Not the Romance You Were Expecting: Brutal Game by Cara McKenna

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

It’s no secret that we here at Lady Smut are big–like, HUGE–fans of author Cara McKenna. Do a quick search of our site and you’ll see she practically has her own page here, if we did that sort of thing.


There’s good reason for this. McKenna writes complex, out-of-the-box, very sexy stories about a man and a woman, or a man and a man, or a man and a woman and a man, that are often deeply emotional and quite surprising. One of the things I like most about her is she seems to come up with pairings and scenarios I would never have imagined. Love in a mental hospital? Check. Love between a prisoner and a teacher? Check. And yet, none of these seems outlandish or disassociated from the real world because she invests her stories and characters with deep authenticity and realness that appears effortless but really, really is not.

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Enter Brutal Game, the sequel to McKenna’s popular Willing Victim in which a woman named Laurel enters into a sexual relationship with Flynn, a big, rough, bare-knuckle bruiser with a kink for rape role-play. By the end of Willing Victim, Laurel and Flynn realized they both want more than role-play sexy times and begin their HFN. (For the record, McKenna updated and re-released Willing Victim earlier this year. Lady Smut blogger Alexa Day prefers the original version. I couldn’t tell any real difference, but it’d been a while between readings.)

Brutal Game picks up about nine months after the end of Willing Victim. Laurel and Flynn are still together. “I love yous” have been exchanged and life moves onward apace until something unexpected happens that forces them to deep dive into the depths of their still new relationship and discover whether it can withstand the storm.

Look! A blurb!

Nine months ago Laurel walked into an underground boxing gym and found herself mesmerized by a stranger named Flynn—a man who fights hard and loves harder. Since then he’s taken her places where fear and curiosity clash in exquisite pleasure, where trust is the price of ecstasy, and in time their brutal game has become her kink as much as his.

But when real life intrudes and hard decisions demand action, will these two whose bond is rooted in fantasy take shelter in each other’s arms, or discover that lust is no substitute for a lasting commitment?

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Brutal Game is an exceptional story, an emotional tale about what comes after the HFN as a burgeoning relationship is severely tested. It’s the rare romance novel that feels rooted in real life, at times uncomfortably so, where the heroine and hero must confront a life-changing decision with care and grace while discovering whether their relatively new love can endure the outcome. It is emotional, genuine, shocking, gentle, sexy, sweet, and ultimately, truly lovely. A must read.


Okay, Imma gonna spoil the holy crap outta this book from here on in because I cannot talk about why this book is so good without revealing key parts of the story. I highlighted the hell outta this story, and you’re gonna hear why. So DO NOT READ FURTHER if you don’t want a MAJOR PLOT POINT ruined for you. And I mean hacked to bloody death ruined. Really. STOP NOW.


Still with me? Here we go.


Flynn has a refreshing healthy understanding of how his head works and what he needs in a relationship. He feels lucky to have found a woman who not only enthusiastically participates in his kink and gets off on it for her own reasons, but who also suits him outside the bed play. Laurel isn’t just suffering his kink.  She loves being the woman who can give him that needed outlet tied up with knowing that while he says horrible things to her while they role-play, beneath that is a deeper bond of trust and a gift only she can provide him. She’s also learned to notice when their kink goes beyond the line of play midway, eclipsed by the love they share and how they turn each other on, kink or kink-free.

It was the taboo, the wrongness of wanting it that made it hot. Or for Laurel, it was Flynn. It was the balance of a man strong enough to hurt her for real also being the one she trusted above all others. And it was having the power to grant his darkest, dirtiest wishes, and to see and hear and feel what it did to him.


Always contradictions with Flynn. Selfish and catering at once. Cruelty underpinned by blind trust. A no-nonsense, frequently tactless man, but under the surface possessing so much tenderness and loyalty and intuition.


Never let this moment cease to floor and humble her. Never let this man fail to amaze, and never let her fail to excite him. Never let familiarity curdle to boredom, she prayed. Let this feel so easy and so wrong and so right, always.

