A couple of things before we start – I don’t read or enjoy “romance” as a genre. The majority of romantic or romcom films seem preoccupied with the notion that indecisiveness and poor communication methods are all that stand in the way of true love. Romeo and Juliet, for example, would have ended far differently if their mail carrier hadn’t just YOLO’d the day off work.
However, please note I used quote marks around “romance”, because I think there is an issue with including all romantic stories within “romance”. “Romance” is a fantasy. It perpetuates some often very harmful messages about what we should expect from relationships. As a cis woman, a number of different media sources taught me that unrequited love was superior to any other type and not a potential gateway to unhealthy obsession (see: Friends); that if he truly loved you, he would humiliate himself to prove it (see: any bloody 90s romcom); and that if I could get him to open up emotionally, I would be truly blessed to see this side and thus have a duty to change him (see: any piece of romantic media EVER).
The thing is, I believe in romance and, more importantly, I believe in the romance at the heart of Bought & Sold as it takes some of these tropes and grounds them in reality; it emphasises that love isn’t just about big gestures but surviving the day to day challenges together.
To understand Bought & Sold, I need to discuss why I fell in love with Caught & Collared. Bought & Sold is now available for pre-order as the second book in The Larkspur Series by Morgan May, the first being Caught & Collared, which introduced the reader to Aden Brand. Aden is a professor of Russian literature who is struggling to deal with the recent death of his father, Gale. Aden and Gale had a difficult relationship to say the least. To manage his deceased father’s affairs, Aden has to return to a house he hasn’t been welcome in for 17 years. Upon his visit to his old family home, Aden faces an awkward reunion with Kristoffer Rask, a man that Aden has tried very hard to forget for (oddly) 17 years, with little success.
Their relationship is complicated, but Aden has needs that only Kris can satisfy.
OK, you know what? There’s no need to be coy about this. This is a novel where the main characters (and quite a few others, really) have BDSM sexual relationships. Aden likes to be dominated. He wants to submit and be “owned”. Kris is happy to oblige.
If you are of the opinion that BDSM is inherently wrong, then I’m not sure what to tell you. If that viewpoint is based on Fifty Shades of Grey, I could see where you got that idea because Fifty Shades features a character whose idea of caring is to be a jealous, weird stalker who randomly appears in women’s apartments, but LOL it’s OK because he’s rich or whatever.
Ever since Fifty Shades came out, I’ve read with interest the different takes from those involved in BDSM, mostly criticising Fifty Shades for lack of realism and portraying BDSM as a character flaw to be fixed. I am a Feminist and I believe that BDSM has consent at its core, more prevalently featured than in a lot of other “mainstream” sexual practices. There are rules and each partner needs to be clear on what they are. However, it is the submissive who determines what they are comfortable with. They set the boundaries. They are the ones who can say one word to stop everything.
If that’s not for you, that’s fine. I personally don’t get the obsession some have for feet, for example, but I don’t find it necessary to go around shaming anyone who takes an above-average interest in toes. I just don’t think you get to tell two consenting adults what they can or can’t do during sex simply because you don’t understand the appeal.
If your first thought when hearing the initial setup of the series is “Ah, so it’s Fifty Shades of Grey but for two men!”, I’d understand your initial reaction, but would vehemently disagree. For starters, the Larkspur series is written by someone who has actually researched BDSM rather than just maybe watching that CSI episode about a dominatrix (yes, it was a fun episode, but you know what I mean: it was BDSM as palatable for primetime). In both Caught & Collared and Bought & Sold, there is consideration about what consent is and why it is given, and Kris’s desire to dominate isn’t written off as shorthand for an abusive childhood like Mr Grey’s rather thin background story. It’s evident that Morgan May has put thought into the relationships and how the sexual elements provide a vital foundation for them. The sex isn’t just decorative; it moves the plot forward, and is used to convey a variety of emotions in the characters, including vulnerability, anger, need or rapture. The characters’ bedroom antics are an essential part of the plot.
There is another major difference between this and the slew of BDSM novels which erupted after Fifty Shades made bondage mainstream-marketable: the Larkspur series introduces characters, not archetypes. Kris is tender, affable, regret-filled, and resolute; compared to Christian Grey, whose two modes are controlling and, well, more controlling, there really is no competition.
