Erin recommended a bunch of Morality Chain books to Holly this week, so that Holly would understand the greatness of this trope. Ashwin did not convince Holly that Morality Chain is the best trope, so we decided to review it together.
Gideon’s Riders, Book #1
Heat Factor: I mean, I think it’s designed to be erotic romance (or adjacent thereto), so a lot of the connection between the protagonists is sex-related
Character Chemistry: Heavily based on yearning
Plot: Ashwin is on assignment to infiltrate a powerful sector leader’s guard but, OOPS, his only emotional connection EVER got adopted by the sector leader, too, and that’s really throwing a spanner in the works
Overall: The morality chain aspect was probably my favorite part of the romance/relationship component, but overall I was more drawn to the Riders and the political intrigue.
Heat Factor: So many multiple orgasms
Character Chemistry: Kora makes Ashwin feel, and since he has been conditioned (read: tortured) to not feel, that is a problem
Plot: Ashwin is infiltrating an elite bodyguard biker squad, and Kora is making him feel things
Overall: The romance was ok, but I was very distracted by all of the questions I had about the worldbuilding
Is Rocha drawing on standard tropes from MC romance in the portrayal of Gideon’s Riders?
Erin: Um, no. I would say the Riders more resemble an elite military type of archetype, or maybe something like a criminal heist team? They simply also happen to ride motorcycles. At the most basic level, they can never ride free because their lives are all sworn to Gideon.
Holly: Thank you for this clarification. I also got the vibe that they were elite military who wrote bikes, but I’ve never read a MC romance so I was curious if there was crossover.
What do you think of the worldbuilding?
Erin: I didn’t think it was an unfamiliar style of dystopian worldbuilding. It’s a future earth after everything fell apart, fighting followed, and a feudal-like power emerged with the capital of Eden having the most power and a more tenuous power hold on the vassal-like sectors, whose leaders have different levels of power and resources. To me, it wasn’t all that dissimilar to the world of The Hunger Games. Not to say it wasn’t original, but I didn’t feel like Rocha were breaking the mold with the world they’d envisioned.
I was curious to read the original Beyond series afterward, though, but it’s quite a few books and they’re all dystopian erotic romance so it just feels like a lot right now.
Holly: Ok but…if all of the electricity went off for a while (I assume that’s what “the flares” were) and there’s a strong element of handicrafts as an integral part of the new society…where are they getting the gasoline for their bikes?
How much trade is there between the sectors, or between this society and other groups across the US? How much land does this society cover? What is the political role of the Base? Does the Council control the Base or just the city of Eden? Now that the sectors have revolted, are they fully self-governing? Maybe these logistics questions are unfair, but my sense when reading the book was that while it’s true that it was a Hunger Games style dystopia, I was frequently confused about the day-to-day logistics AND the relationships between the political factions.
I was also intensely curious about the religious system (cult?) led by Gideon and how it worked. Is it Christian-adjacent, or a totally new thing?
Erin: IMO you’re maybe a little too focused on the day-to-day logistics? I certainly wasn’t, but as a reader I tend not to worry about those specifics if I think it’s possible they were addressed in an earlier book (in this case the prior series) OR if it’s something that doesn’t matter right now and might be addressed further in a later book. I guess I just focused my attention differently than you did in this instance. Yours is certainly a good point re worldbuilding and this book specifically. This also seems not uncommon in sci-fi / urban fantasy – I see a lot of authors not explaining things clearly at the outset, and sometimes it never is fully fleshed out. This is unfortunate because, when readers are distracted by these questions, they’re taken out of the story and the author loses reader buy-in.
Is Gideon a good guy? Does it matter?
Erin: So, background: Gideon is the leader of the sector, beloved and powerful. The questionable dystopian bosses in Eden don’t trust him because he’s too beloved, and they don’t want him to be more powerful than them or to disrupt the world order by making his sector the awesomest.
From a reader standpoint, I don’t recall any specific clues that he is underhanded or untrustworthy or in any way anything other than he’s portrayed; however, I still felt like he was shady. A little bit of this feeling came from the cat-and-mouse game he and Ashwin played, but I think it was more introduced from other characters who questioned his motivations and genuineness. His opacity makes me think he’s supposed to be read as morally gray while wearing a very shiny hero suit.
Holly: My qualms about Gideon tie into my curiosity and unease about his joint religious / political role. (Writing that down makes me realize that there is a whole lot I can unpack about the protestant-secular mindset I’m coming into this book with, but I think that’s beyond the scope of this review.) What exactly is his religious role? It seemed like he was deified by the people, and this was reinforced by the text in that he was always right about the people under him and the extreme loyalty he inspired in the Riders. The text also explicitly notes that actually, Gideon is exactly as beloved and aboveboard and caring as he appears to be, so I think we’re supposed to trust that he is, at heart, a Good Person.
