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Ava March

REVIEW:  All In With the Duke by Ava March

REVIEW: All In With the Duke by Ava March


Dear Ms. March:

One of the reasons I enjoy historical m/m — other than the Reese’s peanut butter cup of two favorite genres put together — is that there’s potential for great angst when the stakes are so high. The prologue of this novel, in which a duke is blackmailed about his sexual preferences by a former lover, seemed like the definition of high stakes. To my surprise, in the story that followed the conflicts were mainly internal, and there was very little tension or emotion around the fact that the main characters are gay in such a dangerous time. In fact, the book largely followed the form of a standard m/f romance.

Having been burned by his first major relationship, Max, the Duke of Pelham, is reluctant to trust again. When a friend urges him to patronize a brothel, emphasizing that it has “something for everyone,” Max impulsively decides to try it. (His lack of caution here seemed odd to me, in someone who’d been previously betrayed. On the other hand, he is very much a Duke and feeling invincible is part of his character.) He’s paired with Tristan, a singularly beautiful man with an amiable, offhand attitude towards sex. Max, who prefers to dominate his lovers, finds himself wanting to crack Tristan’s “calm, professional facade” and make him crazy with lust; he succeeds.

After two paid encounters, both Max and Tristan feel strongly drawn to each other — enough to make Tristan dread his next encounter with another client, and make Max feel quite shattered when he discovers that Tristan is with someone else. The plot goes along in a familiar way from there, with rescues, trust issues, balance of power issues, and a hero who refuses to love; there are few original elements until the end, in which Max and Tristan have to negotiate a complicated happy ever after.

All In With the Duke will probably be most enjoyed by readers who like lots and lots of sex scenes, because for a good portion of the book, that’s pretty much all Tristan and Max do. Max is a workaholic, and gradually Tristan helps him gets to the root of his obsession with being a proper Duke and loosen up a little. But their relationship is largely sex; it’s well written and passionate, with a nice chemistry between them as Dom and sub, but it gets samey, and much of it is not particularly important to the story. (The BDSM elements are quite mild, by the way.) Max’s interest in dominance does provide some interesting conflict — not because Tristan isn’t totally down with it, but because Max’s shame around his desires intersects badly with Tristan’s learned professionalism.

Those cuffs didn’t belong on his wrists. Tristan hadn’t wanted to wear them. “Take them off. The leather cuffs. Now.”

A nod from Tristan. He was ever goddamn obedient. Tristan always replied all right. Never refused Max anything. Agreed with Max’s every whim.

Because Max was paying him.

What the hell had he expected when he’d hired a prostitute? For Tristan to actually be honest with him?

Max had never felt more the fool in his entire life.

There are other enjoyably tense moments of drama throughout the story, but it didn’t add up to the sort of compelling intensity I relish. Both Max and Tristan are likable but not especially memorable; I never got desperately caught up in their personal issues or in whether they’d be able to work things out. The prose is perfectly readable, but again, doesn’t add anything special in the way of characterization or atmosphere to make it stand out. For awhile it seemed that there might be some exploration of sex and gender roles in the book: Tristan’s madam requires him to wear his hair long so he can sometimes put on a dress and play “damsel in distress” for conflicted clients, and then he’s literally put into a classic “in distress” position, to be genuinely rescued by Max. But nothing further happens; neither character even seems to recognize the irony.

The brightest moment for me was the ending; after a plot that was pretty much by the numbers wallpaper historical, it was fresh and a little surprising, without a deus ex machina.

There’s a lot to be said for m/m historicals in which sexual preference isn’t the primary source of conflicts. I just wish the particular conflicts here had not made me feel like I’d read this book numerous times already.  C+



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REVIEW: “Bound…” trilogy by Ava March

REVIEW: “Bound…” trilogy by Ava March

Dear Ms. March.

I really really REALLY thought I’d reviewed this series already but I can’t find it anywhere. SUCH a hardship it was to reread it so I could review it. Or…not. ;) It’s totally worth a reread. And what better recommendation is there than that?

This series is three novellas: “Bound by Deception,” “Bound to Him,” and “Bound Forever.” Regency-set, they tell the story of the building relationship between Lord Oliver Marsden and Lord Vincent Prescott. “Bound by Deception” ends with an HFN, and “Bound Forever” ends with a full-on HEA — as close as they can get to a proposal and a wedding-type commitment for two men in 1823 — while the middle book ends with something sort of in the middle of an HFN and an HEA. The characters are strong and consistent, the sex is hot and fun and (mostly) integral to the story, and the  building of the relationship through the three stories is logical and affecting.

In “Bound by Deception,” we find Oliver negotiating with the madam of a whorehouse. He’s found out that his friend Vincent gets it on once a month with a male prostitute, mainly because the male prostitute he (Oliver) sees regularly boasted about it often enough for Oliver to figure out who the prostitute was boasting about (really? so much for professional discretion). Anyway, he is utterly unrequited in his love for Vincent, didn’t even know that Vincent liked men, and wants this one opportunity to be with Vincent. He agrees to the madam’s outrageous price and gets his chance.

