The debate over what constitutes “erotica” versus “erotic romance” versus…well, versus whatever descriptive the book-buying public is using at that moment to define these sexy works, is one guaranteed to drive even the most level-headed reader to hunt down the nearest bottle of pain relievers. The definitions are murky. The marketing purposely misleading. The availability of titles growing, perhaps too much. The authors traveling from publisher to publisher making any distinction between publishers even harder to ascertain.
An otherwise intelligent person could get confused.
Into this mess walked publishing giant HarperCollins. A bit later to the genre party than other publishing houses such as Kensington and Berkley, HarperCollins launched its own brand of erotica with the Avon Red imprint. Avon Red’s books are self-described on the imprint’s website as: “…the best, most sophisticated erotic fiction available in the industry…” If the launch single title Swept Away by Toni Blake is any indication, the definition should include the word “romance” in bright, shining letters because the focus of Swept Away is, and stays on, a romance.
Swept Away features a few standard romance novel tricks and a contrived situation added in to throw the hero and heroine together after a decade apart. To escape her impending wedding, Katrina Spencer runs off alone, with few supplies and without a cell phone charger, to her family’s private island five days before the festivites are set to begin. Her parents believe she is in Las Vegas attending a bachelorette party in her honor. Kat’s best friend plays along hoping Kat will come to her senses and decide not to marry Ian, the guy she is scheduled to marry in a huge society affair, but who she does not love. Brock Denton, the bad boy crush from Kat’s past, the same one she begged to take her virginity only to have him turn her down (twice), washes up on Kat’s shore fresh from a nearby FBI undercover operation gone bad. Nasty fellows follow Brock. Seems someone has been using the private island as a drop-off to smuggle valuable artifacts. That someone’s henchmen show up and get in the way of Brock and Kat finishing what she tried to start ten years before. Kat’s devotion to her parents and feelings of guilt over betraying her fiancee result in additional roadblocks.
There’s nothing new in the world of romance reads about a hero and heroine coming from two different worlds, or a hero being run off or bought off by a young heroine’s family in the past, or even about a heroine marrying Mr. Obviously Wrong in order to secure a family fortune or out of a sense of family loyalty. Many of these plot points have been used and recycled from the time of early Harlequin category romances to the present. Combined with a helpful circumstance – having Brock and Kat end up on a secluded island with no one but each for company ten years after last seeing each other – these plot points could read like a trite, old-fashioned and predictable story. They could. They don’t.
This is the point at which Blake’s talent with words becomes clear. The plot here is not new or even special. However, the writing borders on extraordinary. Blake rises above what in a less-gifted author’s hands would be an unbelievable plot. With a combination of perfect word choice, strong characterization and ever-increasing sexual tension, Blake breathes life into Brock and Kat and their story. Their attraction is immediate and the emotion between them palpable. An underlying pulse builds and expands, then deflates, only to increase again. The result is that the relationship between Brock and Kat moves in an imperfect line from youthful crush to something deeper. The one-step-forward-two-steps back feel as they wrestle with past hurts and deceptions provides an added depth and sense of realism.
While a few secondary characters pop in and out of the storyline, the focal point remains on the romance between Brock and Kat. Brock, the perfect name for a hero who is rough around the edges and raw inside, rose above his dysfunctional upbringing and broken family but never healed. Kat grew up with every advantage except a true sense of freedom. Throughout the story she is referred to as a former wild child. Other than her modern attitude toward sexual relationships, few examples are provided. The sense is that Kat is a woman longing to break out and experience life and love. The flaw comes with the idea that Kat would bind herself to a man she doesn’t love as a means of protecting her family’s wealth. The motivation for Kat rings shallow. Brock’s wants and needs are more intrinsic to who he is and how he grows on the page.
Other than that misstep, Brock and Kat are equals in terms of smarts, determination and emotional detachment. This match in strength adds to the overall enjoyment of this tale. This is not a throwback to the popular romance order where an older alpha male dominates an innocent virgin. Brock and Kat are mature in their battles and needs, not stereotypes who march along on a preordained (boring) path. This tight focus on Brock and Kat keeps the plot moving at a brisk pace. Brisk as in “read in one day” brisk. The pull is that strong.
Despite the “erotica” tag, Swept Away is pure romance. Romance, not just sex, though there is plenty of that here. This is not a G-rated novel. Brock and Kat rarely are separated during the course of the book. Much of the time they are alone in a hot and primal setting. A+B=C. The lovemaking is charged, descriptive and plentiful. Every move from the flirting to the touching remains sensual. But, the sex is never gratuitous. Romance drives the book not empty sex. In a time where many supposedly hot romance novels amount to little more than a serious of scenes in which the hero and heroine get naked and then climb all over each other, Blake shows an expertise in making each sexual act carry meaning – even when the meaning for a particular session is physical pleasure only.
There are a few negatives that could distract a reader here like an obvious “bad” guy, a brief side journey involving Kat’s mother that isn’t developed enough to qualify as a sideplot, and a strong heroine who is inexplicably unable to say no to a marriage proposal from a man she doesn’t love. The good news is that there are many more strengths here, all of which push Swept Away to another level. This may not be a book you read for a complex plot, but it should be a book you read. Blake’s flair for sexy contemporary romance is undeniable. The only question left is just how exceptional a future book will be when this gifted author hits on the right plot and one that matches her considerable talent.
Visit Toni Blake here and buy this book here and here.