spindizzy: (Now it sounds stupid)
[personal profile] spindizzy posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
The cover of The Assignment; two shirtless men whose faces are not visible.

Detective Nicholas Valenti, tall, dark and stoic, has been best friends with his partner, Sean O'Brian for six years. The two men have seen each other through divorce, disaster and danger and saved each other's asses more times than Valenti can count. Exactly when he started seeing his blond, intense partner in another light Valenti isn't really sure. He only knows that he wants O'Brian in a way that has nothing to do with friendship and everything to do with possession. It is a desire that he will have to hide forever because O'Brian is undeniably straight.

Just as Valenti is coming to grips with his new, unacceptable feelings for his partner, their police Captain puts them on a new case that could blow Valenti's cover once and for all. He and O'Brian are going undercover at the country's largest and most infamous gay resort to bust a notorious drug lord and stop the shipments of poison cocaine that are flooding the gay bars all over the city.

Now Valenti will have to make a choice between friendship and desire. He and O'Brian will play the roles of gay men that will push the limits of their relationship to the breaking point. Will their time at the RamJack forge a new bond between them or destroy their partnership forever?

Guys. Guys.

What the fuck did I just read?!

Like, okay, so, I went to Gay's The Word a while ago, which was excellent -- it is a queer bookshop in London! One wall is new gay fiction! One corner new lesbian fiction! There might have been displays for the other letters (and there was definitely a non-fiction section) but I literally couldn't tell you because my main memories are of the entire wall of second hand queer novels. Guys, it was like heaven. And I picked up The Assignment by Evangeline Anderson and went "Oh man, fake boyfriend trope! In an actual, published book! With detectives!" And before I read it I was like "Man, [personal profile] renay is not having an excellent time, I AM GOING TO FILL HER LIFE WITH BOOKS!" and bought her a new copy of it because fake boyfriends are her jam.

Which means that I seriously cannot tell whether I am more regretful about paying for two copies of this book, or that I'm the reason Nay has a copy of this book in her house.

The plot is literally your standard fake boyfriends fic set-up. Nicholas Valenti and Sean O'Brian are detectives in the LAPD in the early 1980s, who have been sent undercover as a couple at the biggest gay resort in the country: the Ramjack. (Yes, that's really what it's called). And in the tradition of fake boyfriends fic across the internet, of course Valenti is secretly in love with O'Brian, and of course O'Brian Must Never Know because a) that's how this trope works, and b) O'Brian is Totally Straight and possibly homophobic. It's a solid set-up! This is a fic that I would (and possibly have) read, so I was hopeful!

... Yeah, that didn't last long.

The prose is... Serviceable, occasionally verging into terrible when it decides linger lovingly on people's cocks, or... When people start talking, really. We're talking "Oh god, you're making me come so hard!" levels of bad porn dialogue, (and just copying that out of the book fills me with shame as a writer); the regular conversations aren't much better. As you can probably guess, the plot rapidly becomes O'Brian talking Valenti into a series of sexual misadventures, including but not limited to "describing their fictional first time together in explicit detail at the dinner table", "performing for a group of caricaturish leather daddies"1, and "getting locked in a literal fuck-or-die-get-raped box"2. All of that is enough to put it with the Fathom Five book I read earlier this year on "sex romp, sure" shelf, but it really lets itself down in how stereotypically it handles its characters and its dynamics.

Seriously, I cannot get over the relationship dynamics at the RamJack, at all. Everyone staying at the hotel is divided into one of two roles, the sponsor/"daddy" and their "boy", and it's like... Okay, I know that's sure a dynamic, but an entire hotel where that dynamic is enforced by management on pain of being thrown out and potentially assaulted? And it's not presented as a niche interest, or one approach to being gay or doing kink, but "Well, yes, of course that's how it is"? *pulls face* And most of the staff (and at least some of the clientèle) that we see are predatory at best and eager to be rapists at worse! Like, nearly everyone in the hotel seems to have the idea that anyone built a certain way and unaccompanied by someone bigger/stronger is up for grabs -- like, maybe the book is being secretly meta, maybe, and/or making feminist commentary! Or maybe the book wants to make a point by bringing in an emasculating threat against our ostensibly straight macho heroes? But if that's what's going on, I don't know what point it's making or why it's not really doing anything with it. Because as it is, having roaming rapists and mandatory dynamics just feels kinda homophobic.

