REVIEW: Devil’s Game by Joanna Wylde
Dear Ms. Wylde:
One of the most feminist books I’ve read. This is the line I’ve used to describe Devil’s Game to any number of people who would listen. When the words “motorcycle club” are invoked images of overly misogynistic men telling their property how to act leaps to mind. But within the Reaper’s MC, I believe some of the most interesting power dynamic struggles are taking place.
In Devil’s Game, you have two young people in their early twenties who are struggling with their roles within their respective social groups. One is the daughter of a powerful man and the other is an orphan raised by a dangerous group of men to become a dangerous man himself. Between the two, they have to discover the limits of their willingness to sacrifice part of themselves and part of their vision of the future in order to be together.
I’ve read a ton of MC books and frankly most of them are pretty bad but I believe that the reason it is so popular right now is because of the tribe based culture of the club. Tribes have a long history in literature and romance. The first tribe based romance books I ever read were Scottish Highlander stories. The structure of a Highlander novel is not unlike an MC book.
Both include a militaristic hierarchy with a leader, several strong wingmen, and others that live within the confines of the primary property whether it is hold, fief, or armory. Both types of stories feature warring clans vying for power. Often the head of the tribe is a male with a patriarchal power structure. The concept of loyalty along with external signage (whether it be plaids–although those came much later in history than depicted in many romances–or cuts) is vital. Scottish stories could (and sometimes did) feature a female clan leader. Medievals often followed the same structure.
After the decline in both those types of stories, we saw a rise in paranormals and in shapeshifters, particularly, you see a similar clan or tribal structure. There is one alpha often male, often involved in power struggles, and all living together for the betterment of the clan or tribe. It was author Moriah Jovan who first pointed out the similarities between werewolf packs and the motorcycle club.
Whenever there is a strong male lead, particularly in these patriarchal clan structures, my preference is for a strong female otherwise the romance seems imbalanced to me. In Devil’s Game, Em is the daughter of Reese “Picnic” Hayes who is the president of the Reaper’s MC–an outlaw one percent club that deals in unstated unsavory activities. Em and her sister were raised within a loving household. They would often see their mother and father lustily touching each other so Em knows what a loving, healthy relationship is. That’s what she wants. Moreover, she wants a man who will stand up to her father because her whole life has been full of men who defer to him.
There was a patch (aspiring member) who became a full fledged part of the club who had feelings for Em, but he never made a move on her without checking with Picnic first. This not only infuriated Em, but made her lose respect for him and she couldn’t be with someone she didn’t respect. Her father scared off all of her suitors and so Em sets out to create her own opportunities. She thinks she’s found someone in an internet connection with Liam Blake. What she doesn’t know is that Liam is “Hunter” and part of the Devil’s Jack MC, a rival of the Reapers, who has decided to take Em because holding her means having leverage against the Reapers. Plus he wants her.
In some ways this is a classic Romeo and Juliet story. Two young adults from rival factions seek to form their own unit yet their families strive to keep them apart. Gratefully this is a romance so we don’t get the tragic ending, but we do get fighting, bullets flying, betrayals and forgiveness. There are the internal struggles between the two as Em has to learn to trust Hunter and vice versa. There are the external struggles with bringing accord between the rival gangs who are brought together to fight a common enemy. Both conflicts keep the book motoring at a super fast pace.
But it’s an emotional story as well. Em’s a bright young woman and she’s learning, through the book, how to move out of her father’s shadow and become an independent woman. Part of that development includes falling in love with someone who isn’t handpicked by her father and then standing against her father with Liam. The relationship dynamic between Em and Picnic is as important at times as the one between her and Hunter because despite Picnic’s desire to keep Em settled with the “right” man (as approved by Picnic) he raised her to think and act independently. She was level headed and calm in the face of intense stress. As Picnic said, she was one hell of an old lady and he was regretful about losing her to someone outside the Reaper’s because of her capableness.
