Scifi Romance with a Contemporary feel
He’d expected a sweet-tempered school teacher, a mild-mannered botanist, someone safe. He’d prepared for that. But buried under what he’d expected, was what he wanted: an undefinable, monumental something.
Deep down, where no one could see it, Shannon had wished for magic. And he thought he might be looking at it now.
This is a fanfiction-trope-turned-original fiction, where everyone has a clock that shows them the moment they meet their soulmate. When young, successful Southern California detective Shannon Wurther chases an art thief, his clock ticks down to zero in a darkened art gallery. Aiden Maar gets away, but he’ll come back for more eventually. And Shannon will give it to him.
Fortitude Smashed is a swoony prose-treasure that comes as close to the cuddly fanfiction fluff of my adolescence as a piece of published literature could. Romance books sometimes suffer from what I will call insufficient cuddles – that is, the conflict so wholly consumes the novel that the soft moments happen only in between the drama and angst. Fortitude Smashed, by contrast, never gets distracted by conflict, and offers plenty of cozy, shared moments between characters.
Fortitude Smashed is roughly 80% romance, 15% emotional drama, and 5% Shannon-is-a-cop thrills. And approximately 0% scifi, by the way - despite the way it's marketed, please go into this thinking fanfiction trope and not the hard science of soulmates and you won't be disappointed.
I need to talk about its indulgent prose. Or maybe it’s best just to show examples:
The dialogue is often used to contrast the poetic prose, keeping the book from delving too far into the saccharine.
Brooke’s characters are some of the few who have made me actually laugh out loud.
“We’re here to find lightning bugs.”
“That was the most Georgia thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“My mama fries the best catfish in town.”
“Never mind,” Aiden sighed.
Shannon and Aiden may be each other’s soulmates – or Rose Roads, as they’re beautifully called in their world – but that doesn’t mean they immediately fall into each other’s laps and a world of romantic perfection.
They’re developed, three-dimensional characters with relationship histories and parents and pasts, not to mention one of them is a cop and one of them is a criminal. They have a lot of stuff to work through before they can reach their happy ending. As they continually admit throughout the novel, their connection is more physical than emotional at first. It’s figuring out how to communicate with their words instead of their bodies that’s the hard part.
Aiden is mentally ill. He suffers from dysthymia (chronic depression) and dissociation. I really like the way it was handled; he’s already diagnosed by the start of the novel, which is in itself unusual. There are plenty of books where a mentally ill character’s resolution is to see a therapist and bam, that’s fixed.
In Fortitude Smashed, Aiden knows what’s wrong with him, but that doesn’t magically solve his problems. And the idea that he needs to “be fixed” is challenged altogether. Above all, what I liked most was that Shannon is in absolutely no way the cure to Aiden’s pain. Shannon struggles as the partner of a mentally ill person, and his support is helpful, but not the solution.
On top of all that, Aiden’s mental illness doesn’t take up the forefront of the novel, either. A mentally ill person is not merely mentally ill. There are a hundred other aspects of life all occurring at the same time, and Brooke captures this perfectly.
A Misogyny Problem
Two things left a really bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to ignore them and not even write about them here because this book is such a treasure, but the first thing kept recurring to the point where I couldn’t overlook it, and the second just reinforces my concern over the first.
Aiden and Shannon’s go-to insult for any woman is bitch. Like, I counted a total of ten times that they use this word to directly describe a woman. Aiden and Shannon are the romantic heroes of this book; they’re supposed to be likable (flawed but likable, of course). I, personally, do not know any likable men who would call women bitches.
I see the word “bitch” a lot online, when people want to take down smart women who dare to speak in public (newswomen, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, etc). So the fact that Shannon and Aiden’s bitch drops are often accompanied by adjectives like “uppity” and “stuck-up” left an extra, extra sour taste in my mouth, like wow, I would never give these men the time of day.
Is this like a dialectical difference? The word was tossed around so casually that I felt like it means something to me that it doesn’t mean to the characters. Bitch is a gendered slur. Am I wrong?
The text itself says I’m not.
This suggests that the characters do intend it as a gendered slur, and I am not okay with that.
Women characters also apologize to the men by describing themselves as bitch, and I’m sorry, literally what kind of woman would do that? Again, I’m still tempted to say this is just a dialectical thing, because people in my world do not talk like this.
The second thing that points to the book’s women-problem: A female character, Daisy, faces attempted rape. There’s a trigger warning for this at the beginning of the book. Sexual assault, however, isn’t on my definitely-do-not-read-list. It entirely depends on how it’s handled in the story.
Daisy’s attack was used to develop our male heroes. Aiden saves her from her attacker, and Shannon, who earlier in the night refused to pull out his gun while on duty when maybe he should have, pulls his gun out on the attacker without thinking. This is used to highlight Aiden’s innate goodness, because he saved his friend, and also to provide proof that Shannon loves Aiden, because he’s willing to kill a man for him. Through the characters’ own conversations, it’s made clear that Shannon reached that violent headspace out of his love for Aiden, not because of Daisy.
Later, Aiden and Daisy join a martial arts class together to help Daisy get over the trauma of her attack. Aiden and Daisy mutually agree that “Daisy’s problem” is that she is “weak,” as in physically weak. Women don’t get assaulted because they don’t take enough martial arts classes, so again, the whole thing just really rubbed me the wrong way.
This book gets a lot of points just for having developed women characters, which highlights the sad misogyny of the m/m genre and also fanfiction. However, this book could have easily stood on its own without one of those characters facing attempted assault. The character develop that occurs as a result of the “drama” could have happened in some other way. Having a woman assaulted when she isn’t the POV character of her own attack is just an absolute no for me.
Fortitude Smash is the first book in a promising series. Yes, it has problematic areas that didn’t sit well with me, but it was a gorgeously written love story, and prose like Brooke’s needs to be read. A future book in the Camellia Clock series is going to be f/f, and I’m very curious to see how it unfolds.