Title: The Captain’s Man
Author: Scarlet Blackwell
Cover Artist: April Martinez
Publisher: Pride Publishing
Buy Link: Amazon.com (Second Edition)
Genre: Contemporary / Romantic Comedy
Length: 30,000 words (99 pages)
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Damon
REVIEW SUMMARY: A blend of comedy and rough sex that started shaky but found its sea-legs.
BLURB: The Captain always goes down with his ship.
Josh Addison is recovering from a broken heart on a two week cruise of the Mediterranean.
Enter the captain of the ship, the dashingly handsome Kane Kessler. Josh is determined not to fall for him and convinced Kane won’t look twice. That’s not what his crazy neighbours Erik and Freddie think – and neither does Kane himself.
He wants to make Josh the Captain’s Man.
The Captain’s Man proved a entertaining-if-schizophrenic read for me. On the one hand, I love introspective heroes, wacky comedy, and intense sex. Blackwell employs all three in this novella about a vacation romance deepening into something significant. From the start of the story snappy dialogue and little tendrils of kinkiness poke into almost every exchange, but the story itself wrestles with finding an even blend between them… allowing unconvincing plot wrinkles to move her heroes like chess pieces through a few stretches. For the purposes of clarity I’d like to take each of these elements in order.
INTROSPECTIVE HERO: Protagonist Josh starts the book as a jilted lover stuck on a cruise with no self-confidence. His self-deprecating wit and crushing sense of inadequacy felt right and intriguing. Obviously he’s feeling like a sad sack and obviously the hunky captain will sweep him off his feet. From the first line, Josh felt like an ugly duckling in need of swannage, and rightly so. I loved his constant self-judgment and startling sexuality. I knew that a makeover had to come and Josh would emerge from the shell of his former self in time-tested rom-com fashion. He should have been a completely winning character…
“Because I’m sad and lonely and have no friends.”
Unfortunately, Josh’s caustic wit and intense sexuality slam up against bizarre “decisions” made on little basis and no motivation. For the middle third of the book, Josh spends an awful lot of time lashing out like a hysterical nine year-old and fleeing to his cabin for what felt like boo-hoo-hooey. Essentially Josh has a tizzy whenever the book needs him to, which feels inauthentic and clumsy. These tantrums don’t spoil the story but they are a serious Harlequin-era weakness, because from the first raised eyebrow and dilated nostril I know each hissy occurs to keep Josh and his Captain from a quickfire HEA.
WACKY COMEDY: Blackwell lands some real zingers here right from the start. Verbal comedy buttresses extreme physical comedy as well. Actually, for the first half of the book, the book read as shameless wacky farce with pratfalls, mistaken identities, exhibitionist cohorts, goofy embarrassment, and private parts in public places. Blackwell generates much of this humor with Josh’s shipboard neighbors, a pair of effeminate, sexually-compulsive gay clichés that could come from almost any American sitcom of the past twenty years. Their blithe vulgarity swivels between charming and repellant, with some of the behavior stepping into unfunny, what-the-hell territory. I wavered between wanting to buy them an appletini and wanting to kill them with a can of Crisco.
Again, what I missed was the blending of the disparate elements. The kooky neighbors have public sex constantly. They f&#k like dogs, joke like truckstop hookers, and masturbate on and around fellow passengers. My sense was that these manic antics were comedic in intent if not in effect. Obviouly they existed to nudge Josh towards his love and transformation like slutty Dumbledores. The larger trouble is that as the book shifted into the mode of erotic obsession, these loveable next-door nutters simply vanish because frankly Blackwell doesn’t want us yucking it up when things get steamy. That is to say, their sudden absence is motivated by the demands of the book. There’s a small part of me that wonders if they are actually the book’s biggest weakness, because without them a claustrophobic obsession could have bloomed fully. And if they had their OWN story, their crudity would have been unleashed to raucous extremes.
“What was all that shit about screwing his way around the Med? I though you were over that? It’s you he wants.”
