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REVIEW:  Dark Soul: Volumes 3, 4, and 5 by Aleksandr Voinov

REVIEW: Dark Soul: Volumes 3, 4, and 5 by Aleksandr...

Dear Mr. Voinov,

Your Dark Soul series has been a roller-coaster ride for me. It is not a genre romance, even though it has some very romantic moments. It features themes I rarely seek out, including menage, BDSM, and protagonists in organized crime. Purchasing all five volumes is not inexpensive. It is quite brutal in places. And while I enjoy serialized fiction, this one is more like a set of linked short stories in parts than a serialized novel.

Dark SoulAnd yet. And yet. I read each installment with apprehension but also eagerness, and they have rewarded me handsomely. I put off reading Volumes 4 and 5 for weeks, in part because I wanted to give them the attention they deserved. I’ve already talked about Volumes 1 and 2 here and here, so this review will cover the last three installments. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, because part of the pleasure and impact of the story comes from the way you’ve put it together. For readers who find my plot summary inadequate, there are reviews at Goodreads and a number of blogs that provide more answers.

The overall storyline is relatively compact: Stefano Marino, a avowedly heterosexual mob boss with a beautiful wife whom he loves, falls hard for Silvio Spadaro, an assassin who is the lover and heir of another boss. That boss sends Silvio to Stefano to assist him in a battle with the Russian mob. Volume 3 begins with the Russians’ attack on Stefano and Silvio’s retaliation against them, two acts that bring them together physically and emotionally, and it introduces a character from Silvio’s past who becomes part of the campaign against the Russians. This installment reveals more about Silvio, from his ruthlessness as an assassin and a person, to his sexual needs, to his vulnerability when he was a child. Stefano finally starts to come to terms with his attraction to Silvio and realizes it is not something he can wish or repress away.

In Volume 4, Silvio and Franco’s onslaught on the Russia mob continues and the relationship between Silvio and Stefano deepens, and both developments have their inevitable consequences. The mob war escalates beyond something that can be dealt with by merely buying off local law enforcement, and Donata is no fool. Stefano’s personal and professional existences are both up for grabs by the end, and it’s not at all clear which way the resolutions lie. Stefano is deeply conflicted because he is growing more emotionally committed to Silvio, but he also loves Donata, and he wants to keep everything the way it is and somehow add Silvio into the mix. Plus, he is trying to maintain his mob supremacy in the face of increasing threats.

Volume 5 has to wrap all of these loose ends together. And it does, with style and assurance, all the while introducing another major character. Savvy readers should deduce the backstory of the new character fairly quickly. Since I was slow on the uptake, I was kind of annoyed at first that this character became so important, although I understood why he had to for storyline reasons; then I finally got it and everything made sense.

In this final episode, the Russians are basically out of the picture but Stefano and Silvio have to deal with the increased law enforcement attention that accompanies their demise. Stefano tries to find a way to salvage his marriage while still hanging on to Silvio and fighting off challenges from within his organization. We also find out more about Silvio, which I found extremely helpful. By the beginning of Volume 4 I was starting to wonder if he was a sociopath. The ultimate explanation for some of his personality made sense to me, although I’m still ambivalent about how trustworthy he is and how fully he can commit to other human beings. But I could definitely see why Stefano didn’t want to have to choose:

He stood and slipped out of bed and closed the door behind him on the way, smiling to himself. Compared to Donata, Silvio was the polar opposite. Not a graceful or early riser. And that would be less funny if Silvio weren’t a sicario. If he killed a stranger for absolutely no personal reason, how would he respond if unduly irritated?

But of course, all that was idle bullshit, especially considering that the big issue in the back of Stefano’s mind was his wife. He kept checking his phone in the hope of a text from her. He sometimes touched her profile on his phone, especially when Silvio was asleep or occupied with something else. He’d snapped a photo of her on one of the date nights, dressed in a gorgeous red dress, her hair tumbling down. It showed up every time she called him, and sat as a tiny thumbnail right next to her name. Donata Marino.

And he was hiding away from her in this hotel, fucking Silvio, finally sating that hunger and that deeper need, the terrible affection for another man. But, truth was, he was hiding, still avoiding her.

