader in and expects her to keep up. I appreciate my intelligence being respected. I don’t need you to explain your world to me if you’ve done a sufficiently good job telling a story in that world. This is also clearly a slice of a larger story. It stands perfectly well on its own, but fits neatly into the rest of the series. The reader is given tantalizing glimpses of other characters, but never in a way that feels like sequel baiting. I particularly loved the introduction of Trix, a fellow refugee from Sector Five, a recovering addict who gives Noah some straight talk he desperately needs. She’s a complex character, and I want her story.
TLDR: A great start to the anthology, a fast-paced tour de force of a story. I really need to catch up on this series. A.
Vivian Arend’s “Rocky Ride” is the second story in the anthology. I’ve read Wolf Signs, one of her paranormal novellas, which was cute and sweet, and which I should remember about more often because it had a deaf heroine who was competent and kicked ass all over the place and wasn’t an inspirational story for the hero, but I haven’t read anything else she’s written, a fact that I intend to remedy soonest. “Rocky Ride”, is the start of her new Thompson and Sons series, which in itself is a spin-off to her Six Pack Ranch books. It stands alone, and was a complete delight. Here’s the blurb from Vivian’s website:
He’s got a touch that’s hotter than hot
It took a hell of a lot of fast-talking and more than a few speeding tickets before Mitch Thompson convinced Constable Anna Coleman to take him for a ride. Only now that she’s loosened off her stiff RCMP uniform, it’s not nearly enough. Their secret sexual escapades are mind-blowing, but Mitch wants more than her body—he wants her heart.
Her world could go up in flames
It’s a dangerous road to walk, and Anna doesn’t know how far she can safely tread. Bad boy Mitch may have lured her wild side out to play, but giving in to their increasingly passionate desires could endanger her very civilized career. Somewhere between yearning and obsession there has to be a balance point.
Or they’re both going to get burned.
I loved a lot of things about this novella. I loved that it was set in Canada. It’s weird how few genre novels I can think of that aren’t either US or UK-centric. Granted, Canada is not a truly exotic locale, but it was nice to see mounties in some other context than “Due South,” you know?
Anna, our erstwhile heroine, is an RCMP officer. I thought she was great. She’s allowed to be competent. Not once does someone need to rescue her from herself. In fact, though she doesn’t go off on an anti-sexism rant, she clearly labors under conditions that do not afflict her male coworkers in the same way. Yet, she still triumphs. She insists on equal partnership with Mitch, our hero, and by God, she gets it. I suspect some romance readers will find her strident and pushy and aggressive, but she’s a cop. Meek is kind of not in the job description. At least it isn’t for the kind of cops I want going after bad guys.
Mitch is awesome, too. He’s cultivated a bad-boy image, but at heart he’s a good man. I loved what a caring partner he was for Anna, and I loved the interactions he had with his family. (In fact, Arend writes family dynamics that feel very familiar to me, with people sniping at each other a lot, but where the love is obvious.) Mitch is no pushover, either, and in the end, I thought he and Anna made a great couple. Plus, he’s a working class man who is not, in fact, part of the criminal element. That’s also rare, in my experience.
The sex is hot, too. There’s a lot of it, but Arend integrates it well into the relationship and highlighting how the dynamics change as Mitch and Anna go from fuck buddies to people with a real relationship.
As with the Rocha story, I got the sense that Mitch and Anna had full and complete lives before the story began and would have full and complete lives after it was over. I’m now eager to read her SixPack Ranch books, which, from the blurbs, look like they’re similar to books I’ve read and loved by Lorelei James. If they’re all this fantastically feminist, I am so on bored for more! A.
Rounding out the anthology is “All That Remains” by Lauren Dane. I didn’t love this story as much as I did the other two. That being said, I enjoyed it, so we’re talking B+ love rather than A love, which is still not too shabby. The blurb goes like this:
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Lauren Dane takes you into a brand new world in ALL THAT REMAINS. Summer Killian falls fast and hard when Charlie arrives in Paradise Village. But the heat turns all the way up when she learns Charlie is also with Hatch – the man she loved four years before. While she’s not sure she’s cut out for a triad, neither man is going to give her up.
M/M/F is a setup that turns my particular erotic romance crank. I love the idea of two men who are hot for each other being hot for a woman. With a setup like that, you don’t run into the question of, “Oh, my. What if their penises accidentally touch one fine day while they’re boinking the heroine?” Plus, it seems to me that a relationship like that is less likely to leave someone out in the cold. It’s also been my experience that M/M/F stories tend to develop their heroes better and give them individual personalities, whereas M/F/M stories (that’s the one where there is no penis touching, no sir!) often trade character development for sexytimes. Your mileage may vary, of course.
What I loved about “All That Remains” is that Dane makes the relationship between these three characters plausible. It’s also commonplace and unremarkable. There’s some fiddly bits of SF to explain why this is which really worked for me, and I appreciated an explanation beyond, “Oh, well, you know, it’s what they do.” By making the M/M/F triad a thing that is unremarkable, Dane is free to highlight the way that the three characters negotiate that relationship. Summer is drawn to Charlie, but can’t forget Hatch, who left her once before. Hatch is blunt and strong-willed, and he and Summer butt heads, so Charlie has to negotiate being a mediator for both of them. All of these characters had distinct personalities, and I really liked that I couldn’t just say, “Oh, yeah. He’s always and forever the alpha. That guy’s the beta.” It didn’t work like that.
I also appreciated the fact that Summer had female friends. We didn’t get much page time with them, but I loved that Dane acknowledged how important Summer found her relationships with her sister and her female boss, especially in a world where, because of post-apocalypse reasons, women outnumber men. Other authors would have insisted that was cause for women to be catty backstabbing bitches, but Dane avoids that route.
The other thing I loved was that Summer, despite being with two men, never lost her agency. She actually calls Hatch and Charlie out for trying to police her emotions. It seems so rare that I read a woman in a romance utter the words, “Hey, dude, that is not cool what you just did/said/had done to me.” without treading into silly, feisty territory.
I do think there wasn’t quite enough of a story in this novella. There was an awful lot of sex, and while it was generally well-written, I found myself zoning out after a while.
My real problem with “All That Remains”, really, is that it isn’t Captivated, which was one of my favorite reads of 2012. I loved that book so much, and “All That Remains” didn’t quite capture the magic for me. I do look forward to Summer’s sister Dulce’s book, despite the fact that I am going to stubbornly wait until it’s all available to read because, ugh, not a fan of serials. She’s got quite a helping of backstory angst, and I’m sure I’ll be delighted to see more of Summer and her men in Dulce’s book.
In summary, I loved this anthology. All of the stories were excellent, and I have lots of new books to look forward to reading and catching up on.