A couple years ago I was totally put off by vapid MF romances of every ilk—historical, dark urban, paranormal… You name it, the same old tropes ruled, the bodice rippers, all gussied up in contemporary dress yet dragging along the baggage of ancient terms and conditions—heroines without agency, alphaholes without merit yet commanding book boyfriend status (and WTF is that about?), the distaff side living lives of proscription and prescription.
Then I discovered gay literary fiction, along with advancing subsets of MM romance that quickly devolved into MF clones (heavy on feminine sensibilities/desires/expectations), and lawdy they became fraught with HEAs and monogamous attachments, like an interpretative dance where the choreographer has no clue about the realities of lives lived on the periphery.
Then I found the male authors—and merciful heavens, you have to search long and hard because they’ve become buried under an avalanche of usurpers—and I gave a sigh of relief… and binged.
While Firstborn was recovering from her surgery, I gobbled down every gay litfic I could get my hands on, in burnout fashion, until I ran out of books and whined on Face Book about my lack of sustenance. Well, what are friends and author acquaintances for if not to step up with more offers of things-to-read than you could shake a quill at? (I think it helped that they know I also do literary reviews and make periodic recommendations on this blog.)
Gratefully I accepted all comers, including a spate of het romances, but as they say, needs must, beggars and what not. I was cloistered with Firstborn in the recovery center, desperate for something to read. I randomly selected A Question of Honor (A Stormhaven Love Story) by Mona Karel—wearing gimlet-eyed, pursed lips, show-me ‘tude. And boy howdy, what a pleasant surprise!
Sydney Castleton has worked hard to put her less than savory past behind her…until her sister asks for her help. Devin Starke has fought too many battles, seen too many deaths, to look forward to a peaceful future…until his best friend and partner asks him to help return the horse his wife, Sidney’s sister, took when she left.
Stormhaven, a ranch in northern New Mexico, has become a place for fighting men to readjust to the world, a sort of decompression chamber for those who have seen too much. Devin Starke is such a man. And Sydney isn’t far behind him.
When the sparks ignite between them, Devin and Sydney fight the attraction, as neither one is good at relationships. But when Sydney is attacked and fighting for her life, Devin realizes things aren’t quite what they seem. Can these two overcome the issues from their past, or are they doomed to lose any chance for love in the future?
As I said above—what a pleasant surprise. Lemme ‘splain.
Right out of the gate, I got that this author either had intimate knowledge about, or had done a respectable amount of research on, the locales, the particulars of equine management, and personality characteristics resulting from career and life choices. Within a few pages, I recognized Sydney as a heroine of merit, an independent woman with agency (which by-the-by means she’s her own woman, able to accept or reject social and cultural expectations without requiring validation other than doing her job to the best of her ability). In short, I immediately *liked* Sydney and was on board wherever she wished to take me.
I haven’t liked a heroine since… since… Lizzy in P&P, Keira Knightly version (and no, you do not get to inject the merits of Colin vs Matthew, lalalalala, I know what I like…), but I fell for Sydney, hard.
Devin? Not so much. Part of that was due to the narration being in close third POV, with heavy emphasis on Sydney right from the get-go, and although we are privy to Devin’s backstory, we don’t get enough of the intimate details and teasers to provide motivation and justification for the insta-attraction that rapidly develops early on, and the requisite nay-saying/denial that forms the core of conflict between them.
Speaking of backstories: they’re sprinkled in quite a parsimonious fashion throughout the discourse, leading to lots of questions and reader expectations, including some confusion about what happened when, particularly with Sydney (not a deal breaker, but a niggling concern).
One thing I really appreciated was the balance of dialog with descriptive passages, with inner dialog that moved the plot forward without bogging the reader down with endless repetition (of the woe-is-me variety), and a generous sprinkling of action to take away the humdrum reliance on falling-in-lust-then-love-then-monogamous-dependency. There’s ever a question of trust, tempered with backgrounds grounded in honor and duty, and it informs both their choices and the consequences that follow.
The supporting cast, Ty in particular, adds to the balance, as does the antagonist ex, Rick, who proves a worthy, albeit scumbag opponent. Throw in a sister you’d like to heave off a cliff, some damaged souls who bring to life the ranch’s mission, enough interwoven threads that all more or less advance the plot, and you have a pretty rousing story that should keep you up into the wee hours.
There were, however, some missteps along the way: the infusion of Ty’s POV acted as a distraction, timeline issues often halted the action as this reader scrambled to figure out what had occurred when (both in the backstories and in current time), and the inexplicable appearance of “outside interests” that muddied the distinction between friend and foe at just the point where clarity was required during the high action sequences.
But the most egregious problem was the inconsistent treatment of Sydney’s character, who—despite the promising beginning of genuine agency—eventually devolved into the standard damsel-in-distress trope, where vulnerability took a back seat to the inherent weaknesses so often ascribed to the female of the species.
And, to be honest, Devin is a misogynistic prick a lot of the time, a possessive alphahole obsessed with the frail woman in his care. And though we are assured at every turn that Sydney can indeed take care of herself, by the second half of the book, there’s no proof that this is the case. We must rely on far too much “tell”, with her later actions putting paid to Devin’s assessment that she needs him—for all the wrong reasons.
So, big effing sigh. Back to same old, same old?
Yes and no.
There’s much here to recommend: authenticity, beautifully written descriptions, quite good dialog, characters you can latch onto and root for (mostly), an alphahole most romance readers will swoon over (the damaged hero), panty-scorching scenes of affection, and an open-ended conclusion that begs for the next in the series. There are still unanswered questions about Sydney’s role in her father’s organization and what she brings to the table with the group she currently works for, plus other implied offers sitting out there.
The book is a page turner. It’s well-written, plot and character-driven, and has a healthy balance of romance, action and adventure—in short, there’s really something for everyone here. I was impressed. Will I read book 2 when it comes out? You betcha.
A Question of Honor moved the bar up for het-romance, and though it fell short toward the end (for me—don’t forget, this is a matter of opinion and likely won’t be shared by MF devotees), it still brought more to the table in terms of female agency than I’ve seen lo these several years.
So brava, Mona Karel, keep up the good work. This is a solid four star and recommended read.