Harlequin Mills & Boon, £3.49, ISBN 978-0-263-90833-6
Contemporary Romance, 2014
No, no, no! Damn it, god freaking damn it all, no. You can’t imagine how frustrated I am. Maisey Yates’s Pretender to the Throne could have been the first Harlequin Mills & Boon Modern book to get five oogies from me. It could have converted me into the Church of Asshole-o-logy and make me write florid poetry about finding a hunky man who would verbally abuse me for life and treat me like crap in the name of true love. Alas, it’s not meant to be. But I’ll get to that after the obligatory synopsis.
Xander Drakos is the heir to the standard fictitious European kingdom that graces books like this every other month or so. Only, fifteen years ago, he blamed himself for the death of his mother, so he fled the coop to spend the rest of the time being an overgrown Justin Bieber of the Mediterranean utopia. Now, he decides to come back to Kyonos to become a prince again, As you can imagine, the media is not amused that the spoiled brat, who fled the coop and left the country’s economy and political stability in tatters, thinks he can just walk back in to play the prince again.
Xander looks up his old fiancée, Layna Xenakos – it seems like everybody in this kingdom must have an “X” somewhere in their name – to find that she is now scarred from an acid attack during the political unrest that seized the kingdom. He feels guilty, but he’s too manly to indulge in such nonsense. He’d ask Layna to marry him – sorry, did I say “ask”? I mean “get”, because real men don’t do sissy stuff like asking for permission – they tell women what to do, duh.
By marrying Layna, he can then tell the media that, see, that scarred dingbat that he took for granted and dumped when he went all “Ooh! I’m too torn up to bear the hurt! Need more sex! More drugs! See ya, everyone!” now takes him back again, which means that he’s lovable. He also takes her back, even with her scars and all, so he’s actually kind and chivalrous too!
Oh, and he tells Layna that she can expect him to boink other women ten seconds after the wedding night because, sorry dear, he’s not capable of fidelity as he’s all torn up over his mother’s death so he can’t help sticking his pee-pee into other women even after he’s married.
Believe it or not, he’s actually one of the more tolerable heroes I’ve come across in this line. He is – mostly – refreshingly free of Madonna/whore complex – which means he’s a huge step up from Juan Pablo Galavis. He is spoiled, self absorbed, and immature to a horrendous degree, but he is never deliberately cruel. He can be cruel, make no mistake, but it is rarely done intentionally to hurt her. Therefore, he’s a nice change from most of the heroes of this line. I wouldn’t sleep with him or – heaven forbid – marry him, but there’s a lot about him that is a tall drink of water where this line is concerned. A big part of this is due to the author’s handling of this guy. In many ways, Xander is a great damaged hero because he does have his charming moments. He is a nice balance of hurt and charisma, usually a potent combination that can be irresistible despite my better judgment.
But what makes this romance amazing is that the heroine knows what an asshole he is, and yet, even when she consents to take him back, I get it. I can understand why she does it, and I love the fact that the author manages to make Layna do this without having Layna turn into a brainless martyr. Layna throws back at Xander’s face the fact that, by wanting her to marry him, he is forcing her to change her entire life and give up everything while he gives nothing back. And you know that? Screw that. She’s not having any of that. He wants to marry her, then she has some rules that he has better follow. Of course, he doesn’t, and she lets him do that because he’s just so hot, but the fact that she is fully aware of his sixty degrees of self-absorption and refuses to become a victim of his baggage is something that I don’t come across often in stories of this line. And it feels glorious to read pages 70 to 73.
The way the power shifts from Xander to Layna is not exactly my favorite kind of dynamic change, as it’s basically “he boinks her, it feels great, and he’s now putty” all over again, when I’d prefer the heroine to have a more active hand in flogging the nonsense out of the guy. Still, it’s a beautiful emasculation of someone who deserves every bite of the humble pie. I almost have tears in my eyes.
So what is my issue with this book, you ask? Well, for one, Xander bleats the same song all the time that he becomes really boring fast. Seriously, his song doesn’t change. “I killed my mother, so I need more sex and understanding as I keep being an asshole. Yes, I’m a jerk, but my mother died and it’s my fault and I hate myself… so how about a shag, baby?” All the time. As a result, every scene with him and Layna see them going through and saying the same things over and over. I’m bored throughout a big chunk of this story because of the repetitive song and dance.
Also, it’s ultimately hard to overlook the fact that Xander spent fifteen years shagging, drugging up, and drinking while letting his entire country go up in smoke, all because he’s too much of a pathetic crybaby to deal. People suffered, even died during the riots that followed his decampment, and the repercussions were felt for a long time since. Xander’s pain is insignificant compared to the widespread damage he inflicted on others dependent on him to man up and do his job, so to see him in the end going all happy again, baggage all thrown into the metaphorical sea, because he finally learns that his daddy loves him… the author is kidding me, right? I mean, seriously? Seriously? Xander fucked up, to put it bluntly – he fucked up to such a colossal degree that I don’t know how the author can expect me to root for him because he has issues with his parents. I just can’t.
At any rate, there are some beautifully subversive moments here, making me wonder whether Maisey Yates is secretly working for a competing Harlequin Mills & Boon imprint to sabotage the Modern line. Good for her. It’s just too bad that she makes Xander such a broken record, for reasons that cannot compare to the collateral damage caused by his fifteen-year long crybaby melodrama.