As for my other problem with the book, the sheer degree of "no homo!" is bollocks. Absolute bollocks, to the point that I lost all sympathy for Valenti about a third of the way through! Like, there is "pining for someone you think you can never have" (which is what I'm here for in a fake boyfriends fic!) and there is willfull stubbornness. It is blatantly obvious from... Let's be really generous, let's go from the first sex scene that O'Brian is equally into his partner! (So it's clear from page 69, and I am not even joking, nor am I joking that the reasoning is "Man, we should totally practice making out while naked in bed together so we're not terrible if we have to do this in public.") And Valenti's response?

Like two parts of a whole, his partner had said, and that summed it up perfectly for Valenti. But it could never be. This was nothing to his partner -- just another part of the job.

And this pattern continues throughout the book! O'Brian causes something sexual to happen between them, and Valenti is sad because O'Brian is just doing his job and also straight. *claws face* REALLY THOUGH. REALLY THAT IS HOW YOU'RE MAINTAINING THE RELATIONSHIP DRAMA. One of the characters just refusing to consider that his partner might be into him despite all evidence to the contrary?! Because his partner is obviously that dedicated to his job, and that straight, and they can't talk about it? To the point where he goes "Okay, O'Brian and I are having anal sex as an expression of our friendship." (Have a link to that scene, I am not joking.) COME ON, MAN. And it includes a short story at the back set a year after the story, I'll Be Hot For Christmas which has the exact same relationship drama as the novel! Valenti is incapable of using his words to discuss a problem, does a slow fade on his relationship, and O'Brian goes "You know what, mate, let me just put you in a bed and solve the problem that way." REALLY THOUGH, GUYS.

... Speaking of I'll Be Hot For Christmas, I was really sick of the only stated options in this book being "gay" or "straight", to the point where I specifically ended up looking up when "bisexual" was popularised as a term in the States just so I could side-eye this book to the correct degree. (Spoilers: before 1980, when the book is set!). So much of the drama revolves around whether the characters are being perceived as gay when they're actually straight, or if they're somehow "actually" gay despite having exclusively dated women up to that point, and bisexuality isn't even mentioned, which seemed really weird to me. This doesn't improve even when they're together, they're still doing that!

"Listen, partner," he said, pointing a finger at Valenti's face and narrowing his eyes. "What the hell are you tryin' to say? That I'd leave you for someone else? For another man? What do you think I am anyway, gay?"

"Uh..." Valenti shook his head as though trying to clear some faulty information. "Sean, I hate to point this out but you just gave me the best blowjob of my entire life and swallowed a load of my cum. Then you fucked me so hard I nearly passed out. Most people might consider that just a little bit 'gay.'"

"Well, I'm not most people," O'Brian folded his arms across his furry chest, still frowning. "And I don't consider myself gay, babe. I'm just in love with you. I don't even look at other guys the way that way. That would just be... Wrong."


... Guys, I genuinely can't tell if they're joking. I am in favour of people identifying however the fuck they want, so in universe I don't have a problem with it (See also: I cannot tell if it's a joke!), but from a "this story was written by people in a culture rather than harvested fully formed from the void" perspective... Something about a female author writing for a (based what she says on her website) primarily female audience having characters go "Nope, not gay, not gay at all, pretty much completely straight" and completely ignoring bisexuality as a thing that exists feels really weird to me. I think the bit that is really bugging me about it is that the rest of gay couples have this mandatory Dom/sub dynamic due to the context! And the one couple we see that doesn't have it not only doesn't see itself as queer, but spends most of this book performing gayness? Either in front of an audience or with the idea that there will be an audience at some point in the future? Something about that particular combination doesn't feel right. On the flip side, it could well be meta as fuck and that's the entire point! But if it is, I cannot see how.

