by Kiersten Hallie Krum
It’s no secret that several of us here at Lady Smut are huge fangrrls of author Cara McKenna. A quick search of our achieves will pop up multiple posts on her and her books. I re-read McKenna’s Hard Time and After Hours this week and, as per usual, as soon as I finished, I immediately wanted to start each one all over again. Instead, given it was already midnight, I downloaded a novella prequel to McKenna’s Desert Dogs romantic suspense series, Drive it Deep. It was a good, relatively quick bite that gave me a taste for the rest of the series…right up until I got to the end.
From here on in, there will be some mild spoilers for Drive it Deep and the Desert Dogs series, a series I have not yet read except for this novella. Carry on at your own risk.
Drive it Deep is about Jeremiah Church, local rancher, and Raina Harper, local bar owner, two people who have known each other their whole lives and have only now, in their early 30s, discovered an electric passion they proceed to explore quite successfully. Friends to lovers is one of my favorite Romancelandia tropes so I happily dove into the sexy story. They fall in love and are momentarily happy, but they have a deep divide that seemingly can’t be conquered: Jeremiah ultimately wants a wife and family to carry on his family’s ranching legacy while Raina has absolutely, 100%, zero interest in ever being a mother. (I’m simplifying things here, but that’s the gist.)
But this is a romance novel, so I read on, expecting somewhere along the line to have them find a solution given how much they’d already confessed to loving one another. In general, romance novels come with the expectation that the relationship issues will be resolved by the end into an HEA (happily ever after) or at least an HFN (happily for now). Imagine my surprise when I reached the end of Jeremiah and Raina’s point-of-no-return argument and the novella ended, relationship conflict left unresolved.
OK, I thought. No big deal. I’ll do a quick Amazon search and see which of the novels in the series continues Jeremiah and Raina’s story. Maybe it’s even the one I already have in my TBR pile. Well, I found Raina’s book, Give It All, only, according to the back cover copy, Jeremiah is not her hero.
What the hell?! I invested in these people. I waded through their angst with the expectation that they’d eventually resolve it, perhaps in the midst of some ongoing suspense plot in a full-length novel. I was pissed. It felt like McKenna had jumped up and down on my Kindle for Android shouting “Psyche!” Any desire I had to read Raina’s story immediately dried up. What other carpets might similarly get whipped out from under my proverbial feet? Plus, having established, in great detail, how good Raina and Jeremiah are together, the bar a different hero has to clear to be worthy of Raina’s forever love is high. Like, skyscraper high. Ditto that for Jeremiah.
Honestly? I’m still pissed.
Prequel novellas and/or short stories are often used to set up a series or a full-length novel as they turn what would have been potentially ponderous back story into its own story (often at a lower price point). Roxanne St. Claire’s wrote a (free) short story Taken to the Edge as a prequel to the first novel in her Guardian Angelino’s series, Edge of Sight, that highlighted the first, steamy hookup of the hero and heroine–back story, successfully dramatized. Readers were then able to plunge into the novel already fully vested in seeing these two crazy kids resolve their issues over approximately 100,000 words. Not so the case in Drive it Deep.
And yet, one could reasonably imagine McKenna saying, “why would you think that?” It’s not like she didn’t warn me in the telling. The setup of Raina and Jeremiah’s core conflict is clear and detailed. Neither one of them can budge from their convictions without seriously compromising who they are at their core and no romance love story involves either party betraying themselves for the other. The idea is for them to make each other better, not worse. Ultimately, no matter how much they may love one another, for Raina and Jeremiah to pursue a permanent relationship in spite of their conflict would eventually leave one or both of them deeply unhappy. And yes, hi there real life, sometimes love isn’t enough. But hel-lo? Romance novel! Gimme the happy, dammit!
McKenna’s apparent bait and switch made me think of Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series. In Flashpoint, Brockmann introduced readers to Lawrence Decker and Sophia. (Sidebar: Flashpoint is a great book, part of a wave of fantastic Troubleshooter novels that made it my crack romantic suspense series back in the day.) Undercover in a (fictional) closed Islamic state that’s been struck by a cataclysmic natural disaster, Decker “meets” Sophia through a charged, complicated, sexual interaction loaded with dubious consent and capped by her attempt to kill him. Their immediate situation is resolved by the end of the book, but their emotional conflict continues through at least two more books of the series. Ultimately, both Decker and Sophia’s forever loves are not each other, a “betrayal” I, as a reader, felt deeply having waited for “their book” only to find it was not about them getting together at all. (There’s a deeper discussion to be had here about what an author does or does not “owe” their readers, especially when it comes to series and fan-favorite characters whose story resolution may or may not go as desired. I touched on it a bit in another post featuring the Brockmann book that put me on the breakup path in Which Came First, The Writer or the Reader?)
Brockmann’s response to the significant reader outrage over this development was a puzzled one: Given the circumstances of that first interaction between Decker and Sophia, especially the lack of consent issues that could categorize the occasion as at least rape-adjacent if not full out rape proper, why would any reader have expected them to be each other’s forever love?
I have to concede this is a good point and apply it to Drive it Deep: Why would I expect Jeremiah and Raina to resolve such a fundamental difference in their life and family goals when those desires were patently in opposition to one another? Because it’s a romance novel! There is an implicit contract between writer and reader in Romancelandia–there *will* be a happy ending of some kind between the hero and heroine. And therein lies the issue: In both McKenna’s novella and Brockmann’s book, the mistake is in assuming these pairings are the hero and heroine (a mistake easily made in Drive it Deep given they are the protagonists of the story). Readers have been trained, especially when it comes to long-term series, to identify sequel bait characters, secondary heroes and heroines primed for their turn at above the title billing. When that expectation isn’t met, well, if hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, imagine an industry almost exclusively made up by female consumers who are all feeling mightily put out. Duck and cover, man. Duck and cover.
Back to Drive it Deep. I still feel like I’ve been had and this has, at least for now, negatively influenced my desire to continue reading about Raina and Jeremiah. (As mentioned above, I broke up with Brockmann years ago, despite my deep, deep love for the [early] Troubleshooter series novels, and this was partially influence by the Decker/Sophia thang.) Yet, the assumptions made were all mine as were the expectations based on 30 years of romance novel-reading experience. McKenna wrote the book she had planned; she always knew Raina and Jeremiah weren’t meant for one another. As a writer, I can see the advantage to setting a ripple through a reader’s expectations, especially when the resolution novel that does presumably give both characters their expected HEA/HFNs is already available. But as a reader and lover of romance novels–well, I’m still pissed.
Have you ever felt “had” by a romance novel or novella where the ending didn’t give you the expected HEA/HFN? Where do you think lies the implicit contract between romance writer and reader for that happy resolution? Is the sense of an author’s bait-and-switch more acceptable in a prequel novella when the character find his/her happy ending in an upcoming novel? Is it really a “betrayal” of reader expectations when the signs of that unexpected ending are retrospectively clearly developed?
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