Dear J. Fally:
This book is Example A for why I try never to make unilateral statements about what I will and won’t read. It is written in a highly cinematic style, it has an over the top storyline, it seems to be not just m/m but also m/m/m, one of the apparent romantic leads is a gangster, and it’s from a press that is notorious for releasing books that are in dire need of developmental editing. I saw rave reviews and was sure the book was Not For Me. But when I asked Sirius for her recommendations of the best m/m books of 2013, this was one of her first suggestions. I downloaded the sample and was absolutely hooked by the voice. I kept reading, worried that it would fall apart in the second half. It didn’t. I kept reading, worried about how it would work its way to an HFN. It did. By the time I reached the last page, I knew I’d found one of my best books of the year.
Bone Rider opens with a bang. The reader is immediately inside the head of System Six, a sentient armor being created by an alien civilization. System Six is not happy with the alien-human he’s been required to bond with, and out of fear that he’ll be removed and destroyed, he causes the ship they’re traveling on to crash land in the southwest US, where the survivors are immediately engaged in a firefight with the US military. System Six survives but has to find another host, and his first opportunity turns out to be Riley Cooper, a 30-something bartender on the run from a bad breakup. Riley just found out that the man of his dreams, Misha, is a Russian gangster, and if that isn’t bad enough, Misha isn’t just any gangster, he’s a hit man. And he’s not only an effective one, he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to change careers.
There are three main story arcs in Bone Rider (the title refers to the bonding process between sentient armor and its host). The first is the relationship between System Six, who adopts the name McLane in a very funny sequence, and Riley. This arc progresses from involuntary bonding through suspicious getting-to-know-you to understanding, friendship, and something more. The second arc focuses on Misha’s attempt to track down Riley and try and reconcile with him; this involves sending another Russian mobster to find Riley, with the many complications that ensue once Misha decides to go to Riley instead of trying to get Kolya-the-mobster to drag Riley back to him. And the third is the US Military’s efforts to make sense of the alien landing and track down the one that survived.
It takes a while for these story lines to converge; for the first half of the book we see them separately and from multiple POVs. This means that readers have to be willing to read a lot of POVs without necessarily knowing exactly what is going on. Readers also have to be interested in reading a novel that is not just about a romantic relationship. Morever it’s a novel that spends a lot of time in the POVs of military characters.
The romance is complicated by the fact that while Riley is pretty clearly a romantic lead, we don’t know for certain who his ultimate partner is going to be. Is it Misha? Riley is definitely not going back to a relationship with a mob assassin, but he’s also still very much in love with him. Is it McLane? Riley and McLane’s relationship trajectory has a lot of the characteristics of a romance-genre arc, but it’s hard to believe Riley can move on from Misha that fast. Plus, McLane is not a separate entity. He can’t exist for long without a host, and a romance between a human and the sentient armor that lives inside him seems kind of hard to write a satisfying happy ending about. I had no idea what was going to happen next through most of the book. And I did not care. I was so swept up by the voice and the way the story was unfolding (and did I mention the voice?) that I was more than willing to go wherever the author had decided to take me.
It didn’t sound like a girl and it had definitely looked male in his dream, but Riley figured that didn’t mean much when it came to alien armor systems. The thing was probably asexual or transsexual or whatever. Or it could change its sex. Or it was going to lay eggs into Riley’s belly like some kind of spider so its young could devour him from the inside out and— A ripple of movement under his skin made him break out in goose bumps. Stop it, his passenger demanded, sounding thoroughly disgusted. That’s revolting! I’ll be checking you and me for eggs now, thanks. “Sorry,” Riley muttered, chagrined. So maybe he wasn’t entirely convinced of the alien’s good intentions. Could you blame him? It was an alien.
I am not a fan of books that read like screenplays, and yet I kept turning the pages, eagerly reading to see where this crazy plot was going to go. When a new character appeared (and it happens practically every chapter for a while), I just accepted him or her and figured that I would find out eventually why s/he was talking to me. And I did. Every time. When the story lines finally converge, it’s in a spectacular action sequence that is extremely well done. And these events occur only a little more than halfway through the book. At that point the Misha-Riley and McLane-Riley narratives stay together, while the military storyline eventually separates out again. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but while the second half wasn’t quite as gripping to me as the first, there wasn’t as much of a letdown as there can be in books of this type.
