This month, as part of talking about morality chain romances, we all read Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. It comes up frequently as a “canon” romance, but none of us had read it before. Spoiler alert: we all really liked it.
Scoundrels, Book #3
Let’s start by each giving our metrics for the book:
Heat Factor: Purple prose alert!
Character Chemistry: Sarcasm abounds. Also, she tells him that he’s sensitive and he’s baffled but she’s not wrong.
Plot: Jessica must rescue her brother from the clutches of the Marquess of Dain. He compromises her. She shoots him. They get married.
Overall: ZOMG. The plot gets a little saggy towards the end, but I still had a blast.
Heat Factor: Kissing in the RAIN! 💕 But yeah, standard histrom fare albeit on the steamy side
Character Chemistry: She’s competent AF and he’s a man baby, and they’re both super besotted, so it’s pretty excellent, in fact
Overall: Bottom line, this is simply a very fun read
Heat Factor: Oh, my.
Character Chemistry: Had Dain been with any other woman, I would have hated it…but since he was with Jess…swoon.
Plot: Dain is fully committed to a life of debauchery when he meets Jessica, who is a spinster and really doesn’t have any time for his nonsense unless he’s got her pressed up against a wall. Once he ruins her and refuses to do the right thing, she shoots him, they negotiate, and they’re pretty much in a bout of emotional fencing until the book ends.
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
HeatFactor: 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
Bottom line: Do you like the morality chain trope?
Erin: PUT IT IN MY VEINS
Ingrid: I have found that I really did like a lot of books that follow this trope, yes.
Holly: We are having this whole week focusing on morality chain romances because every time Erin is like, “REC ME SOME MORALITY CHAIN!” I’m like “What’s that again? Remind me.” I’ll get back to you after I do my research reading.
What criteria are required for a book to qualify as morality chain trope?
Erin: Okay, so because these are my jam, I will go first. The basic definition is that protagonist one is the reason that protagonist two is good. It might be like the most extreme version of grumpy/sunshine you can imagine, but I typically think of it more like one is ruthlessly pragmatic and jaded while the other refuses to bend any principles, even when it might be, like, life-saving to do so.
In a lot of speculative romance (read: sci-fi and fantasy) it’s often waaaaaaay obvious, with a dystopian world and a protagonist who is essentially an emotionless husk, and then the other protagonist who is sensitive and nurturing. Typically these even go so far as to require no emotional change in the amoral character except that the amoral protagonist will not take certain actions because they know it would upset the love interest (please see: Kaleb Krychek). But if we step away from the very clear-cut characterization that we often get in those stories, there’s still room for this trope in other sub-genres. In that case, the trope might not be quite so glaringly obvious, but the basics are the same: ruthless protagonist refuses to see the humanity in themselves or the world around them while the love interest forces the issue.
I do not consider a book to be morality chain when the amoral protagonist isn’t actually amoral but instead is simply really grumpy or selfish but has a good heart deep down. If the good heart is readily apparent to the reader at the outset, the trope is not morality chain. Also, protagonists who are just jerks (please see: alpha-holes) also do not usually count for morality chain because they usually…stay jerks.
Ingrid: Yes, so what Erin said. It’s like a darkness and light situation.
Holly: A small addendum: there might be some gender essentialism going on with this trope. The amoral character is almost always male, and the empathetic / humanizing character is almost always female.
What do you think is fun about the trope?
Erin: If I really dig deep and consider this, the draw for me probably stems from the fact that the amoral protagonist doesn’t actually have to change as such. They simply change their behavior because they have learned that their actions have more impact than just the bottom line. Nalini Singh has some great morality chain stories in which the amoral protagonists don’t change their personalities or understanding of the world much at all, but learn to check themselves. (I already mentioned Kaleb Krychek, who’s in Heart of Obsidian, but also there’s Raphael in Angel’s Blood and Zaira in Shards of Hope.) But also sometimes it’s a charming growth opportunity for the emotionless husk. I’m an equal opportunity morality chain reader.
Ingrid: I mean, let’s be real here—this is essentially the foil to “you can’t change him!” Right? And we all want to be the exception, so it’s a very satisfying vicarious situation.
Holly: Sometimes the villain is sexier than the hero. Just sayin’.
What do you find problematic about the trope?
Erin: I mean. I guess it makes assholes sexy. Like, “Ooo, look! The partner had the magic something that finally made that person not terrible! #RelationshipGoals!” Which in real life is not a great mentality, but I do enjoy it in my fiction.
Ingrid: Well, being the person who is responsible for pulling someone else up out of darkness seems like a pretty dangerous job, and a relationship that’s built on one person being the moral foundation is…likely imbalanced and unhealthy. To say the least. But that doesn’t mean it’s not some good, good reading.
Holly: What Ingrid said. Taming the monster might be fun and sexy, but being someone’s moral compass for years and years and years? Let’s not think about what happens after the story ends.
Erin: (I usually think of it in terms of the Kaleb Krycheck/Sahara dynamic where at the end of the day she’s like, “You’re so cute, you think you’re bad. I’m not going to play that game because it’s a crock,” which is slightly less bad than “I will keep the darkness at bay for you.” Slightly.)
Let’s talk about this gender essentialism.
Holly: So, Erin sent me a list of morality chain books because I like it when other people do my research for me, and the only one on the list with a female “dark” character was Shards of Hope, which is book eleventy-million in the Psy-Changeling series, so I haven’t read it. So it seems like pretty much all of the people in need of moral guidance are the male main characters.