In conclusion: The Assignment is not the worst book I've read this year (hell, it's probably not even the worst book I've read in the last month), but it's the one that's frustrated me most. My summary on twitter was "If these characters had the communicative skills the universe gave an egg sandwich, there would be much less drama!"and "How is there so much no homo in something billed as a queer romance?!" and I think I'm going to have to stick with that.

([twitter.com profile] readingtheend has suggested that I read all of these books and livetweet my reactions. I don't think twitter is prepared for tweeting of that magnitude.)

As a thank you for sticking with me through this, and an apology to Renay and soon Ira for sending this to them, please allow me to provide a short list of fake boyfriends fic that you can read rather than this:

  • Roger & Barnes: Partners by [archiveofourown.org profile] triedunture -- Asexual!Steve is in love with Bucky, who thinks that Steve has rejected him... Right before Natasha tells them that she needs them to pose as a couple to bring in a member of Hydra. It's totally the only way. (MCU, Steve/Bucky)

  • Intimacy by [archiveofourown.org profile] astolat -- Finch and Reese have to pretend to be lovers so that they can infiltrate a conference that has a policy of mandatory sex-with-your-partner-to-make-sure-that-you're-actually-legit because... Thin veil of causality that underlies porn? (POI, Reese/Finch, NSFW)

  • One Way Glass by [archiveofourown.org profile] astolat -- Fucking hell, if you even want the "fuck or rape box" from this book, ASTOLAT FUCKING WROTE THAT. I've not read this one, because Not My Tropes, but hi, have fun. (POI, Reese/Finch, NSFW, Dubcon)

  • Gadarine by [archiveofourown.org profile] unpossible -- Super long AU of Merlin where Uther's died before the show's continuity starts and everything has gone to shit in ways that involve Merlin being kidnapped to Camelot by some assholes I don't recognise and Arthur keeping him as a fake sex slave to rescue him. (Merlin, Merlin/Arthur, NSFW, off-screen non-con by secondary characters).

  • What All This Time Was For by [archiveofourown.org profile] lady_ragnell -- Foggy has a high school reunion, Matt insists on going as Foggy's fake boyfriend because he is super angry at how the entire universe doesn't know how awesome Foggy is. Co-incidentally, has Foggy being awesome. (Daredevil, Matt/Foggy)

  • Jump, Check Parachute by [archiveofourown.org profile] augustbird -- Matt and Foggy have a friends-with-benefits thing, and then Marci, and then incidental fake boyfriends. (Daredevil, Matt/Foggy, Foggy/Marci, NSFW)

  • To the Place I Belong by [archiveofourown.org profile] halotolerant -- I'm not sure if this is a Hannibal fusion or not, but if you want people who are in love with each other and don't realise it's mutual while also being fake boyfriends: HI, HERE IS FAKE BOYFRIENDS WHERE THEY SOLVE THIS WITH TALKING AND A SURPRISINGLY SMALL FISTFIGHT AND IT DOESN'T TAKE THE ENTIRE FUCKING STORY. (King Arthur (2004)/Hannibal, Galahad/Tristan, NSFW)

Anyone else got any recs they want to share? Has anyone else read this book and had thoughts?

1: I cannot get over the guy in the room o'leather who's specifically not wearing chaps, he's wearing leather trousers with "strategically cut holes." I can't. [Back]
2: I WISH I WAS JOKING, but I'm really not! The logic behind it seems to be "obviously we can't kill undercover police officers, but if we have them raped then it's win-win because we have blackmail material and they're never going to admit what happened to them!" Which leads to them having dubiously consensual sex in a specific combination because the villain tells them to do it. Seriously what did I just read. [Back]
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