Spoiler Alert* and Content Alert (Not for readers under 18)
Having recently finished JR Ward’s much-anticipated 11th installment of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series (BDB), Lover at Last (2013), I have been wrapped up in thoughts of this book. If you haven’t read the series, I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoy vampires, romance novels, or urban fantasy. The series beginning with Dark Lover (2005) is incredibly compelling, fast-paced, and overall a fascinating take on the vampire. It is absolutely one of my favorite vampire series of all time.
Lover at Last centers on male/male couple Quinn and Blay, whom the readers have watched transition to adulthood, become warriors, and generally just be awesome people. The tension has been building for years between the pair but also for the readers. Many fans worried that Ward may not give Quinn and Blay their HEA (happily-ever-after) moment. When Ward announced Quay (fan lingo for Quinn and Blay) would have a book, the concern for some of us became: will she maintain her graphic descriptions of sex with a male/male couple?
I will begin my thoughts by saying that I adored the book. It was wonderful for Quay to have their book that was thoughtful and intriguing. Ward has a knack for putting entirely more obstacles than the couple can feasibly overcome in one book and yet somehow they do; this trend holds true in Lover at Last. The periphery stories lines also pushed us to see where the series can go even now that all the original Brothers and many of the key figures introduced within the first few novels have had their stories. Most importantly, the novel solidified my adoration of Quinn, who has always been a character with depth, kindness, compassion, and loyalty hiding under the guise of his hard-ass attitude. Quinn completely shines in this novel. We were able to see the Brotherhood and their allies pull together yet again to support each other through challenges.
And yet . . . and I may be about to lose my Cellie (term for Black Dagger Brotherhood fans) street credit here, but I have two critiques of the novel that I just can’t get out of my brain since reading the novel. If you haven’t read this novel yet, I’m about to reveal some SPOILERS, so stop reading now if you don’t want to be spoiled.
First, Quinn and Blay’s sex life completely described in the vein of male/female sexual relationships to the point where it feels dismissive of male/male sexuality. More importantly, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the physical difference in sex. As a slightly more than occasional reader of male/male romance novels, the glaring and obvious lack of the use of lube ever in the novel is quite jarring. During every sexual encounter, I found myself kicked out of the scene to think about the fact that there was no lube. Now, just a sex educator note here: the type of sex this male/male couple engages in with no lube is a very bad idea. In a positive example of male/male romance novels that describe sex, author Cameron Dane‘s character seem to have lube stored just about everywhere from travel packs in pockets to between couch cushions to every drawer in the house to multiple locations in the car. Additionally, Quinn and Blay, like all male vampires in the BDB world, are absolutely gigantic in all ways. During Quinn’s first experience as a bottom, there is no lube, no preparation, and the sex is quite rough. Here’s the thing: I absolutely believe that Ward’s treating of their sexual relationship as if it were a straight relationship makes the relationship and the male/male sex in this untraditional installment of a mainstream romance series more palatable to the general reader. I don’t want to condemn the description of their sexual encounters in the novel, but I would have loved there to have been a more realistic portrayal of sexuality, which leads me to my other concern.
So here are my questions to ponder: Were you put off by the lack of realistic portrayal of male/male sex? Would it have been distracting for you if Ward had mentioned the use of lube?
[One more warning for a SPOILER here because I’m going to specifically speak about the ending of the novel]
In the long run, this lack of realistic portrayal of male/male sexual encounters is somewhat petty compared to what I felt was Blay’s utter bigotry. In chapter seventy-four, Blay and Quinn argue about their relationship. Blay completely dismisses Quinn’s desire for a relationship because Blay argues that Quinn is hiding who he is. In Blay’s mind, Quinn is lying about his sexuality. Throughout the series, Quinn has engaged with both men and women in sexual encounters, though he never bottomed until he does with Blay. Blay absolutely believes that Quinn is really gay and just hiding it because he can’t fathom being gay because of the other rejections he has faced in his life. Blay pretty much says that Quinn can’t be bisexual or have a sexual orientation that is something other than gay. This attitude reeks of “how do you know you’re gay if you haven’t tried to be straight?” It is a black and white, reductive vision of sexual orientation in which only gay and straight exist and that those things are in fact static categories. Blay’s outlook felt incredibly demeaning. The most disturbing part, though, is that Quinn acquiesces and does actually tell Blay that he is gay. Ok, so do people realize that they are gay after denying it? Yes, all the time. But in my reading of Quinn throughout the series, he had always seemed to embody that grey area in which sexual orientation is not a dichotomous construction of gay versus straight but is a spectrum of physical and relational behaviors and attractions. Blay’s reaction felt dismissive of anyone whose identity does not fall into the neat categories of gay or straight; it reinforced the belief that sexual orientation and gender are stable unchangeable and definable labels that others can place on you simply by deciding they know better. Did others read Quinn as lying to himself throughout the series in the way Ward seems to be suggesting?
This fan of the BDB series has decided to continue to contemplate these issues even while loving the novel and being ecstatic that Quay had their HEA. I hope that folks begin to engage in conversations about sexual orientation and gender that are not reductive and dismissive of the spectrum of possibilities. As a sucker for an HEA, I hope that we can allow people to be who they are without these stifling barriers of labels. Once again, I’ll site the example of Cameron Dane, whose character Rhone (Quinn Security Series starting with Finding Home) had always dated women until his best friend Adam discloses his gayness and his love for Rhone. Rhone realizes his feelings and attractions for Adam are far more complicated; Rhone’s sexual orientation falls in the grey area in which he does not have to define himself in order to find the love-of-his-life.
Overall, I am pleased that Ward chose to create these amazing characters–these strong, beautiful, loyal men–who discover that their love for each other is not only accepted by their friends and family but makes them stronger as individuals. Quinn and Blay break boundaries of stereotypes of gay men and remind us all that masculinity is not a static category that depends upon heteronormativity.