Throughout the story, Em is saving herself and sometimes Liam. Her power isn’t just the emotional power she’s given because of Liam’s love for her; her power comes from her ability to react calmly in tough situations, to think of solutions, to take action when the opportunity presents itself. She’s proactive in the story rather than reactive.
While Hunter’s intentions in the beginning toward Em weren’t very honorable, he worked hard to earn her trust back. There were three overt acts by Hunter in which he demonstrates his remorse for past misdeeds. Two are fairly humorous but one is a pretty big deal. It occurs at the end and I don’t want to ruin it but there aren’t a lot of times in which the grand gesture means the hero gives up something that reduces the potential for increased status and money. And it doesn’t diminish Liam at all. Instead, it is a showing of someone who is sorting out his priorities and determining what is important to him, what will make him content and happy.
Em and Liam are perfectly matched and within the violent, sexy world of the MC both find equal footing. B+
I love this series, and am looking forward to reading this book. I never picked up on the similarities between Scottish clans, MCs, and the shape shifters – now it is so obvious to me, I feel a little dense. These are some of my favorite types of books, and I think you have given me some insight into why I like them so much. My childhood was pretty messed up, and I think the sense of belonging in the tribe (whatever type it is) probably gives me a little extra in the HEA in these books. Thanks for the food for thought!
I’m looking forward to this story. I’ve enjoyed the series so far but struggled with some of the inconsistencies toward women, such as telling them they’re safe within the MC but never to leave their side because it’s dangerous. I liked Em in Reaper’s Legacy and I enjoy Wylde’s voice and writing style. Putting this high on the TBR pile.
The surest way to get me to read a romance is to tell me it’s feminist. I love romance, but get so tired of wading through the over-protective, bossy Alpha males and damsels in distress to find the unobjectionable ones. Definitely adding this to my list, thanks for the thoughtful review!
@Elena: I should have put in the review that Liam does a number of objectionable things but I felt, on the whole, that Em held the power in the relationship. It could be debated that part of the power was derived from Liam’s feelings for her but time after time, Em saves herself. She is not passive and she does not allow her future to be dictated by either her father or Liam. I find that a pretty good example of feminism.
I pre-ordered this and I’ve been “saving” it until I can truly savor it – which hasn’t happened this week. I downloaded “Reaper’s Property” which was on Jane’s Top Ten books and I loved it. Completely devoured it in 1+ sittings. But then, I didn’t love Sophie and Ruger’s story quite as much. What I think is really interesting, too, is that all of the heroines are fairly young (early twenties) which has really turned me off in a bunch of other books, but it seems to work here.
Any teaser’s for Picnic’s books? He’s portrayed in the other books as having casual sex with women his daughter’s age and I hope his heroine is more age appropriate (at least in her thirties since I think he’s in his early forties).
The feminism has been something that has jumped out at me throughout the Reapers series – and for that matter, it’s something that consistently sets this series apart from many of the other MC-based books out there. But yes, it was especially present in this book, and I really, really enjoyed Em as a heroine.
I really liked your point about the tribe/clan structure that I never picked up on before. Like a previous commenter said, it’s so obvious I feel dense not realizing it before. Overall, I really enjoyed this book (read it in basically one sitting yesterday), and it’s clear that Wylde has characters aplenty for several more books in the series if she so desires.
Unpopular Opinion Alert! If these books (like these, I haven’t read this one so this is speculation) are upholding and possibly even glorifying patriarchal structures, can they really be considered feminist?
@JewelCourt: It’s not an unpopular opinion at all. What I see in these Wylde books is a conscious questioning of the structure. And no, the structure doesn’t change but how many books do you read within the romance genre where the issues of female rights vis a vis male rights are actually addressed? The power dynamic is an explicit part of the conflict. And in discussing the issues of female and male rights and power combined with the active agency of Em, I believe that these stories are clearly feminist. One thing as @Sam noted is that all three of Wylde’s books feature women who gain agency throughout the story and in each one, it is the heroine who saves herself and often the man. That’s a very feminist construct and not one often seen in romances.
