I read both the main pick and the alt pick for Vaginal Fantasy this month, I wanted very much to like them both as they both sounded so interesting. I ended up hating both, though for two very different reasons.
A Promise of Fire was the main pick this month, and like I said, I wanted to like this novel. I enjoyed the bits and pieces that made up the story around the romance, but ultimately I just couldn’t deal with the romance. Unfortunately the romance was the major storyline of the book and so it became a hard pass for me. I’m bumping it up to two stars, because I did like the extras, but a rapey subtext isn’t made better when the character is attracted to the pursuer. And that right there is my whole problem with this book. It’s full, and I do mean FULL of rapey subtext, and not a single aspect of the book actually points out how problematic that subtext is.
Cat is in hiding, she lives in a circus and makes her living telling fortunes but mostly she’s in hiding. Griffin discovers her big secret, that she’s a Kingmaker, and kidnaps her so that he can use her abilities to build up the kingdom he just stole. They fall in love. And it’s gross. The book is set in a pseudo-Ancient Greek world, and the gods and monsters of the Greeks feature heavily. However, it’s also very anachronistic in places, one of the more egregious ones being that Cat wears high-heeled sandals when she dresses up. I’m not great with my Classics history, but a quick google tells me that high heels were for actors and not worn off stage and so they just felt odd in a setting that is supposed to be very much like Ancient Greece. The anachronisms feel less like fantasy world-building and more like the author enjoys this part of the modern world and wanted a shorthand for sexy for her readers. And thus we get high-heeled strappy sandals. There’s also some issues with the travel in the book, the characters travel for a few weeks in order to get to one place but when necessary they can get to the original place in a couple of hours without killing the horses. You probably could justify it, but it’s not in the text and so it just feels like lazy world building.
But really, lets get to the stuff that really bothered me. The gross, rapey romance. I’m not automatically opposed to a romance novel that explores the captive to romantic partner relationship, but I do insist that if the author is going to go with that dynamic that the captor decides to start making advances. Griffin makes his intentions known while Cat is still very much his captive, and he goes so far as to kiss her several times. There’s also the ugly dynamic in that Cat actively refuses him, I think the author tried to temper this refusal by writing everything in first person and so we see that Cat is enjoying the advances, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s saying no. The book is just one more piece of media reinforcing the idea that women lie when they say no. Add in the fact that every single other character in the book is explaining to Cat why she’s wrong and why she really loves Griffin and you have a text that tells us that women don’t know what they want. If even one character had actually listened to Cat when she voiced her very legitimate complaints about being captured I might have been less grossed out, instead everything points to Cat just being an idiot who doesn’t know her own mind. This results in exchanges like this where Cat is talking to Griffin’s sister:
I swallow, thinking I might pity myself a little bit right now, too. “He abducted me. He threatened my friends. He kept me tied to him with a magic rope. I couldn’t even pee by myself. He’s awful.”
“You’ll get over it.” Jocasta cheerfully throws my own words back at me. “See you at dinner.”
There is also the fact that Cat is an emotionally damaged individual, she is not whole in any way, shape, or form. Part of the romance is the rebuilding of her emotional core, I’m a sucker for that trope and the fact that it’s reversed from the general damaged male/healing female one is actually a bright spot. Unfortunately it’s again something that Cat doesn’t actively participate in, it’s forced on her. Just because it’s good for her doesn’t make it ok. Also, there’s actually healing sex in the book and I think I lost an eyeball rolling them so hard. I mean, I saw it coming a mile away but even that couldn’t stop my annoyance.
Hard pass on this one. And hard pass on the sequels. And honestly, if there hadn’t been a spec of romance I would have enjoyed this novel quite a bit. The characters are great, the non-romance plot was interesting, the world building had some issues but I could forgive it. It’s just that romance was so bad I can’t get over it.
Bitter Spirits was the alt this month, and it was simply just too clichéd for my taste. I did read it before A Promise of Fire, and I think I would have been much easier on it if I’d read it after. It’s fine, it’s just all rather done. Honestly I think if I’d been in the right mood I might have enjoyed it more, but I wasn’t and so instead I got annoyed and didn’t enjoy the book.
Aida Palmer is a medium during the roaring Twenties and Winter is a bootlegger operating out of San Francisco. They meet when someone tries to spiritually poison Winter, causing ghosts to be drawn to him, and he requests help from Aida’s employer, who is also one of the people he supplies illicit booze to. There’s a mystery about who is poisoning Winter, and there’s super sad angst because Winter has a scar on his face, and the two of them have instant attraction and BAM ROMANCE. Like I said, it’s fine. I’m a fan of the Twenties and spiritualism, and this should have been very enjoyable. But for whatever reason I just couldn’t get into it. It might because I got very annoyed when Winter was brooding over his ‘disfiguring’ scar. The book is set in the Twenties, which is right after WWI, and Winter’s scar is a line down his face with a blown pupil and happened in a car accident. I’m not enough of a medical historian to know whether or not the technology existed to save an eye in an accident like that, but I do know there were men walking around with their faces melted off because they came into contact with mustard gas. The idea that Winter’s scar was horrific enough to drive women away from a man built like that is pretty stupid is what I’m saying.
Honestly, I may reattempt this one when I’m feeling more in the mood for romance and thus more willing to forgive romance novel tropes.