And of course, there are lots of tropes that apply to members of one gender more frequently than another, but let’s unpack this a little bit. What it really boils down to are these are stories about women doing outsized levels of emotional labor because the men in their lives are *incapable* of doing so (and in the paranormal romances, they are *genetically* incapable of doing so).
Erin: This seems to tie in to the question of “what are we reading for?” because y’all make a good point above that in real life the prospect of being a moral anchor for another person is not a healthy relationship dynamic and likely would be exhausting.
Anyway, Holly sent me this absolutely hilarious review of Shards of Hope, and TL;DR the reviewer hated Zaira. I went back and checked to see if the same reviewer had rated Heart of Obsidian, and – Hello! – she loved Kaleb. Both books are by Nalini Singh, who has a really consistent writing style, both are morality chain with Psy protagonists who have no moral anchor except their one emotional connection. It’s been a while since I read them, but I think the only big differences from a characterization standpoint are that Kaleb is more broody/angsty and a man, while Zaira is angry/angsty and a woman. (And Kaleb did get built up for 10 books first, which does matter, but let’s just say for the sake of argument…)
Having a woman protagonist as the amoral character in this trope seems to run into the “unlikeable heroine” problem, and if readers are trying to tap into a pleasure center with a story about a woman who can tame a man, it makes sense that the opposite dynamic wouldn’t be quite as popular or as saleable. Personally, I enjoyed Zaira’s characterization, and I’d like to see more stories that play with this trope (like some queer rep would be fun, yes?), but I also wonder if the writers who would play with it also maybe don’t care for the trope because it involves the emotional and power dynamics issues discussed above.
Ingrid: I agree with Erin, in that I feel like from a societal standpoint we tend to accommodate or even celebrate masculine characters lacking a moral anchor but when it’s a feminine one they become more unlikeable. Which, is like the literary equivalent of “you should smile more” and we should cut that crap right on out of here.
What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?
Erin: Ugh this one book thing again. A lot of morality chain books are part of a series (I cannot wait to read Lothaire, but I am being very good and I have to read nine other books first!), which I think makes it challenging to simply throw one out there. For a gentle classic, I’d suggest Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas. Evie is initially so unassuming but refuses to bend on what’s important to her, and St. Vincent is a selfish man-child who only cares about what’s important to him, and there’s a sex deal, and St. Vincent gets the shit kicked out of him by love (to borrow the immortal words of that little kid from Love, Actually).
If we’re cool with possibly committing to a series without committing to 12-20 books, I would totally recommend the Nevada Baylor trilogy from Ilona Andrews’s Hidden Legacy series. In the first book, Burn for Me, Nevada is not totally sure if Connor is, in fact, a sociopath. As the series continues, we get more three-dimensional views of Connor, but in the first book he is totally willing to use his magic however he can to get the most efficient desired outcome. This includes, at one point, dropping a building on a person. The world building is magnificent, and the action is *chef’s kiss.*
Holly: Movies are allowed now, so I’m going with Lady and the Tramp.
Erin: I’ve opened a can of worms.
Ingrid: Well, if we’re going to do that look no further than Dexter. Romance wise…
Holly: No, but seriously, Lady and the Tramp is just a stepping stone for the story that the right woman can tame the bad boy—and that he won’t necessarily stop being bad (so he’s still sexy), but will control his urges to chase chickens or flirt with the other lady dogs because they hurt his partner.
Addendum: Now that I’ve done my research reading, I also would like to recommend Duke of Sin by Elizabeth Hoyt because Valentine Napier is so delightfully villainous and has literally no concept of absolute morality. (I’ll squee some more about this one in a review later this week.)
Books we mention in our discussion:
Have a favorite morality chain book? Know of any morality chain books featuring queer couples or female main characters in need of redemption? Want to talk about how villains are sexy? Leave us a note in the comments!
The suspense plot gets a little saggy in the final act, but the chemistry between Ford and Angel as they make their way across Antarctica more than makes up for us. And lest we forget: there’s only! one! sleeping bag! (Full review here)
We began the month with a plan to have about 50% of our July posts be about wintery books because, as previously discussed, we are all very hot and Antarctica sounds better than sun and sand right now.
Because not all of the books were holiday books, we decided to provide this handy dandy summary for readers also interested in cooling off a little bit this summer.
July (Christmas in July but not all Christmas) Posts:
It’s Alaska and it’s Christmas and they have a bonfire on a frozen lake. Which seems like a very Alaska thing to do (or a northern Minnesota thing to do, but we don’t have any of those books right now).
I’ll admit that the rest of the series is a bit more wintery – this one takes place over several years, not one season – but the hockey season is (mostly) in winter and there’s plenty of cold, like the weather and the rinks and Boston and Montreal.
You might like the post better than the book, because it’s Holly, er, discussing how much the cover marketing (cutesy) completely and totally does not match the content of the book (badass alpha suspense-y).
Probably most readers will pick this up because it’s full (so full) of hot, kinky fun. But also Robert’s execution of changing a relationship from a couple plus best friend to a throuple was thoughtfully done.
Ingrid was over the moon about this story about a sex worker and an evangelical reformer, and although she didn’t discuss it in her review, the pair do get caught in a snowstorm and have to snuggle because it’s very cold. (What could possibly happen there, I wonder?)