@Jane: Maybe this sort of boils down to one of the main schisms in feminism- the “choose my choice/personal agency” vs. “institutional systems/ gender roles” models. As I get older (and a little more radical) I lean more toward the second. And I agree that the romance genre doesn’t usually explore the second option well, but then most genres don’t.
I still love Romance, I’m just growing more and more picky about what I can enjoy. I haven’t picked up any of the MC type books (I also stay away from shifters) because of the reliance on traditional gender roles. Somehow it’s easier to accept in a historical.
(I should probably add that since I’ve started working with survivors of DV, I see the patterns everywhere. That’s why I have trouble getting fully immersed in books that feature the uber alpha hero.)
I’m intrigued, which is surprising because I’ve only read one MC book, which was recommended here by Jane: the one by Susan Fanetti. I didn’t follow the series because it apparently became extremely violent. And that’s one of my concerns about MC books: I find extreme violence distasteful and I try to avoid it.
BUT I worry about reading out of order. Is it okay to read as a standalone? Or should I read the series?
I loved this book. I read it in a few hours, not budging from my couch until I was finished. What I appreciated most was that while Hunter is definitely an alpha, he doesn’t fall on the domineering, controlling side of the line like Horse and Ruger do. Maybe it’s because he understands Em knows the rules already; maybe its just not in his nature to do so. He’s possessive, yes, and he had his share of dick-ish moments. But overall, it was a welcome change from the previous two books – and I also liked that their physical relationship took a while to move forward.
I’m interested to see what Wylde is going to do with Picnic’s story.
I’m with @JewelCourt. A struggle for female agency in a patriarchal structure is still hobbled by that structure. It’s just a means of peaceful coexistence for individual women, but doesn’t really change anything. Picnic is still in charge and the clubs are still patriarchal, hierarchal, and (I presume) violent.
@Jane: how many books do you read within the romance genre where the issues of female rights vis a vis male rights are actually addressed?
Jane, you may have just explained why I prefer historical romances to contemporaries; in historicals, patriarchy and its attendant oppressions are a given, and the kind of female characters I like have to work around them. Very few contemporaries I’ve read deal with it, and those that do don’t always deal with it in a way I like or if they do, as in Cara McKenna’s After Hours, it’s undermined by making the male lead hypermasculine. Give me a beta hero — an average guy who matures or has hidden depths, or an androgynous one — any time instead.
@JewelCourt: Why does feminism have to be an either / or sort of thing? Personal agency is an important part of feminism and exploring it within a patriarchal is not only interesting but valuable because so many of our current institutions are patriarchal. The MC is overtly patriarchal but many mainstream romances enforce gender roles without any actual examination of it. The presentation is simply – this is the world and that’s how we live in it.
In romance, it’s far more radical (in my opinion) to overtly address the issue of patriarchy, ownership, female agency.
@lawless – I have to confess that I’m confused. You’ll accept patriarchal oppression in historicals because …? I guess I feel that this statement “in historicals, patriarchy and its attendant oppressions are a given, and the kind of female characters I like have to work around them” describes why I like the Jo Wylde series.
The struggle for female agency is one which I feel like all women are still engaged in. My profession is still dominated by men with the hiring power in the male hands. I recently had a much older male colleague comment to me about how they didn’t know they made female “position I now hold.” Institutional patriarchy is still very much a part of the culture and I like to read books about how characters deal with that.
Is the MC something I want to be part of? No, but then I don’t want to fall in love with my boss or exchange letters with a criminal either.
Considering the fact that marriage the the nuclear family have to be among the most fundamental patriarchal structures we have, I think it’s extremely difficult to judge the “feminism” of Romance novels on the measure of whether they maintain patriarchal structures. Like it or not, Romance, as a genre, is steeped in patriarchy and its institutional support structures. Which is one reason I think we need to take the argument on a book by book basis, rather than doing the fly-by. When I first started reading HP’s, it surprised me that so many were subversive of the traditional roles the line seemed to be known for. Then it dawned on me that the very extremism of the set up made it ripe for subversion, because it was so out there that it hit the boundary between itself and its opposite. That doesn’t mean you always have subversion, but my experience of Romance has been that some of those extreme set-ups yield MORE subversive and progressive reading experiences than books that, on the surface, seem to support an overtly progressive/feminist agenda.