The romance between Riley and Misha (both the broken one and the one that Misha fights to resume once they are together again) is really, really good. I bought it completely despite the fact that I Do Not Like assassin heroes unless they are campy or fantasy characters in a fantasy setting. This is a fantasy setting, but Misha felt real. I think the reason his character worked for me was that the author never tried to make me like him and never minimized who he was. But she completely convinced me how much Misha loved Riley; he accepted the depths of his love even when he didn’t really understand it.
Riley had no reason to put his faith in a man who’d sneaked into his affections using lies and deception, and then had kept on lying until he’d gotten caught. A man who murdered people for a living. For someone with Riley’s background, this wasn’t a gray area. Misha was a liar and a killer. A very bad guy working for a very powerful crime syndicate and Riley had barged into the wrong room at the wrong time and become a witness. No, Misha couldn’t blame him for running. He understood why Riley had taken on overwhelming odds with an empty gun rather than call Misha. And yet, stupidly, it still hurt. Misha sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. He was a mess: tired, gritty, and headachy; hollowed-out with worry and apprehension. The movies always made love look so easy, differences and misunderstandings a minor glitch brushed off after a short, dramatic interlude that set the course for happily ever after. What a crock of shit.
And Riley conveyed the same attitude about his love for Misha. This is one of those can’t-live-without-each-other stories, which is about the only way I can swallow a character like Misha’s. Riley deserves better, but Riley isn’t going to be happy with better. I wasn’t sure how they would reconcile the assassin part, but they managed. It’s not entirely believable, but the fact that I’m saying that about a book that involves alien landings and sentient armor tells you how thoroughly I was invested in these characters. Riley is Everyday Guy as Hero, which is a difficult character to make really interesting, especially when everyone around him is so unusual, but the author manages it. He’s realistically aware of the type of person he is emotionally and he doesn’t lie to himself about his weaknesses. When he’s invaded by System Six, he deals with it, and watching them get to know each other is one of the major pleasures of the book.
System Six/McLane is a hoot. He is the quintessential stranger in a strange land, and he’s trying to adapt to the new circumstances he has found himself in. He slowly comes to grips with the fact that although he is designed as both protection and a killing machine, he can’t just go around killing everyone who endangers Riley, because Riley doesn’t like killing people directly or indirectly. When he adjusts, he’s so pleased with himself:
Forward and up—hello there, nausea!—and Riley didn’t know what was happening, but he hoped like hell McClane wasn’t about to slaughter an innocent bystander. Or throw up on them. They came to an abrupt stop then, perfectly balanced and ready to move. No upchucking was happening, and neither did there seem to be blood. Note how I’m not killing him, McClane declared proudly. Riley might’ve been more appreciative had he had any idea what was going on.
The military characters are a bit stock but we come to appreciate their perspectives. The scientist in charge of examining the alien remains is minority and female, and the author portrays her background without making her all about her race. The (male) general who leads the mission to capture McLane is someone to admire and respect, even when he screws up and jumps to conclusions. They’re quieter characters than our three heroes, but they grew on me, and I was pleased that the entire military wasn’t sacrificed in order for our heroes to get to their HEA. The Russian gangsters and the survivalists (yes, there are survivalists) are also well portrayed even when their roles are fairly brief. The book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, which is no big surprise, but the three female characters are strong, competent, and interesting.
Oh yeah, the sex scenes. I almost forgot. There are several of them, and they run the gamut from not-sexy (on purpose) to hilarious to arousing. I frequently skip sex scenes, but I read all of these. They’re integral to the plot and they illuminate the characters, so if you skip them you miss important material. And they’re well written. I didn’t really buy the HEA, but I don’t see any other way the book could have ended, so I can’t really complain. Similarly, the big shootout scenes are not really believable, but they’re very well done and they are standard alien-movie fare.
If I listed all the components of this novel, they would sound familiar: alien landings, body invasions, Russian mobsters, military on the rampage, road romance, explosions and massive fight scenes. You’ve seen them all before. But you haven’t seen them in this combination, or told in this voice. We often say what we’ll believe depends on the execution, and that cliché has never been more apropos than in Bone Rider. I can’t wait to see what J. Fally does next. Grade: A-