“After all, this was supposed to be about learning to be his own person, yes? And what if his own person was the kind of person who wanted to be with James?”
In a word: Maybe read the thing. I read through this pretty quickly, but I’m not sure I liked it much. Aidan, one half of the main couple, starts out the story in an extremely abusive relationship, and the narrative doesn’t shy away from that one bit. On the one hand, it certainly doesn’t sugarcoat anything; on the other hand, it wasn’t exactly entertaining to read about Aidan being controlled and getting the shit kicked out of him by a man who’s supposed to love him. Also I don’t feel as if the hurt/comfort payoff was worth it in the end, especially since it seemed to get interrupted with everything else going on. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I’d rather it focused more on Aidan’s healing and his budding relationship with James. James, by the way, was going through his own tough time with his own ex-partner (though nothing like what was hinted at in the book’s summary), which would’ve been better if it’d had the room to be properly fleshed out instead of just popping up now and again. The first half of the book, even with how heavy and dark it was, was the part I liked best because it seemed like it was more focused on setting up Aidan’s terrible lot in life so that James could come in and rescue him and then their relationship could develop (the hurt and then the comfort). But then after the hurt was over, we got a lot of confusion and all the comfort was mixed up with James struggling with his sexual desire for Aidan while Aidan was discovering his asexuality in the background. And then the situation with James’ ex-partner kept butting in and ruining the flow. I’ll say that this is a compelling read, but I feel like the second half doesn’t really make up for all that went on in the first half.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains scenes of graphic domestic violence, rape, an abusive relationship, PTSD-like symptoms, drug use, implied underage sex, and attempted murder by a partner.
The Series: This book is the third in the Trowchester Blues series, and it’s the first book in the series I’ve read. As far as I can tell, Trowchester Blues is a series of standalone novels about gay couples living in the small English town (village?) of Trowchester. The stories aren’t interconnected in any way except that they seem to share characters. One of the mains in this book is friends with the main couple from the first book, and I think the couple from the second book gets mentioned a few times. As of right now, I don’t have any interest in checking out the other books in the series.
The Couple: As a 16-year-old boy, Aidan Swift was kicked out of his parents’ house for being gay and was living on the streets. He ended up being ‘saved’ by an older man who became his sugar daddy (or something similar). Now in his twenties, Aidan is trapped in an abusive relationship with the same man who saved him from the streets. The horrific physical violence that Aidan now suffers is apparently a fairly recent development, but the isolation and emotional abuse has been going on far longer. Aidan is a severely damaged individual; he’s cripplingly shy and lonely and constantly terrified. He meets James Huntley completely by accident. James is an archaeologist who works in the local museum. He’s a complete dork with a terrible fashion sense and a mellow, non-threatening personality. Both men become somewhat attached to each other right away, spending the whole afternoon together soon after they meet. Their relationship doesn’t really have a chance to properly develop, but they both feel a strong connection (even though they’re both seeing other people and barely know each other). James figures out pretty quickly that Aidan is in a dangerous situation, and he does manage to put the idea into his head that he can help Aidan escape (Aidan, by the way, has the thought process one would expect in an abused character: both desperately afraid of his boyfriend while simultaneously eager to please him and unable to leave). James does help Aidan escape and shelters him at a friend’s house, and it’s at that point when I start to get a bit leery of James. Up until this point, James has been struggling with ending his own failing toxic relationship, and he’s since emotionally attached himself to Aidan. When Aidan and James finally get a moment alone after the rescue, James immediately tries to make a move on Aidan. Aidan immediately gets uncomfortable, so it doesn’t go any farther than a kiss, but the whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth. And that’s pretty much how their physical relationship is going forward. Aidan doesn’t identify as asexual at this point, but we the reader know that Aidan has no interest in sex and gets very uncomfortable when faced with the threat of it (and he does view it as a threat). On the one hand James has no idea about this, but on the other he does know that he’s just rescued a man from his abusive partner and sex is probably the last thing on his mind. I understand that ‘adrenaline-fueled-just-escaped-from-danger’ makeouts/sex is a thing, but surely context matters. Thus starts Aidan and James’ weird dancing around kissing and sex. Really, I think the whole plot line about Aidan’s asexuality and coming to terms with it was poorly handled. The miscommunication between James and Aidan certainly doesn’t help matters, but even beyond that I don’t think there was enough time to explore the whole thing since it started so late in the story and was only one of a few plot points going on at the time.