What really impressed me about Caught & Collared, however, was that it was a touching exploration of grief. Aden has lost a father, and he struggles to reconcile this sorrow with their estrangement. Caught & Collared deals honestly with trying to mourn and bury someone who abandoned you, but someone whom you still love nonetheless. On top of this, Aden has to contend with his mixed emotions upon being reunited with his first real love, Kris. With flashbacks to the cause of their initial separation, the origin of Kris and Aden’s current situation is slowly revealed amongst a set of complex characters.
If you haven’t read Caught & Collared, I advise you to go find it now and stop reading this review because, by nature of me discussing the sequel, there will be some mild spoilers. Caught & Collared is a fantastic start to a surprising series, so go check it out.
Now, SPOILERS. Kind of…
Bought & Sold starts with Kris and Aden settling into their new domestic bliss. Dogs, lazy weekends walks, hooks and rings attached to the headboard for use during their playtime, and so on. However, all is not well: ex-partners (old and new) and Kris and Aden’s own bad habits hamper their attempts to try and build a life together.
The sex scenes are again fundamental to the plot and well-written; they are powerful and charged whilst also being natural, telling you a lot about who the characters are at that point. Thankfully, there is no ridiculous Red Room, just their sub/dom lives built into the fabric of their day to day activities. If you hate OTT, cheesy sex scenes and prefer your filth to be sexy AND believable, this will certainly meet your needs.
Besides this, there are a number of other things I found intriguing about this instalment in the series. The first was the realism of their circumstances: Aden was shown as still in mourning whilst navigating his new happiness, demonstrating that just because one thing goes right in life, it doesn’t magically erase the other issues. It feels important to point this out as the start of a romance is often portrayed as the cure to all of life’s problems. It’s not, and it was refreshing to see this dichotomy of real life acknowledged.
Yet again, the characters are convincing, likeable, and rounded. Celia, Kris’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, could easily have been a cardboard cut-out villain, a deceitful bitch who is the cause of her own despair. However, Morgan May manages to do what so many erotica authors fail to: she develops characters. This isn’t done with some ham-fisted “and he was good all along!” revelation. It’s achieved through peeling back the characters’ motivations to display what really drives them. Yes, Ceila has betrayed Kris, but the reasons why she continues her self-destructive behaviour are more nuanced than the reader might first think. You can still hate her, true, but Morgan May also allows you to empathise with characters who, on paper, seem easy to despise. There is subversion in a sense here, but only of the reader’s assumptions.
However, what I found truly fascinating was that Bought & Sold deals with Kris’s life without Aden. Caught & Collared was focused upon Aden’s past experiences, his viewpoint. In Bought & Sold, we get to see Kris’s life during their 17 year separation. His feelings of regret underscore his romantic decisions, fleshing out the person Kris really is at the start of the first book. These flashbacks culminate in a scene at the end of Bought & Sold that filled me with a sense of stupid optimism and, dare I say, joy.
I cared about these characters and what happened to them, not something that always happens in what Morgan May herself describes as “fucky” books. However, with Kris’s flashbacks, May allows the reader to understand more about who Kris is, and what motivates him to care for Aden in the way that he does. It’s a genuinely illuminating insight into their relationship, as well as adding new dimensions to events from the first book.
Bought & Sold’s resolution thankfully steers away from overly-dramatic gestures; though there is a confrontation, what leads to it and the way it is played out shows the characters to be just normal human beings struggling against their own nature and circumstance.
I’ve recently seen reviewers criticised for not giving “a balanced view”, as if it’s the reviewer’s job to present both sides of an argument. It’s really not. A reviewer’s job is to give their opinion and to say what they got from the experience. If you’re not sure if The Larkspur Series is for you, you can take my word for it, or you can take a deep breath and give it a try. You may well find the series to have genuine heart and charming characters, with well-written sex scenes and an intriguing story.
You may also be pleased to hear that Morgan May is already planning several more instalments. You may then realise you’ve discovered your new favourite author.