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Willing Victim by Cara McKenna

First, let me begin with the disclaimer that McKenna herself writes on the blurb for this book:

“Reader Advisory: Although all sex acts are 100-percent consensual, Willing Victim contains role-playing scenarios that may upset some readers who are sensitive about rape, even in a simulated capacity.”

Whoa, right? I’ve heard about this book many time since the beginning of my romance binge almost two years ago, but I’ve never picked it up because… well, because I wasn’t sure it was for me. I’ve been known to fume at books like this one that portray men’s rape attempts/desires as a lead up to “sweet” romance relationships. Ugh.

But after reading a few mediocre New Adult books about underground fighting/MMA, I wanted to see someone do it better, smarter. I wanted someone to explore the appeal and the edge that a fighting hero brings—and why a woman might be interesting in him.

Here’s something pretty amazing: Despite the eye-widening subject matter, there are no two-star ratings for this book on Amazon and only one one-star rating that reads “not received.” And the three-star ratings? Most say something like, “the end was too abrupt” (true). Anyone who has spent time on Amazon knows how hard it is to find another book with over 100 ratings and almost no criticism.

Right now MMA/underground fighter heroes are trending in New Adult and steamy contemporary romance, but McKenna’s book was (traditionally) published in 2010, which means it was written in 2008/9… a while ago, long before the trend. It’s gritty with lots of sex, and it is so much better that anything else I’ve seen in this sub-genre.

But this blog isn’t about rating books; it’s about figuring out how and why well-liked books work. And this one really works in a way that romance—and especially steamy romance—often doesn’t. And I'm going to look at two reasons why I think this is so.

First, the characters are interesting and complex. The plot is a woman’s erotic exploration of sexual interest she doesn’t fully understand. Both characters come to the budding relationship with their own reasons for this interest, and they are both wary of the exploration for good reason. Our hero Flynn has already come to terms with his connection of masochism and sex, but he moves beyond this connection and into more vulnerable territory as the story goes on. Laurel also finds it easier to explore her sexual interests, but the emotional side is much more rocky.

Second, the book steers clear of so many clichés of the ups and downs of romance. This isn’t a roller coaster of drama. The characters have no major fall-outs, and almost the entire plot revolves around two settings: Flynn’s fight club locale and his apartment. What keeps us reading (aside from steamy sexJ) is the emotional progression. The overall dark tone doesn’t drag the book down because the characters are funny and insightful, and each conversation reveals new information about their past and their vulnerabilities. Their humor is dry and witty all the way through. What Laurel flops back on Flynn’s bed and says, “You’re still by far the best lay of my life,” Flynn thrust a victory fist in the air.

If you’ve been reading any of the trending New Adult titles, I’d take a break from the Amazon top list and explore this book instead.

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