There is also this casual practicality to the physicality of their sex. It’s not all orgasms and starbursts every time and that’s okay. In Brutal Game, Laurel knows when her body is cooperating to get her there and when it’s not and Flynn is clued into this too. He knows the difference between sex and intimacy and doesn’t want one without the other if she’s not with him. She gets cramps during intercourse and doesn’t hide them, or needs an angle or position adjusted to ease pain, none of which squicks Flynn out and it shouldn’t.

The female body was like a car with no manual, a mystery designed to confound and bewitch the simple male brain. A man was lucky to get invited to dick around under the hood and go for a spin, but fuck if any of them knew how to service the thing.


“It amazes me how unafraid of the female body you are.”

“Helpful when you’re a straight guy.”

“No, you have no idea how terrified guys are of women’s bodily functions. And how gross it makes us feel. But you really don’t give a shit.”

Toward the end of Outlander, while tending Jamie, cleaning up his puke and blood leftover from Black Jack’s torture, Claire ruefully acknowledges that there’s a vast difference between romance and intimacy. That’s always stuck with me because usually there’s abundant emotional (and sexual, of course) intimacy, but little physical intimacy because “that’s not romantic.” We’re reading romance for escape or for fantasy and physical intimacy often is neither, and yet, it can be.

They’re also not always in each other’s pockets off the page. They’ll go a few days or even a week without seeing one another because life interferes. They live separately for good reasons and discuss needing emotional space without a BFD emo scene with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Almost like real couples dealing with life together and with HEA and HFN being the proper conclusion to a romance novel, we don’t get enough of that reality resonance.


Laurel’s depression is revealed in Willing Victim, along with the fact that her mother was severely depressed, which significantly affected Laurel’s upbringing. Laurel fears becoming like her, especially since she wallows in her waitress job at a tourist trap restaurant in Boston’s Quincy Market rather than at a job that utilizes her engineering degree. Depression sucks and it’s often tough to talk about. Loved ones often don’t quite know how to deal with it. I wrote about the “Writing Through Depression” session that was held at the RWA National Conference in 2015. Several women there shared stories of how their husbands or partners not only didn’t support them in their depression, but often berated them for depressive episodes and symptoms. But in Brutal Game, Laurel’s depression is just par for the course with Flynn. He’s not a big fan for her sake, but he doesn’t love her in spite of the challenges that come with depression, it’s just a part of what it means to love her and be in a relationship with her. It’s not “oh my God, she has depression.” It’s matter of fact. Not embarrassing. Not a burden. Just a part of who she is that is a part of their lives together. Ditto with the anxiety Flynn copes with that drives him to the fighting ring to calm the noise in his head. Laurel gets that this is part of who Flynn is and this is what he needs to do to deal with it.

She’d gone through a long blue patch over the holidays, and at his urging got prescribed an antidepressant she could take on an as-needed basis. It seemed to be helping a lot.


“I feel like you get me. Whatever it is I offer, it’s something you want, or need. And if it isn’t always easy to be with you, when you’re depressed or whatever, I know I’m not easy to be with all the time either. I know I’m kind of a dick and I know being with me, sexually, takes you way outside your comfort zone.”

“That’s really not much of a sacrifice,” she said, blushing faintly.

“But it’s intense, and it takes effort. I appreciate it.”

“It’s not a favor,” she added.

“Neither’s taking care of you when you’re having a hard time.”

Tears welled and slipped free, tracing hot paths down her cheeks. “Thanks. It’s nice to hear you put it that way.”

“And takin’ care of you right now, this ain’t easy either. But it’s not a favor. It’s not even a duty. It’s just what we do for each other.”

My note after this exchange simply says “That’s love.”


Despite taking realistic precautions, Laurel becomes pregnant. Laurel and Flynn seriously discuss abortion as an option. Neither of them know what they want or what to do, but Flynn makes it clear the choice is Laurel’s as she’s the one who would bear the most burden carrying and raising their child.

“‘My body, my choice’–that’s about the right to have an abortion, not about women being the ones who have to make the decision for the couple.”

