Posted in: AztecLady Reviews, erotic romance
Tags:Lauren Dane, Menage
This erotic futuristic romance is Ms Dane’s print debut, but the fact that she’s been writing for years is evident in the quality of her craft. I was privileged to get an ARC of Undercover, which made me really happy as a well written ménage à trois is one I enjoy very much (particularly in the M/f/M incarnation, as is this one).
With that said, the usual warning: this novel is not meant for minors; any adults who object to any sort of relationship deviating from the typical one man, one woman would not enjoy either the novel nor my review; there is graphic sex, some BDSM, and what could be considered offensive language.
Here’s the blurb, from Ms Dane’s site:
On the battleground or in the bedroom, one woman and two men fight for dominance in a bold, new, and excitingly different direction in erotica…
As a lieutenant of the Federation military, Sera Ayers is accustomed to giving orders, not taking them. Now she must obey the one man she can’t stand—and can’t stop thinking about.
With the enemy Imperialists gaining ground, a covert team is assembled by Ash Walker. Ten years before, Sera had lovingly submitted to Ash’s dominance in the bedroom. But when he was forced into a political marriage, she refused to play mistress. His marriage now over, Ash wants Sera on his team—and back in his bed.
The third team member, Brandt Pela, has an elegance to match Ash’s savage sexuality. And when their undercover plan requires Sera to pose as Brandt’s lover, it ignites a passion among the three of them more dangerous than their mission.
I finished reading this novel days ago, and have been trying to write a review since. Not quite sure I can do it justice, but time won’t stop for me to come to terms with the crazy inside, so here we go.
In terms of the world building, I find it a bit sketchy for my tastes—I’m usually rather petulant about these things. The technological aspects are simple extrapolations of current devices, yet this works better than elaborate inventions for the purpose of framing the story. The social mores change depending on setting (the novel deals with different universes in the same timeline… or something like that—can’t really explain it briefly), leaning towards both class and gender stratification.
The broad strokes: there is a class hierarchy, with a number of ranking Families controlling both the social prestige but also the lion share of the financial market. It is also a fundamentally patriarchal society, wherein women of rank are not expected to be more than decorative pawns. On the other hand, the lower social classes are more egalitarian regarding sex, work, and freedom to choose.
As for the undercover operation, it is really pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. There are a few shady characters here and there, and the team’s job is to find proof of illegal activities and treason through their assumed personae—nothing terribly labyrinthine about it. Evidently, the focus of this novel is in the relationships between the three main characters, and in this area Ms Dane’s writing shines for me.
The disastrous end of Sera and Ash’s past relationship has marked them both deeply, but even though he never stopped loving her, the impact on Sera is much more evident. He lost the love of his life, but she lost her self respect, sank until she touched bottom, and rebuilt herself from her core. Her difficulty in accepting Ash’s presence in her life again—under any guise (commander, team member, whatever)—goes all the way to her soul. This is the man who stripped that soul from her.
Of course things were not quite the way Sera saw them at the time—he was forced into a marriage of convenience and class not just due to family pressure, but also out of a sense of responsibility: that union ensured a number of financial alliances between the families, representing security for hundreds of thousands, if not more, of people. The fact that his marriage was terminated by his wife grants him freedom, so to speak, from that responsibility—her Family can’t very well dissolve those alliances and rescind those contracts when she’s the one who broke faith, so to speak.
Once divorced, Ash devotes himself to a career as an undercover agent in a secret branch of the military, posing as an empty headed rich boy—along with his erstwhile brother-in-law, Brandt—in order to sniff out treason in high places. In the course of their work as a team, Ash and Brandt develop a deep friendship that often expresses itself sexually. Neither man considers himself homosexual, since they are more attracted to women as a rule, but they care deeply for, and are able to enjoy, each other.
The story begins when, as part of an important undercover investigation, Brandt and Ash need a female officer to complete their team. Because of the qualifications necessary, as well as Ash’s history with Sera, she’s chosen—and pretty much threatened with the equivalent of a court martial, should she refuse to obey.
Obviously, things get very interesting for the three of them from then on.
Ash still loves Sera—or at least, the Sera of his memory. Now that he is free to reach for her, he is determined to get her back. While he is surprised by, and feels guilty for, how much she has changed, his attraction for her is as powerful as ever, and he falls in love with her again.
In the years since her relationship with Ash imploded, Sera has rebuilt herself into a harder person; she was independent, capable, determined from the beginning, but Ash’s betrayal stripped away her willingness to trust completely. This doesn’t mean that she has remained celibate—in fact, she indulged in some sexual excesses for a while right after their breakup—but that she won’t open herself up emotionally. She may have sex, but she won’t commit or even connect.
The new element in this mix, Brandt is the least complex of the three. So far, his closest emotional relationship has been his friendship with Ash, but he feels an instant and quite powerful attraction for Sera. Of course, he has listened to Ash talk about her for years, but the reality of her is much more than he expected. Now he wants Sera for himself—while understanding that her ties to Ash are still there.
While the undercover operation serves more as a vehicle, given the strictures of the society in which they are working, for the relationship to develop, the rôles they each play give us insight into their emotional processes. For example, Sera must pose as a concubine to a man who is not just wealthy but socially powerful by birth. Further, she must pretend to be nothing but a decorative bit of fluff—the stereotypical mistress. This was exactly the rôle she rejected to play for Ash in the past. So while outwardly doing her duty, she also struggles internally with her knee-jerk mistrust of the sons of privilege.
I really liked the characters’ internal dialogue. At first glance it seems meandering, and even a tad repetitive, but it feels very realistic. People do not think linearly as a rule—however much we would like to pretend that we do. Also, given the complexities of a three way relationship, it is very natural to have two characters mulling the exact same point, from a slightly different perspective.
In this particular ménage, both males are sexually dominant while Sera is submissive. Sexual power exchange requires a definite degree of trust on both sides of the equation under any circumstances, but given Sela’s past with Ash, plus the fact that this is a triad with two dominants, a very fine balance must be kept. I enjoyed the sexual scenes very much, particularly the care given by Ms. Dane’s to Sera’s state of mind. The fact is, while the heat factor is very high, it’s what is going on inside the characters’ heads that makes me cheer.
Now, that is not to say that I don’t have issues with the novel.
I can definitely understand Brandt’s acceptance of Sera’s and Ash’s feelings for each other, but I found it more than a bit harder to buy that Ash would not feel jealous of Brandt, and of Sera’s attraction and caring for him. It does make sense that for them to work as a team in the long term, the three of them have to come to terms with their feelings for each other, but I would have liked to see a bit more struggle from Ash.
Also, I was taken a bit aback by how quickly Sera developed such deep feelings for Brandt, and opened herself to him as a submissive. In a way, it made her feelings for Ash—the love, the pain, the resentment, her self protection—seem less deep. Shades of the curative powers of the magical vagina in reverse, if you will.
With all that said, I really really enjoyed Undercover, which gets an 8.5 out of 10