Confession time: I've discovered Regency mm romances, and I love them. I'm a history geek anyway (side-effect of studying all those Victorian novels at uni, I'm a lay-expert in the time period, and Regency isn't that much different). In the last couple of months I've devoured everything that March has ever written, and I'm on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment of her Brook Street trilogy. (Soon, soon...)
Now BDSM ain't usually my bag. Getting tied up and whipped isn't my idea of a fun Friday night, and I don't feel any particular urge to be the one wielding the whip either, but holy hell her sex is hot. My poor Kindle smokes and I've seriously considered investing in a fan to cool it down. It's not so much the acts, but the raw want that drips from the page (screen?), the desire her characters have for each other, so palpable that you can taste it.
I'm going to discuss several of March's books: what happens and how they end. If you don't want to know, look away now. Go discover them for yourself instead - I highly recommend them.
March is a master of angst. She can draw the narrative out e.x.c.r.u.c.i.a.t.i.n.g.l.y. slowly. She can drive her characters - and her readers - to the verge of madness. She can paint them into a corner so impossible that it seems there will never be a way out. And then - every time - she draws them back from the edge and gives us all the HEA that we've been craving all along.
And that's where I have a problem.
March writes novellas, usually 20-40k affairs. And how I wish they were just slightly longer. I know every reader wants that: it's a sign of a good author that the reader mourns when they reach the end of a book. However in this case I think there's just cause to want more. The angst is so strong, the outlook so bleak, that to have everything resolve itself happily in the last chapter just falls...flat. It's anticlimactic.
Case in point: My True Love Gave to Me. As you can probably tell, a seasonal one. Alexander Norton hates Christmas, because that's when Thomas Bennett broke his heart and abandoned him. Four years later, Thomas is back, determined to woo Alexander all over again. Problem: Alexander's changed completely from the naive young man that Thomas left behind. Heartbreak has made him cynical and hard. Alexander doesn't trust Thomas not to hurt him again, and Thomas doesn't know how to prove to him that this time he's here to stay. Brilliant set-up: Alexander's pain at Thomas' betrayal is wonderfully, vividly written. His hurt and distrust are completely believable and understandable. He doesn't want to let Thomas back in, even though he never stopped loving him, because he doesn't trust him not to break his heart all over again.
But then he does.
One day he's all "No, I cannot!" and the next he's like, "Pass the oil." WTF? Unless I blinked and missed it, Thomas didn't do anything to prove that he'd changed - except let Alexander bugger him. Now I get the whole power dynamic of that act, but it just wasn't enough (in my opinion) to overcome everything that stood between them at the beginning of the book. It took Alexander about three days to get over his heartbreak and his hurt and suddenly they're swanning off into the sunset.
That book is 28,000 words long. That's just under 100 pages in a standard paperback, so pretty short. And therein lies the problem. If March had given us even another 10k, if she'd just drawn it out that little bit more, the ending could have been just as emotional and as powerful as the beginning.
Object of His Desire is another big culprit of this. Henry Shaw has been invited to a debauched party (orgy, basically) at the home of Arsen Grey (great name, btw), Marquis of Somerville. We follow Henry around as he mopes over Arsen, sure that his host doesn't even know that he exists. Except he does. The whole event has been a set-up to test Henry's attraction to Arsen, to see if he really does want him (as Arsen suspects) or if he's going to fall at the first hurdle. Firstly, that set-up does not speak well of Arsen's character, although that information only comes to light right at the end when it's too late for Henry anyway. But again we can literally taste and smell and touch Henry's longing for Arsen, the strength of feeling that he has for him, and his despair that Arsen will never look at someone like him twice. All good so far.
Then Arsen goes in for the kill and seduces our hero. We're cheering internally and just waiting for a sweet HFN ending, with potential promise for more (especially as this book is marked as the first in a series). But then things get weird. Arsen confessed that he's never been buggered in his life (not even at school - shock! horror!) but happily rolls over and lets Henry (not a small man...) have his wicked way. Seems a little bit rushed, right? Especially given that Arsen is a cad and a bounder of the first order. No man or woman in London has been safe from his advances. Hell, the man is holding an orgy in his house - and it's not his first. And let us not forget that he and Henry have barely spoken to each other before this night.
Then Arsen confesses that he's madly in love with Henry, that he's the only one for him, and that he's giving up London and society and wants to live out in the country in the middle of nowhere with Henry for ever and ever. And suddenly I'm looking for the brake. Too much, way too much, waaaaaaaay too soon.
There's other stuff that comes to light, and to my mind Arsen isn't a particularly sympathetic character, but then I think this is another story that suffers from far too much set-up and not enough time spent on the denouement. There is a lot of back-story in this one, revolving around Henry's ex, the dynamic of that relationship, and why exactly he left the country in a hurry, but it all comes out in a couple of paragraphs, tops. Who oh why couldn't we have been given a getting-together HFN and then a second book where all the deep and meaningful comes out? It would have been so much more significant had they had more history between them than just one night.