“This little clump of tissue or whatever it looks like–if you decided to turn it into a baby–is going to have a bigger impact on your life than mine. It’d derail your career for the next couple of years at least. It’d force you to figure out how serious you are about me, and probably sooner than you planned to.”

We talk in Romancelandia of about that golden unicorn of alpha men who love and respect women, but Flynn really is an alpha feminist, a guy so supremely self-aware he doesn’t think twice about this. It’s Laurel’s decision and he is not at all resentful or angry about that.

“The pregnancy question…It didn’t scare him, not the way it might another man. It was out of his hands, and Flynn had long ago quit working himself up over things he couldn’t control. Whatever might ultimately come was Laurel’s decision. It was the simple not-knowing that was gnawing at him.”

That’s not to say Flynn isn’t tied up over the whole baby thing.

“It wasn’t his decision, but if she asked what he wanted her to do…Shit, be honest? Or refuse to say so she wouldn’t feel pressured? But refusing to say, was that supporting her choice or was that forcing her to make it completely on her own? He knew what he’d want her to do, but it felt so goddamn delicate, the question of whether or not to say.”

I’ll admit, it was a relief as I read that it was not all immediately happy baby time once Laurel became pregnant. In general, romance novels tend to treat pregnancy as the magical McGuffin. Even when it’s a single-parent situation or any number of variables and situations are utilized, the fact of being pregnant is usually a joyous affair for one or both parties involved. People insult romance novels by claiming it’s fantasy, those things never happen in real life. It’s not realistic. Well, in Brutal Game, it’s damn close. These two people love each other but they know that this unexpected pregnancy has serious repercussions, many of which they are not immediately prepared to deal with.


This doesn’t mean Flynn doesn’t care about Laurel and their child a whole damn lot. His response to what ultimately happens to their baby is emotional and difficult, raw and honest. McKenna lets Flynn feel every part of it and even acknowledge that he’s angry with Laurel even as he doesn’t like feeling that way and can’t figure out why he does. His feminism and sincere belief that it was HER decision to make doesn’t mean his feelings don’t count and aren’t important.

“But some other part of me…I dunno. It changed me up, imagining it. Or just knowin’ about it, knowin’ that was going on inside your body. I won’t lie, it felt really fucking profound.”

None of what Flynn’s feeling, though, means he doesn’t love Laurel, and he goes to pains to make sure she knows it.

“I’m gonna tell you something right now,” he said, “and I want you to remember it every time I’m angry with you, for as long as we’re together. I wouldn’t be this ripped up if I didn’t love you. I don’t waste my time feeling pissed or hurt or let down unless the person who managed to make me feel it actually matters to me. I’m not looking to change anything we’ve got. I just need to figure out what the fuck’s up with me. Or to sit and stew in it for however long it takes me to get over it.”

Holy crap, a healthy relationship with open communication and an alpha male unafraid to discuss his feelings. This really *is* a Romanelandia golden unicorn!

McKenna doesn’t tip toe through this part either. There no sense of words being carefully chosen nor does it feel as though the author is stomping around to preach a position. It just feels honest and real. Reading these portions, I just kept thinking “and people accuse Romance as being fantasy. No one would fantasize this.

As I said above the spoiler fold, Brutal Game is an exceptional story. At some times uncomfortably close to real life, it explores what happens when a new relationship has to navigate treacherous, life-changing waters. It takes a visceral but practical approach to a couple contemplating abortion and a refreshing matter-of-fact attitude toward depression, two hot button social and emotional issue often over-burdened in fiction with the weight of “a very special episode” gravity. It’s funny, sweet, sexy, surprising, endearing, raw, and remarkable. A must read.

Follow Lady Smut. We like to play games. Some may be brutal.


Writer, singer, editor, traveler, tequila drinker, and cat herder, Kiersten Hallie Krum avoids pen names since keeping her multiple personalities straight is hard enough work. She writes smart, sharp, and sexy romantic suspense. Her debut romantic suspense novel, Wild on the Rocksis now available. Visit her website at and find her regularly over sharing on various social media via @kierstenkrum.

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