REVIEW: Citywide by Santino Hassell
Dear Santino Hassell,
Citywide is a collection of novellas in your Five Boroughs series (as it says it right there on the cover). I recently read Third Rail which was a free series of short stories telling the beginnings of the poly romance between Chris Mendez and married couple Jace and Aiden Fairbairn. I have most of the Five Boroughs novels in Mt. TBR but haven’t read any of them yet (bad Kaetrin). Third Rail was a good jumping in point (and it was short so I found it easier to fit it in to my reading schedule) but I suspect those who are familiar with the series and the recurring characters will get more out of it.
Third Rail is more in the nature of prequel – the thruple don’t get their HEA until Citywide. Because I am a romance reader and everyone must have a HEA as soon as possible (and it doesn’t happen until I’ve read it) I made grabby hands for this anthology and was grateful the first story is indeed about Chris, Jace and Aiden. It’s called Rerouted.
I’d definitely recommend reading Third Rail first because it shows how the guys first got together and provides more context to what happens next.
After dodging Jace and Aiden for months because he caught feelings for them both, Chris gets stuck in the QFindr building with them during a citywide blackout. Jace and Aiden are married and have been together for 20 years, since they were teenagers. They’ve been open and poly right from the start. Chris had long since realised he was heteroflexible at the least but after hooking up with Jace and Aiden he’s come to realise he’s bisexual (although he’s not massively into labels – he thinks “queer” fits him best). He’s previously had a number of threesomes and has a definite preference for them.
Chris, from whose POV the entirety of Rerouted is told, is “cute” and “adorable”. He’s not very tall and he has dimples. He’s tactile and affectionate with his friends and he’s been overlooked too many times by people who choose to hook up with his taller, hotter friends, Angel and Raymond (Raymond got his HEA in a previous Five Boroughs story – Sunset Park). Jace and Aiden think Chris is gorgeous and they’re very into him but Chris is insecure about his attractiveness.
As the trio are cooped up together during the blackout and a heatwave, they open up about their mutual desire for a more permanent arrangement for them. But for Chris, the “open” part of Jace’s and Aiden’s relationship is a dealbreaker. He knows himself well enough to know he would not be able to cope with Jace and Aiden hooking up with others, no matter that they’d been doing it for years and think of it as “just sex”. Chris isn’t wired that way.
I liked the exploration of a different type of relationship. I liked how you demonstrated what Jace and Aiden had worked for them and made them happy. I liked how you showed that Chris added an extra dimension to the relationship and fit well with them, smoothing off some of the ragged edges and making his own unique place in their dynamic. Jace and Aiden love each other and my impression was they were rock solid in terms of their HEA. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have issues now and then. Their history means that they don’t always react in ways beneficial to the other when they get stress. Chris steps into that, sees it and knows how to smooth things over without erasing reality or ignoring things. It was clear to me that Chris was more than just a fuck buddy to them and I could see how they worked together out of the bedroom as well as in it (and they did work extremely well within in it. Just saying).
It’s a novella so not every little thing was ironed out between them. It wasn’t that kind of story. They didn’t discuss their own “rules” about how their relationship would work going forward. I was comfortable with the HEA/HFN nonetheless. Each had sexual chemistry with the other individually as well as within their triad and it was clear to me that as long as any intimacies were confined to Jace, Aiden and Chris, any combination of them was fine and would not necessarily lead to any jealousy. Although, given Chris’s insecurities, I did wonder if he might sometimes feel like a third wheel as their relationship progressed. I expect if he does, Jace and Aiden would be well able to reassure him. I suppose there’s an opportunity for a further novella at some stage? (*hint hint*)
Rerouted didn’t try to be a complete story about a complicated relationship and I didn’t expect it to be. What it was it did well and for those of us who have read and enjoyed Third Rail, it was very satisfying to see a happy resolution.
I have a confession. Gridlocked was my first f/f romance. Apart from a little m/f/f romance, this is a new area for me (yay for reading more broadly). I’m not 100% sure I should even use the phrase f/f romance however, because Tonya identifies as genderqueer and non-binary. She is attracted to women exclusively I gather. Tonya doesn’t mind being referenced as either he or she. I don’t have much experience reading genderqueer or non-binary characters, so I apologise in advance if I muck up the descriptors or unintentionally offend. (Please let me know in the comments if I’ve got something wrong. I’m happy to learn.)
Because I am unfamiliar with the series and the characters and the story is told from Tonya’s first person point of view, I didn’t initially know that she was a she. I thought the protagonist was male. Then later, I realised that may well have been intentional because Tonya embodies both genders. (I’m fortified in that view because in the third story, Derailed, there are POV sections from Stephanie and she read as female to me, so I don’t think Tonya’s presentation on the page had anything to do with the gender identity of the author.)
