Power Play by Rachel Haimowitz & Cat Grant

Why I read it: My very first foray into m/m romance was with Anah Crowe’s Uneven, a book recommended by Sarah Frantz, former Dear Author reviewer (and, as it happens, current Riptide Publishing editor who, I understand, had a hand in editing either the second or both of the Power Play books).  Uneven was a book which didn’t work for me that well, because I didn’t “get” BDSM and especially the pain side of things.  Plus, there was blood.  One MC kept hitting the other and making him bleed and I just didn’t understand why that would be fun for anyone. Since then, I’ve read a bit more and have learned a little more about it, although I can’t say that I’m any kind of expert or that I really understand it.  Still, I’m a curious and adventurous reader.  I heard that this book/series “explained” BDSM in a way that made it accessible without being boring.    I downloaded it (as well as Power Play: Awakening) from NetGalley but I’ll admit it took me a while to be brave enough to open it, especially after reading the advisory:  
Reader discretion advised. This title contains heavy kink. While consent is clearly established and frequently reaffirmed, some moments in Power Play push hard against the outer edges of consent.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Give me six months, and I’ll give you the world.

Brandon McKinney has scraped and sacrificed for what little in life he’s ever had. Though it’s been fifteen years since he escaped his father’s abuse, the damage remains. Trust seems as far out of reach as his dream of becoming an architect, and though he’s come to accept being gay, he can’t deny the shame and confusion he feels at other urges–the deeply repressed desire to submit.

Jonathan Watkins is a self-made Silicon Valley billionaire whose ex-wife took half his money and even more of his faith. Comfortable as a Dominant but wary of being hurt again, he resorts to anonymous pickups and occasional six-month contracts with subs seeking only a master, not a lover.

When a sizzling back-alley encounter cues Jonathan in to Brandon’s deep-seated submissive side, he makes the man an offer: Give me six months of your life, and I’ll open your eyes to a whole new world. Brandon doesn’t care about that; all he wants is the three million dollars Jonathan’s offering so he can buy the construction company he works for. But he soon learns that six months on his knees is no easy feat, and shame and pride may keep him from all he ever wanted-and all he never dreamed he had any right to have.

What worked for me (and what didn’t): Well, my “innocent” eyes were certainly confronted by some of the pain play in this book.  I can’t say that I honestly understand why anyone would consent to having a taser to their intimate parts (makes my eyes tear just thinking about it) but, it was clear that Bran’s consent was present at all times.  Jonathan and Bran agree on rules at the outset and Jonathan sticks to them.  He responds immediately to Bran’s use of safewords and always makes sure he has the ability to “say” it – sometimes by use of a panic button or a red bandanna if he’s gagged.  
Even though they set up the rules, it becomes clear over the course of the story, that Bran really didn’t know what he was getting into – yes he consents but he doesn’t understand at all the reasoning behind the actions Jonathan is taking.  And, it’s clear (particularly at the beginning of the second book) that Jonathan realises that his initial approach was in error. 
The writing is smooth and compelling – even when I was reading about things which made me uncomfortable as a reader, the story flowed so well and the characters were so interesting that I found the book very difficult to put down.  And, it wasn’t the voyeuristic horror of a car wreck which made me not want to look away either.  I surprised myself actually that I didn’t look upon it like that at all.  I was still querying why? at the end of the book, but I didn’t feel that Jonathan crossed into villain/serial torturer territory.  The parts of the book from his perspective, particularly toward the end, made it clear that he wasn’t getting much out of it because of Bran’s resistance and was using the more severe punishment as a way to make Bran give up and leave – to put them both out of their misery.  Because, despite Bran’s resistance to what Jonathan is trying to do (and again, I can’t say I was anymore clued in on this than Bran), he will not quit.  This idea of resisted consent intrigued me.  The things Jonathan required of Bran were things he almost universally resisted – he wasn’t happy about kneeling naked on a cushion and keeping still for long stretches, being hand-fed,  he wasn’t happy about daily enemas (Twitter tells me this could lead to lazy bowel so I did worry for Bran a little on this), he certainly wasn’t happy about being beaten, slapped or whipped.  But, he did consent.  He had the ability to make it all stop on a word (or a gesture if he was gagged) and he was free to leave at any time.  And, I don’t think staying had as much to do with the $3 million as Bran perhaps thought.  It seemed more about pride, a “you WILL NOT break me” kind of thing.

Of course, everyone has their breaking point.

One character I did not like was the housekeeper Sabrina.  I didn’t really understand why she had so much power and authority over Bran.  Jonathon I could understand (if I squinted a little) but Sabrina?  No,  And, I didn’t like her smugness about it either.  It’s quite possible that there is something (else) about this total power exchange business that I’m missing when it comes to other people however.

