Cannonball Read 14 (CBR14), Review 1: Mating Heat by Laurann Dohner
CONTENT WARNING: Book contains sexual assault; review contains references to sexual assault.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
First things first
Listen, these won’t always be so long, but I have FEELINGS about this one. One of the things I’ve been enjoying about my recent #ReturnToRomance™️ is that unlike so many of the historicals I read back in the late 80s and early 90s, the contemporaries I’ve been reading recently (all of which are from within the last 15ish years) have been decidedly un-rapey. For the most part, few have asked me to read on-page sexual assault, much less believe that a character has enjoyed being assaulted and that their enjoyment excuses or negates the rapiness of the deed. Alas, Laurann Dohner’s Mate Set (2016) was one of those few.
I came to Mate Set, the first in the Mating Heat series, by way of the Nightwind Pack books, which are co-written by Dohner and Kele Moon. Both series are what I’ve come to lovingly call “shifter smut.” Reading shifter smut of a certain kind brings with it a heightened likelihood of certain kinds of alphaholery. I can handle—can sometimes even enjoy—a little alphaholery. Most of the wolf-variant shifter smut I’ve read leans heavily into possessive, overprotective foolery. I can take—can sometimes even enjoy—a bit of possessive, overprotective foolery. And it’s fairly likely that wolf shifters mean some sort of fated mate and/or mating drive shenanigans. For some, the fate/wolves in heat thing is already going to be too much of a strain on ideas of free will and consent, but I’m on board as long as it’s handled with what I think is just a minimal amount of care. Supercharged biological imperative to bang? Sure, why not? But neither mating heat nor shifterhood can excuse *everything*. I strongly believe that multiple scenes in this book fall on the wrong side of the consent line—at least one of them by A LOT—even in the context of a mating heat story. It’s possible I could be convinced to “upgrade” one of those scenes from nonconsensual (noncon) to dubiously consensual (dubcon), but since I prefer my consent enthusiastic, I don’t really see that as much of an upgrade.
Perhaps more distressingly, it doesn’t seem to be clear to the author (as gleaned through character reactions) or to many readers (as gleaned through reviews) that there’s anything problematic about how those scenes unfold. Regardless of how one might feel, generally speaking, about non- or dubcon fantasies, I feel like not distinguishing between consent and the lack thereof both a different matter altogether and a problem.
Second things second
Grady gets off to a great start. Who doesn’t love a dramatic rescue? But he immediately follows that up by [REDACTED]. (See above re dubcon.) Now, I think I honestly could have been ok with that encounter if exactly the same thing had happened, but it had been handled just slightly differently by the characters.
Even after that inauspicious beginning, Grady has good moments. And he really does get dragged into a catch-22 of a situation, not just through no fault of his own but by trying to do the right thing. (The starter conflict is *entirely* the fault of the heroine, Mika, who makes mind-numbingly stupid decisions. More on that later.) Given all of that, Dohner probably could have brought me around to #TeamGrady.
She did not.
We are repeatedly told, by various characters, that Grady is a great guy. But we are repeatedly shown, through Grady‘s actions, that he is “a first-rate asshole,” as Mika eventually tells him. Now, I’m good with a hero who is gruff or surly. I’m even good with a hero who is kind of a dick, especially if it’s mostly to people who are not the heroine. And I love a redemption arc as much as the next reader—maybe even a little more! But for me, there’s a limit to how far alphaholery (or general dickery) can go while still making for a salvageable hero. Grady is not, in my opinion salvageable. Or if he is, Dohner has not successfully done it. Grady has good moments, but not enough of them for me, and some of his bad moments are *really* bad.
And then there’s Mika.
Le sigh. I liked Mika at the start. She knows about shifters, and I was excited to have a heroine who didn’t start off in a place of utter ignorance. Unfortunately, what she lacks in ignorance of shifter existence she makes up for in infuriatingly stupid and aggressively bad decisions. I’m hard-pressed to think of a character in recent memory who has been so consistently dumb. (ETA – I thought of two: Becca from Brawn (also by Dohner), and Hannah from Leah Holt’s Keep Me.
The supporting cast
Once it becomes clear what an asshole Grady is, and what an idiot Mika is, there are only two bright spots in this book, as far as I’m concerned. One is Mika’s de facto aunt, Minnie. Minnie is, for the most part, a source of intelligence, backbone, and comic relief. The other is Grady‘s brother Anton.
After having been such an asshole that Mika runs from him, Grady‘s family tries to help him out in a way that is extreme and objectionable, even as it’s understandable why they do so. Much like the earlier scene, I could probably be fine with what happens if it were handled just a tiny bit differently by the characters (especially Grady’s father, Elroy, who is both the pack leader and an asshole). But it isn’t. Their intervention could have given Grady a chance to at least try to redeem himself. He doesn’t. Instead, he doubles (maybe triple, by this point) down on his assholery until even Elroy points out that Grady’s behavior has been appalling. Finally, Grady’s brother Anton has had enough.
“You’re playing games with her now? What the hell is wrong with you?” Anton snarled the words.
Grady snarled back. “Leave.”
Anton gave his brother a hard shove, sending Grady stumbling back into the living room and he entered the room to fix his full, dark gaze on Mika. His hands were fisted at his sides.
“Grady is out of heat. We all are.” He looked away from Mika to glare at Grady. “Just because you have a problem with humans doesn’t mean you can lie to her and toy with her. Father said you wanted a few more days to fuck her before you let her go. How could you do that to her?”
Mika’s shocked gaze jerked to Grady as he turned his head to look at her. She saw guilt there and anger. “You son of a bitch.”
“We need to talk, babe.” He faced her. “It’s not as bad as it sounds.” He shot a glare at Anton. “Leave us alone.”
“You had no right to interfere,” Grady said loudly.
“Don’t I? I used to look up to you, my older brother,” Anton shouted. “But not anymore. I saw what you did to her house.”from Mate Set by Laurann Dohner
Anton’s later actions make it clear that he’s still hoping Grady can turn it around. But it’s not clear to me why the reader should share Anton’s hope for this, given that we have nothing in the story to indicate such a shift.
Mika’s near-unremitting idiocy is unforgivable, but it does not justify the way she is treated by Grady or most of his family. Between that towering and infuriating stupidity and Grady’s brutish, abusive assholery, I only finished the book because I’m bad at not finishing books, and because I honestly wanted to know where this was going and how Dohner thought she was going to redeem Grady. It wasn’t worth it. As it turns out, she didn’t bother trying. Or at least the thing that might’ve been an attempt to do so was so insufficient to the task that it doesn’t merit mentioning. In the end, I took no pleasure in their HEA, which I can’t imagine being all that “H.”