If it seems too good to be true…Bliss by Lisa Henry and Heidi Belleau

Bliss_500x750What to say about Bliss? I received an advance copy of this book more than a month ago. I devoured it immediately, despite all the books patiently waiting in my queue (sorry authors). I’ve been trying to figure out how to post about it ever since.

Every way I could approach this book is fraught with complexity or too spoilery. I fear revealing too much, but I probably will, so be warned. When I get to plot I’ll do a note when it may get spoilery and I will NOT spoil the resolution/ending, but that is probably the best I can do because I simply HAVE to talk about this book.

The post is going to be long so I’ll give you the short version now. I’m glad I read this book. It made me think and it made me feel for the characters. The writing was solid. If the premise appeals to you it is worth a read.

On to the longer version…

The Genre Question
In one sense, genre really doesn’t matter—a good book is a good book—but I find it is often an important piece of information I use to decide if a book is likely to interest me.

Bliss is set in the future. It seems almost dystopian, because the book is about the idyllic city-state of Beulah. Beyond Beulah’s borders, people are living in poverty and choking on pollution. Crime is rampant and no where seems safe. But in Beulah there is virtually no crime or pollution and everyone gets a house and food. Equality and happiness abound. You can almost smell the Stepford Wives vibe coming from the place. BUT the main problem in the story is mostly attributed to corruption within the system, not the system itself.

We could call it a futuristic gay romance, but I’m not sure it really fits neatly in the romance genre either, though it does share one very important and controversial trope—dubious consent. These days the forced seduction of the doorstop historical has been squeezed to one side to make room for all sorts of scandalous new variations in the romance genre. There is one thing I can say with certainty: if rape is a hot button issue for you, Bliss is not the book for you. I’m not overly sensitive on rape (though I don’t like to see it glamorized or used for sensationalism – neither of which I would apply to this book) but I was left feeling confused and uncomfortable by the sex scenes. I think that is probably the authors’ intent. The romantic element comes less from the sex and more from the men and how they treat one another and respond to the circumstance of the novel.

Bliss is absent space ships or robots or flying cars, but the story weaves around a science fiction theme. A huge part of this story is about the use, misuse, and consequences of technology—a behavior modifying chip placed in the brains of criminal offenders. The chip is only intended to prevent the criminal for being violent and is intended to enable rehabilitation and restitution as an alternative to punishment. It is a classic “you can do it but should you” question found in plenty of science fiction.

The Plot
I’ve already mentioned that dubious consent is a part of this story and that the ethics of technology is a central theme. All of that is shaped by one man’s struggle. When Rory James lands a job in Beulah and is allowed to immigrate, he is given everything he ever thought he wanted—safety, acceptance, comfort, a happy life. Then a moral dilemma is thrust upon him. As moral dilemmas so often do, it comes wrapped in normalness, it seems reasonable, then the layers begin to peel away. Slowly, over time it becomes more and more clear that something bad lies at the heart of it all. For me, this is what the story is really about.

Semi-spoilery stuff starts here, so skip ahead to the next section, Peril, to avoid it…

On Rory’s first day in Beulah, a thief who has snuck into the city-state punches him in the face to create a distraction in hopes of escaping the police chasing him. When the man is caught and brought to justice, Rory is told that, as the victim of the crime and as a good citizen of Beulah, he must participate in the criminal restitution system. Beulah doesn’t have jails. His assailant, Tate Patterson, will serve his 7 years of restitution by living with Rory and providing service. Initially this is explained as doing domestic chores, gardening, whatever he can do to be helpful. This is supposed to turn Tate into a good citizen. Rory is his “sponsor” and is meant to guide him.

Rory, being an outsider, is uncomfortable with this idea. He is told that a chip will be implanted in Tate to prevent him from being violent. That is all it is supposed to do. Rory, like most people, wants to fit in, do what he is told is right, believe the best, and deny his cynical suspicions.

Meanwhile, Tate is discovering that there is much more to the chip than simply stopping violent outbursts. For Tate the chip is worse than any prison. It suppresses his will, makes him crave a master to serve, and prevents him from telling anyone what is happening to him. He is abused by the doctor who implants the chip and by the guards that deliver him to Rory.

