This Week, I Read… (2021 #42)

#126 – Pucked Up Love, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

As sweet as the story could be sometimes, I felt like both Will and Hailey had muddled conflict and character arcs, which resulted in the story being weaker overall than it could have been.

Let’s start with Will. He’s a Dom but he shelved that because when he got together with Hailey she was young and a virgin. Whether or not that was the “right” thing to do from any larger perspective, in terms of honesty or protectiveness or female empowerment or whatever, Will successfully stopped being a Dom for the five years of their relationship. They didn’t break up because he couldn’t handle denying that part of himself anymore; he never brought it up at all, Hailey overheard someone else asking him about it.

She quite rightfully was upset that she didn’t know this big thing about the man she was possibly about to marry, and ghosted him, basically.

But neither ever fell out of love with the other, and that’s the first problem with this story’s conflict–when I stopped to ask myself, at various points through the book, the “why aren’t they together now?” question that’s so vital to a well-paced and -plotted romance, the answer was usually just “One or both of them has their head up their ass, and not in a reasonable or relatable way.” Will tries to keep their new teacher/student relationship just sex first because he mistakenly assumes she’s interested in BDSM because of a new man in her life, though that gets cleared up quickly. (More quickly than I expected, actually.) And after that, he’s doing it to protect himself from the consequences of failure, if you can even call it that–because what if he lets himself be in love with her again and she turns out not to enjoy all the kink?

That’s where my problem with this arc lies–he was perfectly willing to not be a Dom to Hailey for so long, and his Dom-ness wasn’t the actual problem she ran from, it was that he never told her about it, which meant you could substitute any sort of deep secret that’s not kink and the result would be the same. On top of that, throughout the story Will displays continued interest in being with Hailey no matter how, and eventually states directly that he’d rather be vanilla with Hailey than kinky with anyone else. So, quite literally, what’s keeping them apart?

Nothing. Or just Hailey being stuck in her own head about what she needs to be for him, versus being herself, except in the end “being herself” also means being kinky. And while that’s a legitimate character arc in terms of growth, it mostly involves her flailing about wildly in terms of personality, not trusting herself in ways that were painful to me to listen to (as I got this on audio) and basically being a wishy-washy uncommunicative woman. For all that Will stressed honesty and communication as necessary to “the game,” both of them at various points in the plot fall down on that, in ways that felt more frustrating than understandable.

It’s really interesting to me to read other reviews that skewer Will for his actions, because in the end, from my perspective, Will never did all that much wrong. Sure, he probably should have told Hailey at some point during that first relationship about his Dom tendencies, I’ll agree with that. But throughout the entire story he consistently put Hailey’s needs before his own, while she floundered about trying not to be a hot mess. Yes, the whole point of the plot was that she was attempting to change herself “for a man,” and that’s not great, but also Will didn’t put her up to it–it was her decision, and coincidence brought them back together. Hailey was consistently the one making snap judgments and bad decisions and inflicting her troubled emotional state on everyone else around her. Honestly, I don’t like her much. Her backstory and her inner narrative are constantly harping about what a strong person she is because she’s a cancer survivor and a self-defense teacher and a small-business co-owner, but the plot constantly demonstrates she’s a deeply confused woman who, despite Will’s solid efforts to educate her, doesn’t really understand what submissiveness is about, even if she enjoys it in the moment. She first equates submission with weakness (and later with assault and rape culture, which was acutely painful to listen to even if I knew the author didn’t believe that because this was Hailey’s final obstacle to hurdle over) and even in the end, only figures out that consensual kink is fine because it’s consensual and not rapey, but without ever acknowledging that submission requires/encourages a person to be mentally strong, in order to trust and transfer power. I was disappointed she never got there, so her personal arc felt incomplete.

And Will doesn’t really change at all.

This is definitely the weakest entry in the series so far, to me, but there’s only one left to go, and I really like Bree as a side character so I’m intrigued to see where her romance goes in the final installment.

#127 – Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George

  • Mount TBR: 100/100
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I’ve come out at the end of this story with strongly mixed feelings–what was good about it was very good, downright charming, while what was bad was pretty awful. And most of it comes in matched sets, right across the board.