INTENSE SEX: Strangely enough, the dark eroticism of the book worked the best for me, even after the farcical setup and the unmotivated hissies by Josh. With such a damaged protagonist, a tale of intense longing and a broody love proved the ideal narrative fit. What’s more, the rough, raw sexual charge that links Josh and Kane seemed like the authentic core of the book. Black renders her captain as a breathtaking spectacle. His gleaming, alpha-perfection refracts and expands as the book brings him closer to us and to Josh. The captain and his man discover surprising and scary things about the way they could be intimate and thence the ways that rough eroticism punch through into tenderness. The sex scenes are intense, dramatic, and personal. These two men revealed more of themselves in bed than anywhere else in the novel. Rough sex, role play, even autofellatio tease extreme reveals out of both men, and their simple pleasure becomes complex emotion.
About a third of the way into the book I felt certain that Blackwell had started this as a screwball comedy and that the characters had gotten serious on her. The comedy remained not because it served their story but because it was the impetus for their story; the bizarre disconnects were the result of early farce smacking up against smoldering sensuality. The sex is where the disjointed farce and Josh’s (and eventually Kane’s) plot-spurred freakouts show themselves to be unconvincing sand in the sheets….
Viz: Josh enjoys rough treatment, bondage, bruises, but has a panicked tantrum every time a vacation romance is treated as just that. Likewise, within a few moments he regrets every one of these outbursts, but he cannot change his behavior because the plot needs him to act this way without motivating the actions. For all his animal appetites, Josh remains fiercely puritanical about this beloved captain, but NOT puritanical about a virtual stranger masturbating on him in public in FRONT of his captain. He treats the Captain like a handsome vacation dildo and then flips out when the Captain acts like a handsome vacation dildo. Now, I believe characters often reveal the anxieties of their authors, and I feel like Blackwell knew this was an issue but not how to solve it. Even JOSH agrees:
“Thinking about the man in this idealistic way after knowing him only eight days! Josh was nothing to him, just a stranger the captain liked to fuck. Why couldn’t he accept that and enjoy what time he had left with Kane?”
Blackwell’s fix is grafting the farce and the fierce f&cking superficially without always connecting them. With minimal transition, knockabout screwball downshifts into scorching, rough-sex obsession. Sh’yeah! Except, this suture occurs in plain sight when the tone of the book shifts radically and for about 20 pages in the middle, complications and disagreements materialize out of thin air and public sex that was played for comedy grows increasingly serious and private. Out of nowhere, on page 33 the close 3rd person narration focused on Josh jumps without warning (and without real benefit) to the hunky Captain. This happens a few more times, but only when Blackwell needs to reveal information Josh couldn’t know. For purposes of insta-conflict, Kane treats Josh like a meaningless trick AND resents the idea that he might be doing so AND announces that he is doing so AND claims that he isn’t. Hard arc to pull off. Again, the sense I got was of quick patches, instead of solid choices. Overall, I very much felt that Blackwell was finding this story as she wrote it, and the last 45 pages are almost a different novel entirely than the first 45.
The weird thing is, I enjoyed both halves of this book, especially the more-serious second half which felt like the “real” book Blackwell had discovered in the act of writing. The use of the Greek islands and tiny cultural specifics added tremendously to the book’s feel of hand-on rawness. One description of a monastery in the setting sun popped into my head as I typed the above sentence. The tableau of a tousled angel standing in broken plates managed to do character work and sting the mind’s eye. Blackwell paints lovely word pictures and they linger. But n.b. in retrospect the serious moments stayed with me while the wacky farcical blips at the front felt extraneous.
Most significantly, Josh and Kane really grew on me and their intense intimacy kept unfolding in delicious and startling ways. I grew to love this odd couple of captain and passenger, who started as such blank objects of desire and twisted together into something surprising. When I finished the last sweet scene I found myself wishing for a book twice as long that only focused on these two men because it seemed the claustrophobic lust that bound them to each other would have flourished with less distraction and that extraneous comedy and characters had gotten in the way. I just don’t believe (upon reading) that Blackwell expected their attraction to BE so suffocating and serious until it became so. I just discovered that a sequel is due on July 4 which (it seems) concentrates on Josh and Kane. I will definitely be picking that up, because that sounds like the sultry, compressed two-hander that tried to take over the second half of this one.
So, I’d call this novella by Blackwell a strange, entertaining read that felt like two-two-two books in one… if not always successfully. The best way to characterize The Captain’s Man is to reveal that while I can’t imagine rereading the entire book again, I know I’ll reread the second half again!