Now here we have incredible suspension of disbelief. We have to believe that a dark room, a bad accent, and some stubble are enough of a disguise that Vincent doesn’t recognize Oliver, despite knowing him since they were teenagers. On my re-read, I found this too much for me. I mean, really?!

Anyway, the sex is unexpected because Vincent’s into pretty heavy BDSM. Oliver, shocked out of his skull that Vincent likes men, is even more shocked that Vincent likes whipping men, but enjoys it anyway (Oliver does, that is. Both of them did, in fact). Really enjoys it. It’s the best sex either of them has ever had, of course. After the amazing evening, Oliver then angsts his way around London. Once with Vincent was supposed to be enough, but it’s not. He wants Vincent to know who he fucked. He wants Vincent again. Vincent does some angsting too: he’s worried about “Jake” the prostitute and wants to make sure he’s okay. Eventually Oliver reveals all to Vincent at a ball, causing a showdown where he forces Vincent to realize he actually prefers men as sexual partners. Vincent had his monthly appointment, of course, but refused to label himself a “sodomite,” refused to admit that he could be that different (he’s got some issues around fatherly approval):

“Other than us both being frequently overlooked second sons to marquises, I used to believe we had very little in common,” Marsden said, calm and composed when Vincent felt like the floor was tilting underneath him. “You succeed at everything you do. You’re damn near perfect. Whereas I’m, well…” He waved a hand, indicating himself and the shabby room in one gesture. “You have responsibilities, property to oversee, and I have absolutely no prospects. Never even attended university. But we aren’t so different after all. You know what it feels like to wonder why you’re this way. Why you aren’t like every other man who lusts after women and wants a wife to call his own. And you can understand the difficulty and the need to keep it hidden.”

Vincent’s eyes widened, cold panic gripping his spine. “I’m not like you.”

“Yes, you are.”

“The hell I’m not! I don’t bend over and take it like a woman.”

Marsden flinched, as though Vincent had punched him in the gut. “Is that what you tell yourself?” he asked, hurt and anger warring in his narrowed eyes. “That has nothing to do with it.”

“Yes, it does! I’m not a…a –”

“A what?” Marsden shot back, hands fisted at his sides, advancing swiftly until he stood chest to chest with Vincent. “Go on, say it. But calling me a sod or a molly isn’t going to change the fact you fucked me. Hell, you did more than that. A fuck is just a fuck. But you kissed me!” Marsden threw the truth violently at Vincent.

This excerpt shows the one niggle I had about this whole series besides the suspension of disbelief in this first story: there’s a very fine thread of misogyny running through it. I’m still not sure if it’s really there, or if I’m just looking for trouble, but every now and then the men expressed themselves about women in ways that made me uncomfortable. It might have been historically appropriate and/or appropriate for their sexual orientation and/or their feelings for each other, but it was just very slightly off-putting.

But! The angst was wonderful, the sex was hot, the characters were fully realized, even in a short story.

Grade #1: B-

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Bound to Him” starts six months later. Oliver and Vincent have been hot and heavy for that time, but Oliver feels like he’s Vincent’s bit on the side. He doesn’t go out to parties or to his clubs, because Vincent tends to ignore him there. All he does it wait in his apartments for Vincent to show up. Vincent, on the other hand, is absolutely terrified that someone will figure out that he’s a sodomite. And to top it all, Vincent’s father summons him to inform him that he will marry a woman in order to forward his father’s own political ambitions. Vincent agrees, because he’s been trying to gain his father’s attention, if not approval, his entire life. This summons makes him late to an appointment with Oliver, which is the last straw for Oliver, who breaks things off with Vincent because he feels like Vincent doesn’t respect him at all and won’t admit to loving him.

There’s even more angst in this one, if possible. Oliver feels unloved and unloveable, but grows a pair and actually kicks Vincent to the curb, setting off a spasm of regret and emotion in both of them. Vincent has to get over himself and grow a pair of his own. It’s all brilliantly done. And the sex is hot. I also really love being inside Vincent’s head and see him unconsciously switch from calling Oliver his “friend” to “lover.”

Grade #2: B+

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Bound Forever” starts one year after “Bound to Him” ends and the plot is set in motion because Vincent’s brother has produced an heir, freeing Vincent from the prospect of ever having to marry. This allows Oliver to finally believe that Vincent will be his forever and they switch for the first time. This sets Vincent spinning mentally, but not because he’s worried that he liked being the sexual bottom. Rather, this final act of commitment sets him to worrying about what would happen to Oliver if something happened to him, so he gets all paternalistic about “taking care” of Oliver. They work it out with requisite angst (although slightly less) and sex (wonderful as always). And as much of a commitment as two men in the early 19thC could legally have to each other.

Grade #3: B

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All together, these three stories were wonderful. It was interesting to me that the sex got less kinky during the series. But I also loved how you could see the two men committing to each other, see them learning from their mistakes, see them trying not to make them again. You don’t see that in one story with an HEA so much. But three free-standing stories, each with their own culmination, it really worked. I would heartily recommend these three stories individually, but recommend them MORE together.

Best regards,