Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: Darkening by Ashe Barker

Darkening by Ashe Barker
Published by Totally Bound, 2013

Evangelica Byrne is not your typical romance heroine. She has tiny breasts, a mop of frizzy, carrot-colored hair, a photographic memory and an IQ over 180. On the one hand, at the tender age of twenty two, she speaks multiple languages (we don't know how many, but in the course of the book we get to see her use her Turkish to good effect), can lecture on astrophysics or ancient mythology, and plays virtuoso violin. On the other, her fashions sense is appalling, her social skills are virtually non-existent and she's terrified of being touched. When we first meet her, she's hiding under her duvet, recovering from a breakdown that sent her running from her prestigious Oxford research fellowship.

I loved her immediately. Her clever, cheeky, self-deprecating voice grabbed me from the very first paragraph of this first person narrative.

Nathan Darke more closely fits the stereotype of an erotic romance hero. You know what I mean - tall, dark, muscular, wealthy (though at least he has a believable profession as a renowned architect), and of course, dominant. Ms. Barker rescues him from predictability by giving him a mercurial temperament, an endearing arrogance and a few secrets. Oh, and long hair. I just love a man with long hair!

In Darkening, the first book in Ms. Barker's trilogy The Dark, these two characters collide (quite literally) when Eva is hired as music tutor for Nathan's daughter Rosie. Initially dismissive of the diminutive, wild-haired waif who shows up at the gate of his Yorkshire estate in a tee shirt and hoodie , Nathan soon decides that he wants her for his submissive. And what Nathan Darke wants, he's used to getting. Despite Eva's social awkwardness and sexual inexperience, he woos and seduces the young violinist faster than you can say “Jane Eyre”. In exchange for the novel experience and astonishing pleasure he provides, Eva finds herself agreeing to play a role she barely understands.

Darkening excited me from the very beginning, not primarily because of the plot (which, after all, follows a familiar course) but due to the quality of the writing. Ms. Barker's prose is fresh, precise, evocative and funny. The first few chapters, which bring Eva and Nathan together, are a masterpiece of both mood and characterization. I bookmarked passages where Eva describes her first view of the Yorkshire moors and her first breath-stealing introduction to Nathan's erotic power. “Welcome to the dark side, Miss Byrne,” he quips, triggering a vicarious thrill that merits revisiting.

I was already contemplating writing a review, and I anticipated a gushing commentary about how Darkening was the best romance I'd read in the past year. I would still recommend the book, but three aspects of the latter part of the book have me tempering my praise.

First, I found it utterly implausible that a man of Nathan's experience would not have detected the fact that Eva was a virgin. Before their first coitus, he penetrates her on multiple occasions with his fingers and at least once with a vibrator. Certainly there are plenty of virgins who've already lost much of the hymen due to various activities, but if Eva fell into this category, she would not have felt such pain when he finally entered her. Perhaps some readers will not find this a major issue, but Nathan's “discovery” that he has rather brutally deflowered a virgin plays a significant role in defining their relationship.

Second, the BDSM interaction develops much too fast. Eva's transformation from a shrinking, anti-social brainiac with Aspergers' tendencies into a sexually ravenous, kink-curious submissive just didn't convince me. Meanwhile, despite all his supposed expertise and his emphasis on safety, Nathan does not act like the careful, caring dominant he claims to be. Caning is an extremely severe form of BDSM activity. Based on my personal experience, no responsible Dom would cane a novice sub during her very first scene – especially not after whipping her first! Nathan totally lost my sympathy at this point.

Indeed, brave and devoted to Nathan as she is, Eva is unable to bear the pain of this beating. She lapses into unconsciousness. And the book abruptly ends.

My jaw dropped. Was this really the conclusion of the novel? No resolution at all? With a possibly damaged heroine? As someone who enjoys all sorts of fiction I'm not a stickler for happy endings, but in my opinion, narrative conventions require at least some attempt to neaten up the conflicts that drive the plot.

I understand that this is the first book in a trilogy. I wondered if perhaps The Dark was originally a single book and the publisher decided to split it.

Yes, I know this is an attempt to sell more books. And I might relent and purchase Darker, because I do admire Ms. Barker's excellent writing and love her heroine. Still, such a monumental cliff hanger left me feeling a bit cheated.

If you like BDSM erotic romance with intelligence and spirit, you'll probably enjoy Darkening. But be warned – you won't get the happy ending you crave.

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