Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Rinse and repeat

With the release of J.R. Ward’s The Beast, the latest installment in her long-running Black Dagger Brotherhood (BDB) series, I am reminded that it was this series that first drew my attention to the erosion or destabilization of the Happily Ever After convention in popular romance.

The Beast, the sixteenth book in the series about a band of vampire warriors who protect their race from supernatural threats, is also the second centered on protagonists Rhage and Mary; both were first introduced in the BDB’s second installment, Lover Eternal.[1] At the end of that book, Rhage made a magical bargain to bring Mary back from the brink of death, thereby assuring them a long, happy future together. More than a dozen volumes later, the series has returned to these popular heroes and thrown new relationship-threatening obstacles into their path. The protagonists have gotten a second love story, a relative rarity in the popular romance genre. 

Rhage and Mary are not, in fact, the first “recycled” couple in the BDB series. Back in 2008, Ward released Father Mine, a follow-up novella about Zsadist and Bella, the heroes of Lover Awakened. Bella and Zsadist got their HEA in Lover Awakened; he overcame his fears about committing to a relationship and she revealed her pregnancy. The book concluded with an epilogue set 20 months later in which readers got a glimpse of Zsadist as a loving mate and father. Father Mine takes place during the interval between the love avowal and the epilogue. It rehashes some of the conflicts that originally impeded the formation of the couple and adds a new twist: Zsadist’s overwhelming fears about fatherhood and the toll they take on his marriage.

This “aftermath” novella acknowledges that couples encounter conflicts and strife even after the teleologically-imposed “I love you.” Love may conquer all in a romance, but that doesn’t mean that obstacles are wiped away by the avowal. 

The other BDB couple Ward revisits prominently is Wrath and Beth, who inaugurated the series in Dark Lover (2005). That novel ended with the protagonists cementing their relationship and with the hero taking up his place as leader of his race and the elite fighting force charged with protecting all vampires from evil. This opening novel laid the groundwork for Lover Eternal so that the love story baton could be passed to Mary and Rhage in the next book. But the series returns to the couple twice. The first time they feature in an elaborate subplot of Rehv and Ehlena’s book, Lover Avenged (2008). Wrath, who has always had poor vision, loses his sight entirely and must contend with what his disability will mean for his personal autonomy, his relationship with Beth, and his role as king of a warrior race. The series again returns to the couple in The King (2014) to work through related issues.

I found the subplot of Wrath’s blindness striking when Lover Avenged was first released, precisely because it seemed to undermine the romance genre’s HEA imperative. Underlying the HEA is the willing suspension of disbelief. “Happily ever after” implies a rosy future for the newly formed couple. It is a reality-defying fantasy that enables readers to imagine that after surmounting their narrative obstacles, the couple will never again deal with tragedy, disaster, or untimely death.[2] By extension, the HEA generally allows readers to assume that the protagonist will not be struck with a life-altering injury or illness shortly after the conclusion of the novel. By contrast, Wrath’s struggle with his new disability, narrated from his POV, forces the reader to contend with a substantial wrench in the HEA scenario presented in Dark Lover.