Rory doesn’t know Tate, so he has no reason to know that Tate is not behaving freely. Rory doesn’t trust Tate’s subservient behavior, but he believes that Tate is trying to manipulate him, not that the chip is controlling Tate. Rory is assured again and again by his boss that everything is normal and that Tate’s desire to be a better person by serving him is genuine. Rory tries to accept Tate. He even tries to be reasonable and kind, but that confuses Tate who expects to serve Rory, to call him master, to be obedient.questions

When Tate tries to seduce Rory, as he has been instructed to do, how does Rory respond? How SHOULD he respond? How long does a man turn away a beautiful, submissive man living in his home, who wants an intimate relationship? At what point does a reasonable man, refute the “truth” everyone else seems to accept. When does he risk his career, his future, everything he has worked for? This is where the book gets to be an uncomfortable read. As reader we see inside both men’s head. We see Tate’s chip induced need for Rory and his internal struggle against it. We see Rory’s confusion, his desire, his genuine feelings toward Tate and ultimately his terrible guilt.

It leaves me as reader wrestling with tough questions. If Rory and Tate have sex while Tate is under the influence of the chip, is that rape? Can Rory be blamed when he doesn’t know that Tate is being controlled? Would that make him a rapist, a victim, or both? What if he has suspicions but no certainty? Should he know? When should he have figured it out? If Tate is in pain and suffering and having sex is the only way to relieve that pain, does that make a difference? If Tate “feels” that he wants sex in that moment, does that make a difference? How would he feel after the chip is removed? Can any of the emotions he experiences in or out of the bedroom be real?

The authors do an incredibly balanced dance that lets us see the horror of what is happening while compelling us to like and empathize with both men. It is an amazing accomplishment and it’s what made it possible for me to come away from the book with a head full of deep thoughts, but also satisfied with the resolution and the reading experience.

They also include a second “victim” as a contrasting experience, a different picture of the extent of abuse possible, and a different reaction to that abuse. Having that second experience shown to the reader, not only serves the plot, it makes the story feel more honest.

The Peril
The second half of this story is very much about the unraveling of the situation, the peril Rory is in when he discovers the extent of the abuses of the system and tries to bring them to light, facing the consequences for his actions. We along with Rory get to meet Tate, the real Tate and discover how he responds to what has happened. For me, this was the best and most satisfying part of the story.

That’s about all I can say without giving away the best parts of the story, but I hope it is enough to help you decide if this is a book for your TBR list.

Discussion, anyone?
This book left me with so many thoughts bouncing around in my head! Luckily, I am really fortunate to have been able to ask some of my questions to the authors. The blog is part of the release tour for Bliss and the authors’ answers to my questions will be posted during release week on August 21. I hope you’ll stop by and ask a few questions of your own. In the mean time I am totally up for discussion on the subject matter of the book.

What do you think of the current prevalence of the subject of consent and rape in romances? Is it dark and edgy or exploitation for shock value?

Are you curious enough to go out and read Bliss? Or will you be avoiding it?

If you are interested in the book, it is available for pre-order. If you pre-order direct from Riptide you’ll be eligible to win free books for a year.

Release date: Aug 18, 2014
Blush Quotient: Red (also beware of dubious consent and sexual abuse depicted in this story)
Word count: 76,000 / Page count: 289

Disclaimer: This book was provided by the publisher for an honest review.

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5 thoughts on “If it seems too good to be true…Bliss by Lisa Henry and Heidi Belleau

    • Thanks for saying, Monica. I’ve been really nervous about the review. I wanted to talk about the book but not spoil it. I’d love to hear what you think when you’ve read it.

  1. I ended up DNFing it on netgally and sent notes only to the publisher. It was not at all what I was expecting, and by the 4th explicitly described rape scene, I’d had enough. I told the publisher they should seriously consider changing their blurb to note the book as dubcon and explicitly described rape scenes.

    • I can totally see why you would have stopped where you did. I usually look forward to explicit sex scenes in a romance, but that isn’t what you get here. Not at all. IMHO there is only really a few romantic kisses near the end of the book.

      On the other hand, the sex on Rory’s part isn’t about abuse or power. Again, IMHO. That was what kept me reading.

      On the publisher’s site there are warnings, but I agree that adding it to the blurb might be appropriate.

      Thanks for sharing your opinion!

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