I needed time to work this out for myself. I needed to know if it was real. And God help me, but it is.

I thought that the way you resolved these threads was ingenious from a storytelling point of view, but I wasn’t completely convinced in terms of the characters.  What I mean by this is that everything worked in terms of the characters as they appear in the book, but I wondered if real people would work things out the same way (and it’s definitely a testament to the quality of the characterizations that I came to think of them as real people).

First, I  thought Stefano needed to experience the consequences of his various decisions a bit more than he did. I didn’t want him to grovel more or be punished, exactly, but resolutions seemed to come a little too quickly (this may have been a consequence of page length). Second, I wasn’t fully satisfied by way Stefano made the decisions about his future and the ramifications of those decisions for both him and Donata. Stefano made them unilaterally even though they affected both of them, and I had trouble believing that it was as easy for the two of them to live with the decision as it seemed in the end. Even when you hate something, it’s hard to shift the patterns and habits of decades. And while I was pleased that there was an HEA in the end, I had trouble believing the characters were as free of their pasts as they seemed to be. So, in some ways, Volume 5 was the least satisfying for me.

Overall, though, the way the characters and the plot unfolded over the installments was really well done. Stefano goes from being confused and not very self-aware to decisive and much more in control, as well as more honest with himself and those he loves. Donata, when she finally appears on the page, is worth the wait. She’s a little too understanding in the last installment, but she’s a strong woman who seems to be making thoughtful and considered choices. And Silvio becomes less of an enigma and more of a human being. He’s still the same Silvio we met at the beginning of the first volume to a great extent, but we see him less as a gorgeous assassin and more as the complex young man that he is.

The quality of the writing sustains a high level of quality throughout the five installments; it is taut, focused, and perfect for the subject matter. The sex scenes are explicit, hot, and critical to the development of the plot and characters. There is an m/m/f scene which is extremely well done. If readers aren’t fanning themselves throughout, I’ll be surprised.

I am so glad I stretched outside my comfort zone and picked up this series. I want to reiterate, this is not a genre romance. It’s not easily classified, either as conventional m/m or menage. There are some extremely violent scenes, and the characters do some pretty unlikeable things. They are ultimately sympathetic, but it takes some of them quite a while to get there, and all readers may not make the journey with them. But for those who do, this is an incredibly rewarding read. It’s not perfect, but it’s very hard to forget.

Grade for series: A-/B+

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REVIEW: Something Different by S.A. Reid

REVIEW: Something Different by S.A. Reid

Dear Ms. Reid (actually I’m just assuming your gender here — sorry if I got it wrong).

This is a self-pubbed book that you sent to Dear Author for possible review. I enjoyed the excerpt and it hit one of my buttons pretty hard (*love* stories about prostitutes or strippers — no idea why), so I figured I’d go for it. And I’m so glad I did. I loved this story. I never know why people choose to self-pub, but some aspects of the story might raise some eyebrows (they certainly raised mine), but overall, it was a fantastic story.

Something Different S.A. ReidMichael is 34, has been married for 15 years, and has two kids. He and his wife very rarely have sex:

Michael couldn’t remember the last time he’d had sex with Frannie, and there were so many rules he was no longer tempted to try. Weeknights were out, she was too tired from housework and spin class and book club and keeping up with her favorite programs on telly. Sundays were a no-go; she tended to go out with girlfriends after church and preferred a nice long evening with the telly when she returned. That left Saturday, and then Michael had to be freshly showered, the kids had to be either asleep or out of the house, and Frannie had to be in the mood. The likelihood of all these factors coming together was about as favorable as a total eclipse. Once Michael had thought that as he grew older he’d get “past it,” as men used to say, and find himself as disinterested as Frannie. But now he was thirty-four and more frustrated than ever.

A colleague goads Michael into the rebellion of going to the local park, looking for a female prostitute. There James finds him and, after a bit of conversation, Michael takes James to a hotel where James sucks him off and fucks him. Michael and James establish a regular routine until James is attacked by another client. At that point, Michael houses James and pays for his medical bills and rehabilitation, all while dealing with specters from his past and eventually being honest with his wife and starting amicable divorce proceedings.

