Series Review

Series Review: Arden St. Ives Trilogy by Alexis Hall (2017)

Heat Factor: Frequent and with lots of kink

Character Chemistry: SO ANGSTY

Plot: New Adult figures out how to Adult in context of relationship with emotionally complicated Billionaire. 

Overall:


What I thought I was going to read with this trilogy: Angsty, cliff-hangery relationship mess with plenty of “Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?!” chuckles.

What I actually read with this trilogy: A gut-twisting and thoughtful exploration of personhood, sexuality, BDSM, abuse, and relationships

So, you know. It was exactly the light romance I was looking for.

(Deep Breath)

Let’s look at these beautiful books.


How to Bang a Billionaire

Conversational summary of book:

Arden: Hello, I’m calling on behalf of Oxford, but I don’t want to do this, and so far I have been fantastically unsuccessful, so please don’t hang up on me.

Caspian: I am intrigued by this unpretentious and quirky young man. I will continue to speak to him even though I usually freeze out people like this because I’m busier than God.

Arden: This Caspian guy sounds stern and I want him to do bad things to me. Maybe if I suggest he come to this fundraiser reception he’ll talk to me again? Because a boy can dream, right?

Caspian: I can’t. I want to. I can’t. I want to. I can’t. I want to. URGH. I have a proposition. This is going to be a non-relationship with a six-month expiration date, and because I’m a billionaire CEO and you’re an unemployed college graduate, you’ll live in my apartment and see me on my schedule.

Arden: Well that sounds like it might not be the best idea, but I want you, so I’m going to do it anyway.

Begin complicated relationship that is physically but not emotionally satisfying for both parties.

Arden: I want a date. A proper date. 

Caspian: I’ll try.

Arden: This is going to be a sexy dinner at home, and I’ll be dessert. … He’s not coming. … And while I was waiting for ages and ages, I saw a photo that clearly shows how Caspian absolutely can be in a proper relationship. What a manipulative arsehole. I’m out.


How to Blow It with a Billionaire

Conversational summary of book:

Caspian: I’m so glad you decided to come home with me.

Arden: I’m so glad this is going to be a real relationship and not that nonsense you proposed last time. Now please show me what’s behind the locked door of your penthouse because I’m super bent out of shape about your ex.

Caspian: It’s my dungeon and it gives me panic attacks. I’m very uncomfortable with the sadist aspect of my sexuality, but I’m not going to explain exactly why.

Arden: Well I feel terrible for pushing you when you were clearly trying to show me a boundary. I’ll figure it has something to do with your ex because you seem to have done a really good job of mentally messing each other up, what with him trying to “fix” you and you needing to earn some kind of redemption because you’re a sadist and dominant.

Caspian: I am very comfortable showing my affection by using my money and resources and being just a teensy bit hovery, but you’ll have to pry any other vulnerabilities from my cold, dead hands.

Arden: I’m super duper in love but he is still not opening up to me.

Caspian: I just saw the man who sexually abused me when I was 14. But I seduced him, so it’s my fault.

Arden: Hey, so, I really wish I could have been there for you, but you didn’t tell me any of this, so I didn’t understand what was happening. Also, 14-year-olds don’t seduce grown men, so… Maybe reframe that situation? And we can work on you not hating yourself.

Caspian: I’m out.


How to Belong with a Billionaire

Conversational summary of book:

Arden: Well I’m pretty fantastically miserable. You know what would make this worse? Interviewing my ex for a “hot bachelors” article that my boss wants. 

Caspian: Well this is awkward, because I’m not going to be a bachelor anymore on account of my getting engaged to my ex who kept trying to “fix” me.

Arden: I’m just going to go over there and cry a little bit. And have some consoling and very kinky sex with this nice colleague.

Caspian’s fiancé: You should come for dinner. 

Arden: I can’t think of why that would be an absolutely terrible idea. /sarcasm

Caspian: I’ve missed you.

Arden: Well. You dumped me. So I guess that’s on you.

Caspian: You don’t understand.

Arden: Could have something to do with you not communicating with me or listening to me when I’m trying to communicate with you.

Caspian: I hate myself. My fiancé is fixing me. 

Arden: I don’t think I can tell you anymore that that is just completely untrue. You do you, Caspian. But consider that this nonsense is not fair to you or your fiancé or me. 

Caspian: I’m unwilling to keep you, but I also don’t want you to leave me. 

Arden: Seriously, WT actual F, Caspian?

Caspian’s Abuser: I am going to make this situation so. much. worse. 

Arden: I will not allow that to happen. I might not be a billionaire, but I have my own resources and I will use them to do what’s right for the man I love.


Notes on the text:

I had a ton of fun writing those book synopses, but they don’t illuminate many aspects of the trilogy that made it so great. It’s three novel-length books, so let’s break it down a little. 

As an aside, these books deal with a whole bunch of heavy themes, including drug use, disability, domestic abuse, child abuse, cheating, and I’m sure more that I can’t immediately recall. There’s also a period while Arden and Caspian are not together that both are engaging in a sexual relationship with other people (at least, Caspian is presumably doing so with Nathaniel). I wouldn’t recommend these for fluffy, romantic reading. I’d definitely recommend them as literature that makes us think and gets us right in the feels. Cue book hangover.

Fun writing 

The reason I picked up this trilogy was a tweet from @hopefulleigh featuring this quote from a very serious conversation in How to Blow It with a Billionaire

He drew in a long, careful breath. “I think we may have to…talk about sex.”