The Exes: Neither Aidan nor James are single at the beginning of the story. Aidan has been with his boyfriend, an older man named Piers, since he was 16. Piers is an abusive dickwad; there are not enough words to describe how absolutely horrible this man is. Though, having said that, he is a bit of a classic abusive character. His abuse of Aidan is physical, mental, and sexual; there doesn’t seem to be anything this man won’t do to keep Aidan in line. The early days were, of course, good. But at this point Piers has Aidan totally isolated from anyone (though Aidan does leave the house when Piers isn’t home, he’s not actually allowed to) and totally reliant on him for everything. He also dictates Aidan’s physical appearance (by way of mandatory weight training and tattoos) and rapes him on the regular. There are also horrific and graphic beatings that are apparently new to the relationship, but no less horrifying. Piers does some real serious damage to Aidan, nearly beating him to death a few times. Of course, Aidan eventually does leave Piers, and then goes on to discover that Piers has murdered someone once before and is fully prepared to do it again. James’ ex, folk-rock star Dave DeBourne, isn’t anywhere near as bad as Piers, but he’s still a piece of shit and the relationship is fairly toxic. Dave and James have been together for 10 years, and these past few years have been long-distance because Dave is constantly on tour with his band while James is at the museum in Trowchester. I imagine they were good together when they first started dating, but now Dave has become absolutely intolerable. He’s an egotistical prick and he treats James like absolute crap. I was happy when James finally put his foot down and separated from Dave, even though he did waffle around a bit first.
The Side Characters: There are a handful of side characters in the story, and I didn’t really like any of them. My first problem was that they only appeared in the second half of the book. For so long we only had Aidan, James, Piers, and Dave to focus on, and then suddenly a whole bunch of new people show up to make things confusing. Dave’s first appearance brings the first bunch of side characters but most things associated with James and his backstory get much focus, so it was fine. We don’t hear much of Dave’s band aside from the other singer (I think), Steve, who Dave cheats on James with (or something, that whole situation was a clusterfuck). Then there’s the band manager Peggy who has maybe two or three scenes. All the other sides are connected to James. His two friends Michael and Finn (who were the couple from the first book in the series) helped James rescue Aidan from Piers, and I think they were supposed to be funny and charming, but I was just annoyed by them. Then James gets Aidan a job at a coffee shop owned by his friend Idris, where Aidan meets co-workers Molly and Lalima. Then Aidan needs a place to stay, so Molly invites him to move in with her and her two roommates Zara (Molly’ s girlfriend) and Carol. All these characters show up and they’re all good to Aidan, but we don’t get the time to get to know them much (except for Molly and the girls, I guess, but that’s only because we see more of them) and I felt like they ended up distracting from Aidan and James’ story.
The Sex: There are a few rape scenes in this book. They aren’t overly violent, but Aidan (they’re all between Aidan and Piers) is very obviously an unwilling participant. Aidan is asexual, possibly borderline sex-repulsed, but he’s been with Piers since he was 16 and being forced/coerced into sex with him is all he’s ever really known. I don’t think it was rape from the beginning, I think Aidan was more uninterested than unwilling, but he and Piers have probably never had a healthy sexual relationship. I also don’t think that Aidan and James have a healthy sexual relationship. They have one sex scene together and it made me more uncomfortable than anything else. I’m not saying it was rape (everyone is willing, even if Aidan is a bit reluctant), but it wasn’t the happy coming together as a couple (pun not intended) that I was expecting. Honestly I wasn’t expecting Aidan to have sex with James at all, seeing as he’s mostly uninterested in it. The last chapter has a quick mention of Aidan seeing a therapist, so hopefully he’s working on his issues about sex and communication, because the set up to his and James’ sexual relationship just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
The Writing: I didn’t like the writing. This is most likely a personal thing because it’s written kinda flowery, and I’m not really into that. James’ chapters were especially bad for that; but I kinda expected that because of the kind of character he is. I also had some problems with the story, especially with the way that all the hurt that was built up in the first have didn’t have enough of a payout in the second half. Like, all the abuse happens in the first half in graphic detail, and I didn’t feel as if it was properly addressed in the second half. Also the second half was a bit too cluttered with different plot points going on (the murder, Piers’ still being free, Aidan trying to get back on his feet, Aidan discovering and coming to terms with his asexuality, James’ drama with Dave, James and Aidan trying to start their relationship) and too many unnecessary characters popping in. Another thing was that Aidan’s sexual relationship with James made me a bit uncomfortable because of the real lack of communication and Aidan’s past experiences.
[Blue Steel Chain was published July 27, 2015, by Riptide Publishing, it is available both in print and as an ebook]