What else? I started reading Awakening as soon as I finished ResistanceAwakening is a complete story with a distinct beginning, middle and end, but it is not their complete story.  At the beginning of Awakening, Brandon tells Jonathan that he broke him and now he has to fix him and I felt the same way in my reading experience.  Resistance is all about breaking down and Awakening (I hope) is about the rebuilding. I really don’t feel you can read one without the other and so I decided that the reviews had to be concurrent also.
I don’t expect that I will ever completely understand BDSM  and I don’t think it’s for me outside of fiction but right now (and as I’m writing this, I am only a couple of chapters into the second book) I do feel like I just might be able to “get” it in a way I never have before, or at least almost – like something which is on the tip of your tongue.   Also, now I think I need to read Master Class.
I couldn’t grade Resistance until after I finished Awakening either.  For me, they are 2 essential halves with how much I enjoyed this book ultimately depending on what happens at the end of their story.  (You might want to not give that last too much thought, as it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.  Just go with it).
Grade: B
What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Brandon McKinney is a man reborn. Newly awakened to the notion of consensual power exchange and the submissive urges inside him, he begs for a second chance from the man who opened his eyes to this world: Silicon Valley superstar Jonathan Watkins. But no birth is absent pain, and Brandon’s is no exception. He fears he’s not strong enough to see it through.

Jonathan knows better. He’s seen the iron core inside his new submissive, and the wounded heart inside him too. He means to teach Brandon to heal the one with the other. They have five months left on their contract, after all, and Jonathan has done more with less before.

It’s tough to stay objective, though, when you’re falling in love. Shame Brandon doesn’t feel the same. He’s only there for the three-million-dollar payout at contract’s end—a fact that Jonathan, nursing his own wounded heart, reminds himself of each day. For even as Brandon’s barriers break and his mind expands, even as he grows to love his place at Jonathan’s feet, he’ll never love life with a sadist—especially one who cannot escape the public eye.

What worked for me (and what didn’t): There is something about these characters which compels me.  I can’t say that it’s the power exchange, although that may be part of it.   I really think that is more of an adjunct than the reason however.  I find myself thinking about them, pondering the how and the why like I do with any book whose characters blow me away.  Even when they are confronting me, I want to spend more time with them.

This book is more about Jonathan and Bran’s emotional relationship than Resistance and the emphasis isn’t so much on the S/M part of proceedings, although there is some of that (clothes pegs – ouch!).  The focus is much more on Bran’s growing ease and peace and acceptance – of himself and of what he shares with Jonathan.

Ultimately, I felt Awakening was somewhat less satisfying than the promise of the first book – while I preferred the emphasis on the emotional side of things in this book, the ending felt a little underdone to me and somewhere along the way, I lost my tenuous grasp on the “why” of it all.  It’s quite possible (even probable) that I’ll never “get” it and certainly, these 2 books had me closer to understanding than I had been before, so there is that.

I understood that Bran found a great deal of peace and freedom in his relationship with Jonathan but I would have liked a little more of the how of their relationship once Bran has resumed his life outside of their one-on-one relationship.  I think I fell down a little there in my understanding of how it all works.

There were a couple of things about which I was left curious by the end and, because I’m the type of reader who does like things tied up in a neat bow, I found myself niggled by the questions.    For example, what happened with the swear jar?  Was it re-set to 0 or did Bran take his punishment?

I also wondered whether Jonathan understood that Bran’s reaction to Solange was jealousy and if so, what he thought of it.  That wasn’t addressed in the story and I would have liked to have known.  It is apparent that Jonathan is bisexual – he was married to Susan for 5 years and he says he still has feelings of love for her; he obviously had some kind of sexual relationship with Solange.  But he also said that when he was quite young, he realised that he preferred men.  I wondered if Bran ever worried about this.  If he did, it wasn’t mentioned in the story.

The biggest thing which felt somewhat undeveloped to me, was that Jonathan comes to the overt realisation about halfway through this book, that  he and Bran are not compatible sexually – Bran is NOT a masochist – he does NOT like pain.  Jonathan IS a sadist.  He DOES like (other people’s) pain.  He reflects that they cannot be for each other what each other needs.  Obviously, he changes his mind and I admit I wanted him to do so, but I did not see enough of the how of that change in the text.

What else? I am glad I read these 2 books.  I liked Jonathan and Bran and I enjoyed reading about their emotional journey, even though some of the physical aspects of the trip had me squinting my eyes a bit.   I would happily have stayed in their world and learned more about them and how they manage their lives together.  I enjoyed the writing style and the characters and – while I can’t say I “get” BDSM completely, if there is a continuum, then I think I have moved along it.  The books took me outside my comfort zone in some ways but ultimately, at its heart, the story of Jonathan and Bran is a romance – a story of love, acceptance, courage and faith.   If only there had’ve been a little more closure…. but perhaps it is a story I will re-read and perhaps in doing so, there will be gleanings I missed the first time around.  I certainly hope to meet up with these characters again in the future.
Grade: B

Even though I found Awakening a little less satisfying than Resistance in some ways (but not in others – Awakening was definitely the more “romantic” of the two), I ended up with the same grade for both – the stories are so interdependent on one another, I felt I needed to grade Power Play as a whole.

3 comments on “Power Play by Rachel Haimowitz & Cat Grant

  1. Chris

    These are on my "to read eventually" list. :)A review from Dear Author led to my first forays in m/m romance, too!

  2. Kaetrin

    @Chris I was a bit wary at first but I'm so glad I read them. The writing was so good and the characters wonderful. I'm not sure I could have enjoyed the heavy duty BDSM without that, but with it, it was accessible and it didn't freak me out. I recommend 🙂

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