Tonya presents as androgynous, with “hair [that] was cut short with a hard part, a fade, and racing stripes at the sides”. In fact, in the course of her bodyguard duties when she interacts with some policemen, they assume she’s male. Tonya isn’t bothered by that – it’s consistent with her presentation.
She is also a former Marine and she is tough.
I didn’t have a resting bitch face. I’d been born looking like I was ready to knock everybody out.
I gather that Tonya is still dealing with trauma from her time deployed and perhaps also because of her general personality, is not one to be warm and fuzzy. She’s generally not trusting, except with those she knows very well and is intimate (no necessarily sexually) with. She also has a mistrust of rich people and her attraction to wealthy socialite Meredith Stone irritates and confounds her. It won’t go away though.
When Meredith is mugged after a party, Tonya goes all alpha-protector and lets down her guard a little more. Meredith isn’t a wilting violet by any means but she was, understandably shaken up by the assault and very much appreciated Tonya’s intervention.
Ultimately it is for Tonya to decide, for what appears to be the first time in ages, if ever, to let Meredith in and do the dating thing. Most of the story covers a very short period of time and it is clear there is history between Tonya and Mere. I didn’t feel lost at all however and I did believe their attraction and the push/pull of Tonya’s desire to be known and her desire to be safe. Apart from acting on their scorching sexual chemistry they have some frank discussion. Open communication is such a sexy thing.
Even though they appear to come from different worlds (socially speaking) I felt comfortable that Mere and T-Bone have a long happy future together – the Manhattan crowd and the Queens crew blend together enough that both have friends in each space and a certain level of comfort (admittedly, Meredith more so than Tonya) so I didn’t feel class would be a barrier they couldn’t work through.
Even though Jace, Chris and Aiden were what drew me to Citywide in the first place, Derailed was my favourite of the three stories. It features Stephanie and Angel and is told from both of their perspectives, unlike the previous two stories, which have only one POV. I expect that dual narrative had something to do with my preference and also that it featured the fake relationship trope which is a favourite of mine, but the main reason was the believable angst between a couple who loved each other but didn’t believe they could be together.
Angel and Steph went to school together and Angel has been in love with her since he was 14 years old. She has always been it for him. In the previous year their friendship had morphed into friends with benefits and their sexual compatibility was everything they could have hoped for. Angel is the only heterosexual in the Five Boroughs friendship group – Steph is bi – and he is also extremely comfortable in his sexuality. He’s at ease around his queer friends and doesn’t fetishize Steph’s bisexuality.
Steph’s parents were both drug addicts and they abandoned her and her younger brother, Victor, when she was about 16. She had to hide that fact from the authorities in order to keep her brother with her and not go into foster care herself. She is deeply scarred by being abandoned by the people who were supposed to love her and always be there for her. She determined that she would never put herself in a position to be that shattered ever again.
Of course, I knew that Steph was in fact already there. She loves deeply. Her friends are her found family. She is fiercely independent and self-sufficient but that has little to do with feeling love and being loved in return (at least in a healthy, functional relationship). She is closer to Angel than anyone. They are comfortable and open with each other in a way she cannot be with anyone else.
Steph works at a law firm as a paralegal and due to many comments about her single status, she “accidentally” told everyone there she was engaged to Angel. When her work and social life collide the story comes out and Steph finds herself on a company long weekend retreat with Angel at her side as her pretend-fiance.
Angel is never pathetic. He is devoted to Steph. He loves her and wants the best for her. He knows, deep down, that she is probably the only woman he will ever love but he also knows that if it is best for Steph, he will back away. For his own sanity, he will need to try and move on and find love elsewhere. He doesn’t think “oh well, I’ll just be miserable and alone for the rest of my life”. I expect there’s a fine line there but you walked it well. Angel is happy just to be with Stephanie – provided they are monogamous together and openly dating he doesn’t much care about all the other relationship trappings. And, again, it never comes off as him begging for scraps. Rather, he knows what he wants.
The journey in Derailed is about Steph reconciling her actual feelings with her long-held belief that the only way to keep herself safe was to stay single. The inevitability of the decision to be made was lurking all through the story. I felt for Steph. I understood her fears and her deeply held reservations. So did Angel. So apart from that I knew this was a romance, I wasn’t otherwise sure it would all work out. On the one hand, the conflict could have felt trivial. After all there was nothing keeping them apart except for a decision to be together. But it was written so well that I was on tenterhooks waiting to see how it would all pan out.
I enjoyed the complex friendships and relationships in what is obviously the fully fleshed-out world of the Five Boroughs. I liked the inter-connectedness which felt like every character had their own full life outside of the book but which also wasn’t intrusive. I wasn’t lost because I hadn’t read the other novels. Rather, Citywide (with the caveat that I do think Third Rail should be read first – but it’s free so the only cost is time) is an excellent jumping in point for a series I plan to move up the queue in my TBR of Doom.