Okay, so, it’s official (if there was ever any doubt): I am crazy in love with this book!
It’s just delightful: Funny (hilarious, even), adorable, moving, and very, very sexy. All of it beautifully written, of course, and shot through with that emblematic poignancy that is, more than anything else, this author’s brand. His, um, Hallmark, you might say 😉 And featuring a cast of intriguing and appealing characters, notably one of the most lovable protagonists you’re ever likely to meet on a page. I mean, of course, unless you don’t like funny, sweet, endearingly neurotic, smart, self-deprecating, flirty, kind-hearted, reflective, tender, sex-positive, vulnerable, assertive, and cuddly . . . but I’m kinda partial to all that myself 🙂
I think this one of the best things Alexis Hall has written so far, especially in terms of achieving a perfect balance between accessibility and art, as it were. Without sacrificing any of the trademark qualities that make his writing so exceptional.
Don’t get me wrong, I love rolling in the linguistic opulence of some of his previous work, i.e. Glitterland, and look forward to doing so again. Yet here we have the same beautiful, deeply affecting writing, just slightly more . . . sparingly gorgeous: Like fragments of poetry strewn amongst the prose. We have the same charmingly irreverent (often laugh-out-loud) humor. The touchingly vulnerable characterizations. The sex scenes as moving for their exquisite tenderness as for their rapturous sensuality. And that almost subliminal aura of feeling with which everything, even scene-setting descriptions, seems to imbued.
Most importantly, we still have that ineffable magic Alexis Hall’s work possesses that is more than the sum of those qualities. Which just . . . gets to me, like nothing else. Makes me feel vulnerable when I’m reading, like all my outer layers are peeled off and I’m sort of . . . skin-to-skin and heart-to-heart with the story, so to speak. Something I know I’m far from the only one who feels.
The book opens with a darkly compelling prologue, exquisite prose as sharply delineated as a fairy tale, a scene to be lingered over and pondered. I did both.
Then I moved on to the first chapter. In which we find university student Arden St. Ives in the midst of cold-calling college alumni to hit them up for donations. During which, lo and behold, he soon ends up speaking with the billionaire of the title. Which, in a matter of moments, was doing this to me:
Aww, he’s so cute.
Omg, he’s adorable ! *audible squee*
*is captivated by amusing banter*
All of this, mind you, between 2 and 3% in the book!
Now, here’s a thing. Though I love his books above all others, I’ve only somewhat rarely reviewed Alexis Hall’s work, because I typically get so emotional about it that my reviews turn into a rambling, incoherent ode in which I vainly attempt to capture, with my words the way his words make me feel, and then babble on effusively about it forever. It’s usually so difficult for me to separate the book itself from all of that in order to discuss it halfway intelligently.
However, as I’m feeling slightly more than usually capable of doing that this time, let me move beyond the gushing to give that a try. You may judge for yourself how well I’ve succeeded 😉
So, these are a few of the things I really loved about this book:
I love the way it takes on the popular “bildom” trope (if you don’t know by now, that means BDSM flavored romances built around a billionaire dom and a “regular person”), and in particular the preeminent example of that trope, Fifty Shades of Grey, and engages with it on multiple levels.
I have a real weakness for this sort of thing, I confess. I see these tropes as archetypes, and I feel there are as many fresh perspectives of those archetypes to be revealed as there are human beings to write them. Like, I think you can probably never run out of new ways to re-imagine Beauty and the Beast, for example. Though, maybe that’s just me 🙂
Anyway, that’s what I feel this story is doing with this particular trope/archetype. And doing, if you’ll pardon the expression, a bang-up job of it 😉
This book isn’t, from my perspective, parody or spoof or caricature (those are probably all the same thing, but the words have slightly different connotations to me). And it’s more than simply a retelling with LGBTQ+ characters. This is the author simultaneously entering, in good faith, into the spirit of this trope, while also playing with it. Putting a different spin on it. Subverting it. Queering it. Turning “expected” power dynamics on their head. Moving the various elements around, presenting them from different angles, in different contexts, different light. Paying it homage. And gently, even affectionately, sending it up all at the same time: Sort of like that thing where someone you love has a noticeable quirk that you both tease them for and love them for.
I also particularly appreciate the way this book takes on some troubling attitudes reflected in Fifty Shades and similar works: The romanticizing of abusive elements in the core relationship, its conflation of BDSM or kink with abuse, and a related issue, its tendency to identify BDSM/kink almost as a symptom to be healed, brokenness in need of fixing.
This book, let me make it clear, does none of those things. In fact, it does the opposite. It challenges those attitudes, and does so masterfully, but also organically. By validating kink elements in the budding relationship of Arden and Caspian as simply a variety of turn-on and sexual option. And by creating two bases for comparison: The first, by giving us, in the opening scene, a brief window into a relationship that more closely parallels, in terms of emotional dynamic, the one in the Fifty; a vignette in which we see SPOILER someone suffering self-sacrificially in a kink scene, characterizing a lover as “broken” and aspiring to “save” him END SPOILER. The second, by referencing abuse (in brief mentions of an off-page, past relationship involving a supporting character) thus contrasting consensual kink with something that is actually abusive.