I loved this book so much that I wanted to pick it back up as soon as I had out it down (something only Joanna Wykde books do to me).
I also thoght it was feminist as hell. Every couple of pages I was cheering Em on for being smart, being capable, trusting her instincts, fighting when she needed to, standing up for herself at every turn, earning the respect she was given, etc. It was just so great to read.
Something I haven’t seen mentioned here is that I especially loved was how Wylde didn’t diminishing the other women in the story to bolster Em. From my experience with MC romances, this was a rare rare thing. The other old ladies weren’t made to appear weak so that Em could be seen as strong. There was no crazy ex to make her look better. Her virginity wasn’t EVER used as something that made her superior to other women. Yet another thing that made me cheer.
Sigh. I changed tense like five times in that one sentence above while trying to edit on the ipad. Whoops.
Stories about women forced to navigate patriarchal bullshit isn’t my idea of fun entertainment, which is why I don’t read a lot of romance novels. I especially avoid historicals. When I do read romance, it tends to be SFR. Though not Last Hour of Gann. Ugh.
@Jane – I was really interested in your take about MC romance as akin to Highlander romance. It’s given me something to think about. I liked Devil’s Game very much and Em was definitely the highlight for me. I liked (mostly) how Em and Liam/Hunter were together and I really liked the glimpse of Picnic and his wife too.
Where I struggled a little is the things Hunter does for the MC. It didn’t fit well within my “hero paradigm” I guess. But then, romance highlanders are often pretty blood thirsty and go around warring and killing for their clan don’t they, so I suppose there’s no practical difference.
In my review I think I said that Liam’s actions for the club made it harder for me to enjoy the “fantasy” of the story and brought it too close to reality for me. I’m still pondering your views regarding tribes/clans, highlanders and MCs and trying to work out if my discomfort is just a kind of hypocrisy.
@Kaetrin: Can you expand on this comment: “Where I struggled a little is the things Hunter does for the MC”? I’d appreciate some idea about what he does as I’m considering this book based on Jane’s review; but this would be my first MC-themed book and I’m not sure I can embrace certain types of heroes in a contemporary setting.
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@Amy: It doesn’t happen on the page, but Hunter is the Devil’s Jacks’ enforcer.
Buried Comment: Show
It made me a little uncomfortable even though I really like the author’s style and the way she writes characters and dialogue. If it had been on page, I may not have been able to enjoy Hunter as part of a romantic pairing. As it was, I had to do a little bit of putting my fingers in my ears and singing “la la la”. But just a little. :)
I think his activities in the prologue were, while wrong in the legal sense, at least somewhat justified by the context. My problem was more with the stuff he did for the MC later on.
Read this and loved it, particularly for the fact that 1) it creates the relationship between Hunter and Em first rather than the current trend of heading for an early sex scene, and 2) for the fact that Hunter is all alpha but not controlling. I get tired of alphas all being depicted the same dominant way–it just builds the credibility of the alphahole reputation among certain readers. So it was refreshing to see the balance between Hunter and Em without creating a sense that either of them was diminished in any way by what they gave to each other.
And I do feel Devil’s Game is feminist. Part of feminism is learning to foster independence and respect for women even if the culture overall is patriarchal. That’s reality in many corners of the world today, so depicting instances of it in fiction, and seeing it overcome and managed as Em does in Devil’s Game, is valuable.
The tribe mentality is deeply infused in romance now–you can look at a sports team as a tribe, a spy network as a tribe, a military squad as a tribe, a group of female friends or co-workers as a tribe. Families are literal tribes. Motorcycle clubs are just the latest hot trend in the tribe ethos. And like sports teams or the military, they place alpha males in an understandable milieu.
Part of this is the nature of the business–publishers want repeat customers, so they’ve had writers build up “groups” of characters that can then be turned into additional books for which readers have already had their appetites whetted. (And I’m pretty sure the authors don’t mind that.) And that in turn has led to an expectation among readers that there will be another book focused on a secondary character from a previous book by that author. And the cycle repeats.