Most but not all of the story is told from Michael’s perspective. Honestly, it reads almost like a fable. There’s some telling rather than showing, especially of the backstory for both men, but it works with your voice and just pulled me through the story (of course, looking for some to excerpt, I couldn’t find any, so maybe there’s less telling than I thought). Michael believes in truth:

“If it’s not about sex . . . what, then?”

Michael modulated his breathing. This would be taking a chance. But he could withstand the truth, he knew he could. He could ask James to be honest and not fear it would break him.

“It’s about friendship. I think of you as a friend. What we did before – I’d like to go back to it, whenever you’re ready. But until then, I want you to stay here, James. Get better. Spend time with me. Unless … unless it’s too much. Unless you don’t think of me the same way.”

“I thought of you as a client,” James said softly. “Till you rang me up. Till I said I was out of commission and you asked if we were finished. I felt – I don’t know. I thought maybe it would hurt you, wondering why I disappeared. So I met you in the restaurant. Not because I expected you to help me. I just didn’t want to leave you in pain.” James took a deep breath. “I don’t deserve you as a friend.”

“I don’t deserve you, either,” Michael said. It was the most he could manage. There was more inside him, he knew there was, but it was like staring at the white digital page when he tried to write a piece of fiction. A disconnect that made communication impossible.

So part of the “fable” feel of the story comes from Michael’s own disconnect from his emotions, but that’s very well explained by his back-story and he comes out of it now and then and increasingly toward the end of the story. The “fable” feel also comes from the ease with which Michael and James fall into their life together and with which Michael and his wife break up. But it all fits with their established characters, so again, I went with the flow of it. And Michael’s insistence on truth and honesty means that there’s never any recriminations about James’ former profession. Both of them just take it at face value, but that’s in-character for both of them, rather than forced.

From the self-publishing perspective, I saw 4 glaring typos and missing punctuation (on two complete read-throughs) which is not bad. The formatting for ePub was a little off because the WHOLE book was one chapter, so it took a while to load on Stanza (“a while” being around 10 seconds, rather than instantly). And the cover is boring. But altogether, at a $0.99 price point, it’s utterly and completely worth it.

From the self-pubbed perspective, you also deal with topics that are potentially triggering and/or might not be acceptable at mainstream e-publishers. Those topics are potential spoilers, so click to see them:
[spoiler]Both James and Michael are the victims of sexual assault: James when he was 12 by his uncle, lasting a few years and Michael when he was 14 by his step-mother, lasting three years.[/spoiler] Also, James has herpes and he and Michael have unprotected anal sex after they find this out. The unprotected sex made me REALLY uncomfortable, but I saw it as in-character for Michael at that stage in his personal development, so it sort of worked, even if it was a little strange to read. Once they have sex without both a condom AND lube, which just…no, thank you. I mean, I’m sure it’s *possible* but it’s gotta fucking HURT.

I don’t think I’m doing a good job of saying how much I liked this book. I really really did. It was both a romance and a coming-into-his-own for Michael and even a bit for James. And everyone gets their believable HEA at the end, so it left me with the warm fuzzies. You have a gift for characterization, the dialogue sparkled, I could see how Michael was changing and growing, and I was rooting for them both right from the start.

And a completely gratuitous excerpt because I just loved the description of Michael’s love for James:

“I love you, James,” Michael gasped, dealing a final battering thrust. James screamed, his cum hotter than piss against Michaels’s belly. Then it was Michael’s turn, pressing in deep as he could, pumping his cum into James. Time shifted, blurring things between them, putting Michael into another place where there was no need for ego, reassurance, or even reciprocity. He felt what he felt for James and took the deepest possible pleasure in it; the emotion was its own reward. Finally when he was completely soft, Michael withdrew, rolling onto his back beside James. He was almost surprised when the other man curled into his arms. But he let himself enjoy it, let himself go half-weak with pleasure. This was sublime, loving, truly loving, and expecting nothing but the freedom to express it.

Isn’t that an amazing way to think about love?

Grade: B+

Best regards,
-Sarah

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