“Baby.”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing.” Apparently there could be a wrong time to invoke Salt-N-Pepa. “Ignore me.”

So, that’s enough for you, too, right? 

Honestly, even though most of the content of books 2 and 3 is about 1000% heavier than I expected it to be, the fact that the voice is Arden’s manic pixie dream boy POV makes the books. He’s a little sarcastic and a little irreverent and there are pop culture references all over. I’m talking LOTR and Firefly and Harry Potter and Kardashians and Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall and Jackson Pollock and Star Wars and Hunger Games and Pride and Prejudice and I’ll stop now because you probably get the idea. But it’s music and art and literature and TV and film and all kinds of things. It’s lovely. 

BDSM and kink

Arden isn’t a virgin, but he hasn’t explored BDSM as much as he would have liked, and he sees in Caspian an opportunity to fulfill his fantasies. Sometimes in romance, the kink is simply present, part of the story because that’s what the protagonists like, and there’s no underlying consideration of it because there doesn’t need to be. If one doesn’t think whatever kink is represented is sexy, then that story might not be a good match for that reader. That’s not how the dominant/submissive and sadist/masochist story is written by Hall, which might make it more accessible to readers who aren’t personally into S/M kink. 

First, Arden is exploring his own sexuality, discovering what he wants as someone who identifies as submissive and masochist. Because the voice is Arden’s, we get to understand why this is special to him, why he feels powerful in this role, and why it should be respected. Further, because Caspian is so emotionally messed up about his own sexual preferences, we get to see how this dynamic that could be interpreted as demeaning and abusive (Nathaniel’s perspective) is, when engaged in with consent and respect, a positive experience for all consenting parties (Arden’s perspective). Nathaniel’s–and frankly, Caspian’s–refusal to understand that Arden wanted masochistic sex ultimately devalued Arden’s sexual preferences and made them just as wrong as Caspian’s allegedly were (but, of course, only Caspian gets the flak because he’s the sadist). 

I mentioned above that Arden has sex with someone else when he and Caspian aren’t together, and that relationship, although it’s less emotionally engaged, is a much more positive experience for Arden to experience kink because his partner at that point also understands and values the dominant/submissive, sadist/masochist relationship. It’s a healthy relationship (not without its flaws, but in some ways much more open), that’s a stark contrast to the emotional messiness of Arden and Caspian’s relationship.

Finally, I also mentioned above that Caspian’s dungeon gives him a panic attack. His growth arc (takes a while, but) includes opportunities for him to consider just what he’s comfortable with in his role as the dominant/sadist in his relationship with Arden. He doesn’t want Arden to feel like Nathaniel did, so he’s focused heavily on aftercare and boundaries. When he finally accepts himself as he is, it’s like a reboot with boundaries for himself that he never had with his abuser (e.g. he’s more clear about how he feels about engaging in edgeplay or using props). In short, it’s really important for all parties engaging in BDSM to be clear about consent and boundaries so everyone can have a positive experience. Caspian was never taught this, and it has made his relationships with other men very difficult in addition to being emotionally problematic for himself.

Respect for self and others

In the journey of new adult self-discovery that Arden is on, and in Caspian’s struggle with his sadism, and even in a couple of other sub-plots, self-acceptance plays a HUGE role. 

It starts early with Arden being unsure of what exactly he’s going to do with himself once he graduates. He’s utterly convinced that he wasted the opportunities he had at Oxford, and he feels a bit like a worthless slacker. As he begins to understand himself better, first with Caspian’s unconditional support, and then after he gains some independence and realizes he can succeed on his own, Arden grows into a confident, independent adult. Nathaniel, Caspian’s holier-than-thou ex, forms a nice counterpoint to Arden, because he focuses so much on worthiness and expectations rather than on acceptance of others as they are:

Given how long I’d spent feeling about myself pretty much the way Nathaniel had said I should, it had been rough having him slap me in the face with it all over again. Not because I believed he was right anymore. But because I shouldn’t have to defend my choices to dickhead concern trolls.

As the narrative progresses into books 2 and 3, we see more of what Caspian’s struggles are. He doesn’t know if he enjoys sadism because he enjoys it or because his abuser made him into the person he is. In addition, Nathaniel did not enjoy a submissive or masochistic relationship, and he continuously told Caspian that it was demeaning and that he should work on “fixing” himself. Caspian deals with an absolutely massive amount of self-loathing as a result. Arden enjoys being submissive and enjoys being a masochist. Sexually, he’s a good match for Caspian, but because Caspian can’t accept that his preferences are okay as long as his partner is consenting and enjoying, he struggles with his feelings for Arden. This struggle is central and takes much longer to resolve than Arden’s path to self-acceptance because Caspian sincerely believes that Arden is what he wants, but Nathaniel is what’s good for him:

I wasn’t mad keen on being characterised as the romantic equivalent of a McFlurry, but then, I don’t think Nathaniel could have been enjoying his role as love kale either.

In the end, what we get is a story that takes us through a journey of acceptance. The characters must accept themselves as they are, but also they must accept each other as they are. This is the case for the primary plotlines discussed above, but there are several other storylines, including Caspian’s sister and Arden’s best friend, that follow this trajectory as well. It’s angsty like you would not believe, but it’s beautiful when everybody gets where they need to be in the end.


Buy Now: Amazon


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