This month’s TBR Challenge theme was a “Random Pick” and this one was pretty random. I picked up all three books in the Grabbed series by Lolita Lopez at the recommendation of a friend. The basic plot is that a planet-bound agrarian society is defended from external threats by a sky-going warrior race in return for food and women. The women are handed over in a ceremonial race known as “The Grab” where women or their families offer them up to race from a central point to a safe zone. If the women reach the safe zone, they are able to restart their lives in the off-planet colonies. If they don’t and are grabbed by one of the sky warriors, they become that man’s mate for life.
When my friend recommended it, she was super funny about it. I think I got half a dozen warnings that this series might skate up to my limits for what we call “dubious consent” in the romance community. To be clear, this is not a thing that exists in the real world. In the real world, we want enthusiastic consent before we engage in sexual activities with another person, yes? Yes. So now that we’re clear that we’re discussing a completely fictional distinction here, I want to dig a little deeper. When I think of books with dubious consent, I think of (primarily but not exclusively) heroines who are 1) under the influence of a mind-altering substance, 2) in a position of weakness relative to the hero (capturing ethically dubious dynamics like teacher-student), 3) consenting to sexual activities, but not the extent of the sexual activities–often a feature in a certain style of BSDM romances–or 4) under some other form of physical or other coercion (heroine is herself kidnapped, hero is holding a friend or family member to secure cooperation, hero and heroine are engaged in activities for the pleasure or placation of a third party). This is distinguished from rape (again, fictionally speaking) in that 1) there is a negotiation of some sort in which the heroine does consent, insofar as she can, to the activities often in order to secure something else that she wants and 2) she absolutely enthusiastically enjoys the activities once they’re underway.
All that said, I would not call the sexual activities in this book dubious consent. For me, dubious consent often sidles up closer to the rape line than I am personally comfortable with in my romantic fiction. I would actually hearken back to the old school romances of the 1970s through 1990s for the description of “forced seduction” for Grabbed by Vicious. The difference for me is that 1) the upsetting bits are smoothed over (as opposed to dubious consent, which relishes in the almost-not-okayness–or actually not-okayness depending on your perspective–as the point of the scene) and 2) the heroine gives an actual, verbal yes prior to explicit sexual touching because she has been sufficiently excited and intrigued by the proceedings prior to that point. For example, there is a medical examination of the heroine in Grabbed by Vicious that takes place off page. In addition, she is stripped and strapped to a table prior to sexual activities, but as this also occurs off page, there is no hint of struggle, stress or other upset in reaching that point as long as you don’t think too hard about how she got there. In a dubious consent romance, these would be detailed for the titillation of the reader looking for that slightly scary dynamic. This book skips over all that. Plus, the heroine is unquestionably excited throughout the entirety of all sexual scenes. So while the scenario is somewhat dubious, the hero overcomes the heroine’s slight hesitations by being so freaking sexy and turning her on so much that she’s eventually totally on board, much like in the historical romances of my youth.
Of course, your mileage may vary. These fine distinctions may not mean anything at all to anyone but me, but this is the result of my own parsing of what does and doesn’t work for me along the purely fictional spectrum of consent. The result is that Grabbed by Vicious is infinitely less dark than a lot of the romances that get put into the “dubious consent” category–a lot of motorcycle romance, dark romance, mob romance, etc.
Here, this starts with the hero, Vicious. First of all, I had difficulty with his name. The sex in this book starts at around 8%, which is super early for a book where the heroine has basically consented to being kidnapped by an alien being for the the purpose of mating. It didn’t feel icky to me, but I was a little surprised that they weren’t allowed to develop more of a connection first. So when the heroine started arching off the table and screaming, “VICIOUS, VICIOUS! OH VICIOUS,” I couldn’t help but burst into giggles every time. So these sexy, sexy scenes had a slightly diminished power for me. I ended up skimming a lot of them past a certain point. Otherwise though, so-called Vicious is actually a textbook care-taking alpha. He is gentle, considerate, caring and loving right from the beginning. He’s not good at saying what he feels, but he is very good at acting on it. We are never in doubt of his intentions.
The heroine, Hallie, is a feisty sort. She entered the Grab in order to secure a chance for her sister to get off planet with her lover, who would ordinarily have been forbidden to her as an off-planet scientist. The two sisters had a plan for both to get to the safe zone where her sister’s lover would pick them up and spirit them away. Unfortunately, Vicious had his eye on Hallie’s sister and Hallie sacrificed herself to allow her sister to escape. This protection of other women in trouble is what characterizes Hallie’s behavior throughout the book and continually gets her into situations where she acts first and thinks later, forcing Vicious to come to her rescue.
Unfortunately this is not my favorite plot mode. In general, I prefer heroines who think things through before launching themselves at problems and then rescue themselves when things go wrong. While Hallie is allowed to shine at one point, she is actually rescuing her husband’s best friend and not her husband, keeping Vicious safely The Alpha in their relationship, a dynamic I found irritating. Plus the constant action and the separation of Hallie and Vicious as a result of the hero’s job and heroine’s penchant for haring off in search of problems to solve didn’t allow them to develop what I’d call an intimate connection–at least outside of the bedroom. Generally speaking, sex stands in here for any sort of emotional intimacy. They do eventually say the words to each other, but the deep exploration of each others’ psyches never really happens. For example, when Vicious needs information about Hallie’s culture, he asks another of the grabbed wives rather than asking Hallie. I thought there were a number of missed opportunities like this, which irritated me. What irritated me even more is that they seemed to be deliberately missed in order to keep Vicious from having to show any sort of vulnerability besides the acceptably-alpha emotion of jealousy. God forbid he feel anything else, right? That’s the heroine’s job. (Can you see my eyes rolling?)
In summary, Grabbed by Vicious wasn’t a bad book. But it wasn’t a good book either, largely because the emotional connection was never fully realized. While the hero starts out adoring the heroine and the heroine quickly comes to adore him back, it all developed a little too fast. Because so much of the last three-quarters of the book focused on external stressors to the relationship, we never got to see how these two function out of crisis mode. When “love” forms in the presence of continued threats to life, I always doubt the staying power of the relationship. However, the world-building was sufficient to keep me interested in the series. I’m intrigued by the story frame of the “The Grab” and eager to see how societal response to that changes over the course of the series. If it does.
If it doesn’t, I think I would consign these to the dustbin of unfortunate acquisitions.