When I first saw the covers for this trilogy, I wondered if Harlequin was yet again bringing a new look to its flagship Presents/Modern line. When I read the first book, I kind of understood why they’d set them apart in this way. The characters say “fuck.” (shock, horror, fan-fluttering). In the first book at least, they have slightly kinky sex, with a touch of Dom/sub.
But it reads as if it is an add-on to the standard Harlequin romance and would actually have fit well into the Blaze line, or what the Blaze line purports to be instead of what it actually is. More and more the Blaze line is becoming the hot uniformed male alpha line, with about as much or as little sex as everywhere else. Which is all right with me, because I happen to like the hot uniformed alphas, but maybe it’s time to rebrand. There are other heroes in Blaze, like the hot ex-uniformed cowboy and some really great authors. Also all right with me. But increasingly Blaze is a romance where the physical is more important than the emotional, as the line requirements claim.
Anyway, back to this trilogy. The second book put some things in perspective for me and why the first book left me dissatisfied. Basically that the book tries very hard, but, like the first one, it misunderstands some aspects of the Dom/sub relationship (like strong people in real life prefer to dominate in the dungeon – that’s very far from the case). Also, that the Presents tropes don’t lend themselves easily to edgier themes when put in the hands of a Presents author. They need new authors who come from the erotic school who have done a great deal of research to lead this new initiative or line or whatever it happens to be. The three authors chosen for this series; Maisey Yates, Caitlin Crews, and Kate Hewitt, are on the more adventurous side of the line and undoubted stars, but they’ve already been “Harlequinised” and it shows.
In Scandalize Me (and yes, I did groan when I saw the title), Hunter is a bad, bad boy. We first see him in a strip club in the early hours of the morning, covered with strippers. Promising. But later we discover there’s an altruistic reason for him to be there and that came as a big disappointment. The wild child isn’t so wild; in fact, he’s a typical Presents hero who hides his real self under a hard shell. No doubt, if I’d read on, I’d discover that Hunter fits into the groove perfectly. I could have stuck with the story for Hunter, despite the fact that he is pretty much copybook Presents hero. Was he always like this, or was Ms. Crews asked to rein her hero back a bit? The explanation as to why he’s in the strip club comes as a bit of an add-on, with no hint of it earlier in the book, so maybe she had to add that to please an editor?
The heroine, Zoe, is a first-class bitch. By the time I gave up I realised that I don’t really care what makes her that way. Her redemption comes far too late in the book for me to turn my ideas around and actually care what happens to her. She’s a PR person who has built her career on successful campaigns. She wants Hunter for private reasons, because she was ruined by Jason, the villain of the series. Jason is a man who is all good works on the surface and a pimp underneath. In fact, Jason is a far more interesting character than the heroes of the series, at least so far. He dominates, because the series is about him, not about the heroes and heroines. They’re all working to bring him down, not to find happiness for themselves. The happiness comes as an afterthought. In a good Presents revenge story, the story actually depends on the hero seducing the heroine or vice versa. There is no such imperative here.
Back to Zoe. She dresses in provocative though classy clothes, form-fitting, severe, “designer” in the Presents sense of the word. She turns clients’ lives around and rehabilitates them, but we are not shown this, we’re told about it. When she comes up with her grand plan for Hunter, I did actually groan aloud. Teaching deprived children to play sports has been done to death. Completely. Why she wants to do this isn’t clear, because she seeks him out because he is her “instrument of revenge” against Jason in a way that never works itself out in the part of the book that I read.
Zoe’s assumptions about Hunter show none of the insights a good PR person needs. She’s far too judgmental to ever be good at her job. She’s far too WYSIWYG so that she takes people on face value, instead of looking for hidden depths. She doesn’t see them until they’re forced on her. To take an obvious real life example, Robert Downey, Jr. nearly wrecked himself to the point of death. He spent considerable time in jail. But then he showed his talents, that he could act and sing and work with a team and that he had a deal of intelligence. He needed that core to be able to turn his career around, and nobody, not the best PR in the world, could have done that without something substantial to work with.