What do I mean by that? Let’s start with our cast of characters. The protagonist and her circle are both morally good and well-characterized. The villains, major or minor, are all stereotypically evil and weakly characterized, with little or no depth to the motivations for their actions. It’s great that Creel is skilled at a craft, and ambitious, and kind when she can be but protective of her own needs when that’s more important. I love that I have a good sense of her personality and how she would react to any given situation. But her counterpart Amalia? The shallowest of spoiled princesses, with no characterization beyond that, and the general motivation of “this country is our enemy so of course its princess turned out to be working against us.” I’m sorry, girls her age with her upbringing and personality (what little there is of it) strike me as more likely to rebel against her parents and refuse to do anything useful, rather than help orchestrate the takeover of a hostile country using magic and dragons.

Now consider the pacing. The opening and middle of the story are a sort of genteel, plodding fairy tale where everyone takes their time having conversations, and Creel gets to describe her craft at length, and sure things are happening but no one is in any great hurry. Then the war starts and suddenly we readers are plunged into a fast(er)-paced narrative of danger and death and intrigue. I’m sorry, what happened to the almost Gaiman-esque layer of polish and charm to everything? (Not that bad things don’t happen in Gaiman novels, they do, but they happen with a certain style to them.) The tonal whiplash I felt between Creel conversing calmly with her dragon friends, and then nearly everyone in the palace dying in a mind-controlled-dragon attack, cannot be overstated. It felt like I was reading an entirely different book that happened to have the same character names.

Let’s talk disability rep, too. I’m not thrilled that our minor antagonist, Larkin, is a bitter young woman with a limp who hates being relegated to the back of the dress shop because of her appearance and disability, who eventually commits a bit of light treason to her country. Like, do I understand her feelings about the unfairness of how she’s been treated? Absolutely! Do I think I’m actually supposed to believe as a reader that she’s angry enough about it to want to turn her entire country over to the enemy, though? Not really. And if she’s only supposed to have done the traitorous thing she did out of a certain level of understandable spite, then shouldn’t she be remorseful in the end when she realizes the part she played in a situation that presumably went farther than she ever knew or intended?

And there’s an obvious attempt to balance that “bad” rep by having Prince Luka’s guard Tobin be mute, but still be awesome. And I’ll agree he pretty much is, that’s not the problem. The problem is that Creel is apparently so sheltered that she literally doesn’t know sign language is a thing–though to be fair to her, it only gets brought up directly very late in the story, so it’s not like I knew sign language was a thing in this fantasy world–and she only notices at the very end that Tobin has been communicating with others through gestures, in addition to the much more obvious body language that even speaking people use, like nodding or shaking one’s head, etc. Yes, Creel is definitely a bit of a country bumpkin, but how does characterizing her as ignorant about disabilities help the narrative, or the reader? If Tobin is the “good” disabled rep to even out Larkin’s “bad” rep, then why aren’t his issues handled with more sensitivity?

Finally, I love Luka as the down-to-earth and kindly prince, and I get how he could be fascinated by someone like Creel, but the romance between them is mostly a tale I’m spinning in my own head based on a combination of hope (because I am that romantic) and pretty subtle clues I don’t actually know if I would have picked up if I were the age group this is targeted towards. At the end, when my maybe-this-is-where-we’re-going hopes were confirmed, I still wasn’t sure it wasn’t going to be just that Luka and Creel had forged a reasonably strong friendship across their social and class boundaries, but no, it was a romance, though that romance seemed as surprising to Creel as to anybody else, which I believe partially makes my point for me.

I see there’s more to the series, but looking over the blurb, I’m just not invested enough.

#128 – Puck Buddies, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is a five-star read for me, despite some minor flaws, because this is the first one I’ve enjoyed as much as the series starter.

What are those flaws? Well, much like entry #5, the couple in question is basically already in love when the story starts, and we don’t get to see much of a transition as they grow closer. (Though for very different reasons, as this is a friends-to-lovers story, not a second-chance romance.) And the ending…sigh. The ending. I know almost nothing about the nitty-gritty of player’s contracts for hockey (or any other professional sport) but even I know how silly and preposterous that happy ending would be in reality.

Which doesn’t fully negate the happiness, but still…

Anyway, I’m still giving it five stars, because Shane is fantastic; Bree is hilarious; they’re actually totally believable as close/best friends before the romance starts; “fromance” may be a term I’ve only heard a handful of times and doesn’t have the same cultural capital as “bromance,” but I love it anyway and I’m now tempted to fromance-woo some of my friends whom I love; and also, Sheldon the hermit crab, who does not play a large role in the story but I am an absolute sucker for non-standard pets.

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