But there were all these niggles—Ashwin repeatedly comments on the ostentatious wealth enjoyed by Gideon and his family, and the myriad ways that the tithes made by people in the sector make it into the family’s personal coffers. So he’s a good capitalist, in a society with extreme wealth inequality, and how does this square with his mission to care for everyone?
In short: I agree with Erin, that maybe he’s morally grey in a shiny hero suit, but it was jarring, because sometimes it felt like the text wanted me to see him as a pure hero and sometimes it didn’t. Every time he showed up, I was waiting for him to do something terrible, but the way the book ended, I don’t think that’s in the cards.
Erin: I have the next book. I’ll let you know. I also forgot about the religion component, which was super intriguing and definitely made Gideon seem too powerful and therefore possibly sinister. Head of church + head of state usually makes me worry.
Are Ashwin and Kora fated to be together? Does their genetic engineering make them uniquely compatible? If so, is this a fated mates book, and does it work as one?
Holly: So, spoiler alert. Ashwin has been genetically modified to be emotionless, but Kora has ALSO been genetically modified to be super empathic. Twin programs, if you will: super killers and super healers. Once the information about Kora had been revealed, it seemed even more inevitable that she was uniquely attuned to Ashwin because of her empathy, and that, furthermore, he was able to ground her away from hyperempathy somehow. So the book kind of did read as a fated mates story to me, and honestly, that made me super sad, because Kora’s program was shut down (hyper-empathic healers are not so good at following orders) and she’s literally the only one, so none of the other super-soldiers would ever escape his conditioning and find love.
Erin: See, because Ashwin is not, in fact, unique as a super soldier (he’s just a malfunctioning one, but even then, he’s not even the only one of those), I wouldn’t read it as a fated mates. The beats of the trope are present, as Holly describes, but I didn’t get the additional forced relationship component that I usually look for in a fated mates story – the “fated” part. Why is Ashwin different than any other soldier that Kora treated when she was still treating those soldiers? Maybe it’s just a one-way fated mating, Ashwin → Kora?
How well does this book work as a morality chain romance?
Erin: Maybe I am not reading the question correctly, but I feel like Ashwin is pretty solidly a moral desert, so in terms of are the requirements for the trope met, the answer is yes.
Unless the question is asking: is Kora the moral compass for Ashwin? In which case I think that’s a curious thought exercise of interpreting how the chain exists. Kora is the reason Ashwin is good, but as I recall, with all the political intrigue going on, the reason isn’t wholly because she tells him to be good (though she does have those expectations), it’s mostly because he wants to have her for himself and makes choices to ensure that he can have her, which leads him to ultimately make morally good choices.
Holly: Towards the end of the book, Kora thinks this about Ashwin:
No matter how much the Riders grounded him in humanity, Ashwin would always be a bit of a monster. But he was her monster, utterly loyal, completely devoted. Loved—not in spite of his darkness, but because of who he had become by embracing it.
Which is a pretty strong indicator that Kora, at least, thinks of this as a morality chain romance. (I’m not really sure he embraced his darkness, but that ties in to the Riders and the religious system and the Riders take on the sin for everyone by committing violence and then are damned forever.)
There’s a lot of political intrigue. Did you think it detracted from or supported the HEA? Or was there a HEA?
Holly: I was honestly confused by some of the political intrigue; I felt like I didn’t have quite enough context to really understand the motivations of the different players. Which is fine if it’s meant to be opaque, but in this case, it seemed more like a case of missing information.
With that said, the HEA is reliant on the political intrigue. Not so much the question of whether they would be together, because it was pretty clear that Ashwin would break every protocol necessary to stay with and protect Kora, but in the logistics of how they would be together (basically, they get to have their cake and eat it too).
Erin: My short answer would be that the political intrigue detracted from the HEA because I was way more interested in it than in what was going on between Ashwin and Kora. It also wasn’t something that fully included Kora…but that’s because Kora is a healer not a warrior. As to Holly’s comment about the logistics of how they would be together… I agree that Ashwin was completely prepared to break every protocol, but I’m not necessarily sure that Kora would have been willing to leave her whole life behind for Ashwin at all, and especially not before she knew that her genetic engineering marked her. The conflict surrounding her identity in the second half of the book threw me, and I didn’t ever get fully back on board with Kora’s commitment to Ashwin.
Holly: That’s a good point that it’s not clear that Kora would leave her life for Ashwin, even after it became apparent that he uniquely grounded her when she got too emotionally wrapped up in the suffering of others. Maybe my vague dissatisfaction stemmed from me not being fully on board with Kora’s commitment to Ashwin either.
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