But today it’s rare to find an utterly independent romance novel. Tribes = series = sales.
Are all the heroines in this series as strong as Em? or are they very whiny and let people walk over them all the time?
@Beth Bolden: You can read this without having read the other two. This one overlaps the second book with Sophie and Ruger a bit so you are almost better off not reading the other two first.
@Brigid: None of the heroines are whiny in this series. Whether you think they are doormats? I guess that is a matter of interpretation for each reader. I think that Wylde writes very strong heroines.
I loved this book!
Em and Liam were great, I really believed them and yes again I think that Em had enough agency for the book to be considered a feminist narrative. Liam was an alpha male in some ways, but he wasn’t controlling or domineering, he respected her and treated her as an equal and a partner. More so than Horse or Ruger.
With that said, I think the cavewoman in me liked Ruger and Sophie’s story better- I just really enjoyed that one and the relationship between the two of them was super steamy. But I think Devil’s Game is the most evolved of the series so far.
I did NOT in any way like Deke and will not be particularly keen to read his story with Cookie if that comes out, the guy was just a major ass hole and unnecessarily rude to Em.
I liked this … they might have been the Romeo and Juliet of MCs but they were also normal young people and not everything was resolved with a lovely bow on top and a shower of cash … they were young people starting out in life, they respected one another and understood one another as equals. What a refreshing thing to read in a romance novel.
I just read this book today and have some mixed feelings. I think that Em is the strongest female character that Wylde has written. She doesn’t back down, she changes throughout the book, becoming independent and stronger as a person, and isn’t wishy-washy about being with Liam. But, I had some issues with Liam. He does do some pretty horrible things to Em, and I do feel it was kind of skimmed over, as in he talked about what a jerk he was being and wanted forgiveness without really verbalizing what a jerk he was to Em. Also, I felt that his character was going in a different direction than where he ended up. Personally, I felt that his character was moving towards actually leaving his club. It seemed like he was kind of wishy-washy about being in the club and the bad things he had to do within the club, he didn’t really seem to trust his leader, and I thought that his decision was going to be to leave the club — he even had a comment about not having a big club tat on his back or wearing his cut all the time. He seemed very willing and almost eager to leave the club for EM, but when he offered that chance and she said no, he felt relieved . . . I just didn’t see that relief. I felt that the author was leading towards the decision of having him leave so it felt sort of disingenuous to have him stay. I don’t know. I felt that the second part of the book was much better than the first because he wasn’t such a jerk to Em and really treated her as an equal. Plus, the first part of the book felt like a reread of Sophie and Ruger’s book. I wish there had been a way to develop their background without feeling like I was just rereading the same book.
I forgot to say the first 40% annoyed me because I’d already read those scenes in the previous book. It would have been better to start after the kidnapping and flesh things out more, that was a retread for me. The rest of the book made up for it but yes, I agree it was a bit frustrating to read the same thing again.
thanks for reasurring me, I think I’ll try out the series.
Overall I really enjoyed Devil’s Game. I don’t agree that this a feminist novel at all, but I do agree that Em is a strong woman and liked how Em and Cookie push back against the Reapers. Em had so many great one-liners in this book and the scene where she sneaks out while Deke and Hunter are arguing is outstanding.
However, I have a feeling that if Em hadn’t been the daughter of an MC president, she might not have been portrayed the way she was. Basically, she learned how to protect herself and fight back as a result of growing up in the MC lifestyle. She has to literally defend herself because of patriarchy (I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s bad). Em’s strength doesn’t feel like it comes from the best place, it feels like a survival mechanism for living in a community filled with dangerous, awful men.
Em’s constant pejorative language dismissing the women the Reapers would sleep with (whores, sluts, bitches) really, really bothered me, and is partially why I’m surprised you consider this a feminist novel. I understand 20-somethings can be really immature (I’m 26), but these insults did nothing to add to the story and was such a distraction for me.