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.

As these three examples—Rhage and Mary, Zhadist and Bella, Wrath and Beth—demonstrate, J.R. Ward has structured her BRB series in such a way that popular couples can be revisited, featuring either in subplots or even headlining their own second novel.

This is a departure from the “traditional” romance series structure, whereby a constellation of related characters—family, friends, or colleagues—each receives a single novel and HEA. Some canonical examples:
  • Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton family (and the related Smythe-Smith Quartet once she ran out of Bridgerton siblings)
  • Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Chicago Stars series built around the fictional pro football team
  •  Stephanie Laurens’ seemingly inexhaustible Cynster Family Saga (25 novels and counting)
  • Johanna Lindsey’s Malory-Anderson family, which now includes in-laws and multiple generations

The conventional wisdom is that once the emotional tension has been released with the love declaration and once all internal/external threats to the formation of the happy union have been dealt with, there is little more to be said on the subject of a given couple. The reader may be privy to an epilogue that shows the protagonists enjoying their HEA, but without the narrative and emotional conflicts, HEA will not sustain narration for very long. Hence the “one-couple, one-novel” approach that has long dominated series writing. An author wishing to capitalize on the popularity of a couple could bring them back in a subsequent volume, but only in a supporting role. The stage must be ceded to the next couple and their eventual HEA. But J.R. Ward is not playing by this convention.

Granted, series structures are a lot more varied than they were ten or even five years ago. But Ward’s BDB structure is different from such multi-volume romances as Fifty Shades of Grey, or M. O’Keefe’s more recent duology Everything I Left Unsaid/The Truth About Him, in which the HEA is not assured until the final installment of the series. Those series sustain multiple books precisely because they defer their protagonists’ HEA. That’s not what is going on in Ward’s series. It is also distinct from series that pair one hero(ine) with multiple romantic partners across installments (I’m thinking of Bertrice Small’s Skye O’Malley saga and Anne Golon’s Angélique series).

Rather, the BDB novels each provide what appears to be a HEA for the primary romantic couple. Permanent bonds are established through love avowals, through social rituals in which the heroines’ names are tattooed on the heroes’ backs before witnesses, and even through biological mechanisms related to the protagonists’ supernatural vampire attributes. At the conclusion of the initial six or seven installments, the HEAs appear to be stable as couples are solidified. The larger plot arc of the vampires’ war against various supernatural enemies is ongoing, but the conflicts particular to the couple, and especially to the titular Brotherhood member, are resolved.

Until they aren’t anymore. 

This is what I mean when referring to the “erosion” or “destabilization” of the HEA. Something fundamental to popular romance’s definition has seemingly lost traction in this series. The HEA’s hallmarks are still present at the end of each novel. But it is then undermined by subsequent installments of the series. What we have is something more like a Happy For Now (HFN) but without the acknowledgement of the provisional nature of the happy ending.

I believe that this approach of rescinding the HEA to recycle couples is substantially facilitated by the braided narrative technique throughout the series; numerous POVs are sustained in each volume, and in particular, the couple of the forthcoming installment is nearly always given some POV passages or chapters to help set up their romance. The fact that so many voices and perspectives percolate in each novel makes it easier to revisit the heroes of previous installments. Since heroes and  heroines never really disappear from the narrative, it is easier to bring them back in the primary couple role.

It is also possible to argue that the deeper J.R. Ward delves into the series and the more plot threads she attempts to sustain simultaneously, the more peripheral the love story becomes. That is my sense of the series’ progression, although it is still certainly marketed as paranormal romance and I do believe that the love story remains a strong enough component that we are still primarily in the realm of romance (rather than action/adventure or urban fantasy). But the BDB is almost an “ensemble cast” series at this point; as Ward prolongs it with ever more installments, it seems likely that many other couples may be granted a second (or even third) act to their love story.

I’m interested in what fan fiction studies might contribute to this conversation, as fan fic is a literary space that likewise allows both readers and writers to return to the same couples over and over, with potentially interesting effects on the HEA.

Have you noticed other popular romance series that likewise circle back to the same protagonists? What effect does this practice have upon the HEA?

[1] Here is a list of all Black Dagger Brotherhood novels in order of publication, along with each book’s primary couple:
Dark Lover (2005): Wrath and Beth
Lover Eternal (2006): Rhage and Mary
Lover Awakened (2006): Zsadist and Bella
Lover Revealed (2007): Butch and Marissa
Lover Unbound (2007): Vishous and Jane
Lover Enshrined (2008): Phury and Cormia
Father Mine (2008): Zsadist and Bella
Lover Avenged (2009): Rehvenge and Ehlena
Lover Mine (2010): John Matthew and Xhex
Lover Unleashed (2011): Payne and Manny
Lover Reborn (2012): Tohrment and No’One/Autumn
Lover At Last (2013): Qhuinn and Blaylock
The King (2014): Wrath and Beth
The Shadows (2015): Trez and Serena
Blood Kiss: Black Dagger Legacy (2015): Paradise and Craeg
The Beast (2016): Rhage and Mary 
[2] I am reminded of Eloisa James’ This Duchess of Mine (2009), a historical featuring a hero with a life-threatening heart ailment. James had to find plausible a way to cure him over the course of the novel so that the threat of his impending death would not undermine the HEA. She even included an epilogue set decades into the future to allay readers’ concerns about the hero’s longevity.


  1. I fell in love with this series after binge reading "Dark Lover" and after having read all the stories became a huge fan of the series. However, I feel like with "The King" Ward reached a natural enough (for me at least) conclusion to the series and I have felt no desire or intriguing pull to read any of the subsequent stories after that book. Especially after the lame as hell ending to Lover At Last. Beating a dead horse is never a good thing and I can't help but wonder if the move to recycle characters is a money driven maneuver?

    1. I think we certainly have to consider the commercial angle as almost a given. I've seen many a series extended beyond their logical end-point, presumably because it's easier to keep churning out books in a known crowd-pleaser vein than to take a gamble on a new premise. (I have both authors and publishers in mind here.) What strikes me about Ward's series is that she doesn't just keep adding new heroes and heroines to extend the series: she actually recycles them.

  2. I still love this series and look forward to each new book. I enjoy seeing these characters again and seeing how they've evolved in their relationships and how they deal with the new challenges they face. The commercial angle exists, but people like me love them so why not. I think she loves her characters, and enjoys writing their stories so why shouldn't she keep writing? There is a rabid fan base pre-ordering each new installment. Also keep in mind that she has other series (angels, Bourbon Kings), so she is not just milking the BDB for profit. When I get tired of the books, I will stop reading them, as anyone can.