I cannot tell you how much I love all of this!
I also love how you can see the “bones” of the trope origin, while the story that fleshes those bones is something completely, delightfully original. The emotional story of Arden and Caspian is a far different one than that of Anastasia and Christian.
And, this is a small thing for me, but not so small for other people maybe: I love that Arden identifies as pansexual, which I think is great representation for anyone who also identifies as such. Because that’s not a label you see so often in romance, at least in my experience. It’s also worthy of note that we get to see a lovely poly relationship later in the book.
Then, the sex scenes, I gotta say something about those: #Wow! I found them just gloriously, meltingly sexy, yet I think it’s notable that this is achieved almost entirely psychologically, without employing any of the “typical” BDSM accoutrements you might expect to see: There are mentions of, but no actual, dungeons, whips, chains, cuffs, crops, etc. It’s all thought, words, fantasy, tone of voice, and touch, or sometimes the mere suggestion of touch. And it works, omg, does it ever work! Of course it does, because there’s so much in desire, kinky or otherwise, that is mental. I mean, there is a phone sex scene in here that is genuinely one of the most powerfully erotic things I’ve ever read.
Aaand (omg, this is going to be a novella), I want to say something about the characters too.
In comments “overheard” about this book, I’ve seen a reference or two, by people who really enjoyed the book, to the characters as being wonderful caricatures. And that’s as valid a reading as any. But my take is that the characters, like the book itself, are more than that. I don’t think Alexis Hall ever really writes pure caricature, his characters are far too nuanced, and despite its trope-y basis, this book is no exception.
Caspian, the billionaire love interest of the title, is all cool control and faint arrogance, exactly as you might expect a billionaire to be – except when he, enchantingly, isn’t. It’s all so infused with humanness, with tantalizing glints of complex layers, of uncertainty, vulnerability, the barest hint of hidden hurt. Caspian is intriguing, but not completely known. Not to Arden, or to the reader. Nor, I think, to himself. Which seems entirely reasonable for a non-protagonist, in the first book of a 3-part trilogy. Revealing and discovering the depths of Caspian will be, I think, the work of books 2 and 3 of this series. And I’m so looking forward to that!
And then there’s Arden. Omg. I have the greatest affection for the protagonists of every Alexis Hall book. But with Arden he’s truly outdone himself in the huggable department. Arden is, hands down, the most adorable creature I’ve ever encountered in a book. I can’t even tell you how many times it was necessary for me to pause in my reading to squoosh up my eyes and squee over him 🙂 I mean, we are talking eminently squishable. Serious ded-of-cute territory ❤
But, let me hasten to add, Arden is much more than merely adorable. At 20 years old, he bears some resemblance to Toby in For Real, in that he’s a sort of an ingénue character, still finding his way, figuring out who he is and what he wants, second guessing himself, scared to death but also brave – though this last isn’t something he sees about himself. There’s something universal in this. It’s not just for 20 year olds; I’m 3 times his age and still identify with so much of that. I think being human is being in a perpetual state of uncertainty and discovery and becoming. So I love that in Arden. I also love his reflectiveness. And the way he really cares about people, worrying about his friend’s laryngitis, smiling at someone because they need it, impulsively reciting a poem SPOILER on a rooftop, to a self-destructive near-stranger END SPOILER just because it might make a difference. I love how in touch he is with his emotions. I adore his lovely, non-normative expression of masculinity. I love how absolutely comfortable he is with that, and also with his sexual expression. By which, I don’t mean his sexual orientation, but his expression of himself as a sexual being, his self-identification as a “wanton hussy”, his self-validation of that. It’s not only the counterpoint to Anastasia’s virginal innocence in Fifty, it is also the absolute opposite of slut shaming, in all the ways, and it’s fantastic.
Ellery, Caspian’s younger sister, is haunting, a character painted movingly in tones of darkness with flashes of light. Hers is a fragile vulnerability in brittle, cynical armor. You kind of want to hug Ellery a little bit too, though you feel like she might take a swathe out of you if you tried.
There are several other characters of note, but I’ll just say a little about them, because I really do need to stop somewhere!
There’s Nik, Arden’s “mostly straight” bff and onetime university roommate. The genuinely caring and mutually snuggly “friendmance” between these two is as charming & endearing as all get-out, even succeeded in giving me big, sniffly feels at one point. And there’s Bellerose, Caspian’s dauntingly efficient and chillingly . . . chilling, but definitely intriguing assistant. And last but far from least, Arden’s family, whom we meet at about 80% through the book. And about whom I won’t give anything away except to say they are super lovely and loving.
Anyway. Highly, highly, highly recommended for all humans, but especially the ones who like Alexis Hall’s writing, and/or for those who enjoy the “bildom” trope but don’t hold it sacrosanct. And if you’re not familiar with either, or aren’t especially into the whole bildom thing, you might want to give this a try anyway, because you’ll find this particular take on it is the exception to many rules. If you’re on the fence, you can always download a sample to try.
I’d just hate for anyone to miss out on this. It’s really pretty bang dang special ❤