Hunter, on the other hand, has destroyed his football career and done nothing to rehabilitate himself or find anything else to do. He seems to spend his time feeling sorry for himself. Zoe does the same thing, just in a different way. Everything she does is motivated by revenge against Jason, even making a career for herself. A career I’m not entirely convinced about, given her one act is to do something so hackneyed it smacks of second-rate thinking. And when Hunter reveals what he actually was doing at that strip club, it seems that he was doing a much better job at providing the image he wanted than she could ever do.
The way she convinces Hunter to come to her isn’t persuasive, either. It concerns his old girlfriend, Sarah, the woman who killed herself rather than let Jason exploit her any further. Zoe has nothing Hunter could need to know or do about Sarah, and she doesn’t need saving, as Sarah did. Her glib remarks and the insults she constantly hurls at Hunter under the guise of “the truth” don’t endear her to me, either. The way he comes back for more doesn’t work, either. If he’s so strong, he should walk away. If he wants her sexually, he should pursue her, take her and be done. But oh no, she has the magic vagina of the Presents heroine.
I gave up at the 60% mark, after Hunter and Zoe have had their first night together and she gets her revelation. The night is very typically Presents, and one I would have enjoyed but for two things. I don’t care about either character, actually dislike Zoe. When she opens up, I don’t care. It’s too late.
The style is in one way beautiful. The words, the vocabulary is lush, lovely, and rarely tips over into the purple. But the voice is mostly “telling.” Even at the point of sex, the emphasis is on the description rather than the emotions and the actions of the characters. There’s very little in the way of “showing,” except in the description of what they are doing. And while “fuck” is used as a curse word, it’s not used in the bedroom scene to describe what they’re doing. All of a sudden, “making love” and “feminine core” come into play once more. All the earthiness goes in favour of “waves on the seashore.” So the big sex scene doesn’t move me.
“He pushed her and he adored her, worshipped her and taunted her, holding her right where he wanted her so there was no possibility of escape, as if he was prepared to force pleasure upon her if necessary.”
Now that’s beautiful writing, but it doesn’t put me into the scene and it doesn’t tell me what they’re doing. What are they doing and how does it make them feel?
There is also the lack of basic content editing. When Crews latches on to a word or phrase, it’s repeated over a scene or two so that it becomes obvious and irritating. The one I noticed is “of her” or “of his.” Three times on one page we had “of his” repeated, and the word “mouth” was repeated six times. Needless to say, had I been swept up into the scene I wouldn’t have noticed. But an editor should have. I can’t blame the author, I know how easy it is to unconsciously latch on to a word or phrase and then not notice when it’s being reused, but it does add to the sense of distance I feel when reading about sex between these two unlikable people.
There is too much high concept in this series and not enough story. Harlequin Presents isn’t the place for high concept stories, and trying to fit it into that shoe is as painful as what the ugly sisters did in the original version of Cinderella. Chopping off bits of their anatomy in order to fit isn’t working. I read Presents for hot billionaires, sheikhs, secretaries and poor but plucky heroines. Not for high concept with a touch of kink. It’s as if someone got a great idea to let these three authors fly, and when they did, someone said, “Whoa, you can’t do that. This is Harlequin, after all,” and pulled them back, choked the original concept, weakened it and made it a bit of this and a bit of that. A curate’s egg.
But it is the distancing style and the unlikable characters that eventually made me give up on this book. Especially Zoe.
Hunter Talbot Grant III, sports figure du jour, wealthy beyond measure and disreputable by choice, has cultivated a reputation that masks the shadows of his past. When the opportunity to ensure financial destruction for Jason Treffen arises, he can’t refuse. But first he must shake off the woman sent to tame him!
Zoe Brook, PR agent extraordinaire, never fails to transform a tarnished star. And Hunter’s no different. Except there’s a catch. Beneath their scorching mutual attraction, Zoe has a secret—she’s also been on the wrong side of Jason Treffen, and she has as much of a taste for revenge as Hunter does!
Read an excerpt.