I know what you're thinking: why the hell do I read these stories if all I'm going to do it bitch about them? Believe me, these are very good books. I just think they'd be truly great if only they ended slightly differently.
Take the Bound series - Bound by Deception, Bound to Him and Bound Forever. Probably my favourite of all of March's books, and actually the first I read. I discovered March's writing via two short pieces available for free on ARe - Deliberately Unbound and Deliberately Bound, which, as you can tell, come from this series. Books 2.5 and 3.5 respectively. They're just short scenes featuring the two MCs, Lord Oliver Marsden and Lord Vincent Prescot, but I was hooked and I had to read more.
Vincent and Oliver's story is great because it's told over the course of three novellas, which gives them time to grow as a couple. Bound by Deception is all about them getting together. Bound to Him is set six months later, so now they have ten years of friendship plus six months as a couple behind them and you can really see it in their interaction with each other. This story explores the great unmentionable - the fact that men in their position were expected to marry. When pressure is put on Vincent, it makes them both examine what they really want from life. It's real and it's raw and Oliver really steps up and grows a backbone, while the usually more dominant (in every way) Vincent crumbles.
It's an important consideration for anyone writing queer fiction set during this period, and March handles it well. Her resolution renders her characters unorthodox but not unrealistic: as in reality there would have been many, many men in the same position as Vincent and Oliver. The final part of the trilogy, Bound Forever, as the title suggests, is concerned with giving our heroes the HEA that is such a difficult thing to write given the historical setting. It looks at the financial disparity between the characters, and the sad side-story of a young widow left with nothing when her husband is killed in a shooting accident draws attention to the fact that Vincent and Oliver's is a relationship against the rules, outside the law, and if the worst should happen to Vincent, Oliver could well be left with nothing.
Over the course of the series we see the characters develop, both individually and as a couple. It's a wonderful story, a wonderful journey, and a joy to read.
Had March tried to cram their HEA into the first book, it would undoubtedly have fallen flat. When writing about relationships that are not only taboo, but actually illegal - when the acts being narrated would condemn the men engaged in them to death - a HEA is never going to be easy to write convincingly.
Take Fortune Hunter, the second in the Brook Street trilogy. It was released today and I read it first thing this morning. (Did I mention that I'm a sucker for these books???) At 44,000 words, it's actually March's longest book to date. The story of Julian Parker and Oscar Woodhaven, two men of the ton, spread over almost three years (two and a half of them spent on separate continents...) Oscar's got a fortune to rival the king's, while Julian has nothing more to rely on than his good looks and a distant relationship to a notable family. When Julian finally mans up and takes responsibility for his life, and Oscar finally mans up and stops letting people use him for his wealth, we are supposed to believe that they're swanning off into the sunset together.
Problem: two men of similar social standing (although significantly different financial means) cannot live together without questions being asked. It's just beyond the realm of belief. Vincent and Oliver negotiated that particular minefield pretty well, but there is no indication of how Oscar and Julian expect their HEA to actually work. It's something that's been picked up in the reviews already.
The flip side of that is the relationship between Lord Benjamin Parker and Calvin Fox in Thief, the first of the Brook Street stories. Calvin comes from the slums, whereas Benjamin has wealth and a title behind him. At the end of that story, Calvin goes to work as Benjamin's chef. Perfectly respectable. They can live together and no-one will ever suspect. An ideal situation, and one that is historically a pretty accurate example of why cross-class relationships were so common at this period. There's always the unsettling though that Calvin owes Benjamin, that he needs to keep him sweet in order to keep his job, his home...everything. But that's par for the course. It might seem a bit mercenary to modern eyes, but as I said historically it's bang on the button.
Many of March's stories could easily stand a sequel or two. Her characters are likable, engaging men, and as a reader you're genuinely rooting for them to make it work against the odds. Following them into their lives and watching their HEA unfurl would be a joy - as it is in the Bound series. The fleeting glimpse we get of Benjamin and Calvin's HEA in Fortune Hunter has been met with elation by many readers as they recognise old friends and see how they're getting on.
One book that screams for a sequel is From Afar. It's a Regency mm romance with vampires. Swoon... It's like the perfect novel. Raphael Laurent is the lonely vampire, pining for the love of Lord Aleric Vane, who he's been kinda stalking for the last three years. In a life-or-death situation, Raphael is forced to choose between turning Aleric, or losing him forever. The story ends with as many questions as answers, and Ava, if you're listening, on behalf of readers everywhere, I'm begging you to tell us - what happens next??