Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Counterpunch by Aleksandr Voinov

TITLE: Counterpunch
AUTHOR: Aleksandr Voinov
PUBLISHER: Storm Moon Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 53k)
GENRE: Gay alternate reality erotic romance
COST: $5.99

As a free man, Brooklyn Marshall was a cop, just trying to do his job. As a slave, all he has is boxing and his fight to be the best. His crime condemned him to a life stripped of personal choice, but enduring it and accepting it are two entirely separate things. When one of his “fans” pays to spend the night with him, he puts up with it because that’s what he has to do. Nathaniel doesn’t make the same demands others have made on him, and when he starts to offer promises of hope, Brooklyn’s first instinct is not to believe him. What kind of hope does a slave have? Even one on the road to becoming the slave heavyweight champion…

NOTE: In the matter of full disclosure, I was offered a copy of this book for the purpose of a review.

As much as I love this author, I waffled on whether or not to read this book. I haven’t read either of the first two books in this series (written by another author), and I’m incredibly reluctant to enter a story after the beginning (as I often view series to be). I was willing to overlook this story based just on that, but when I was assured the book could be read as a standalone, I decided to take the chance. Lucky for me I did.

Brooklyn Marshall is on the rise to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the slave world. An ex-cop convicted of murder, he has no control over his life. He fights who his owners want him to fight. He goes on the “dates” that get arranged for him with those willing to pay for the privilege. He takes the punishment whenever the guards want to hand it out. That being said, he doesn’t like it. He remembers what it was like to be free. Regardless of how much he might think he deserves punishment for the crime he committed, he wants his freedom and self-respect more than anything else. One of those dates is with Nathaniel, a man less inclined to abuse Brooklyn than to appreciate him. One night leads to two, which leads to more. Nathaniel reveals his belief that Brooklyn should never have received the sentence he did, and Brooklyn begins to hope he just might be able to be free one day.

Voinov packs a wallop into this short novel, with story and characterization bursting at the seams. The pace is relentless, the detail graphic and brutal. He doesn’t hold back on portraying the dark underbelly of the world he’s playing in, a characteristic of his writing I adore though it might put others off. Brooklyn is whored out by his owners, as well as suffers under the hands of his guards. All of this is necessary to truly understanding the depths of Brooklyn’s world and character, but readers sensitive to dub-con and rape will likely find it difficult to accept a lot of what goes on in this. It’s not easy. Voinov’s stories rarely are. But it’s those shades of gray, even when they’re almost black, that make it all worth it.

I loved Brooklyn, from start to finish. His guilt manifests in rage he’s only allowed to unleash within the ring, but the boxing is surprisingly spare of unnecessary emotion. Between the way he approaches the fight and the fact that we’re in his perspective for the entire novel, we get a view of each match that’s more clinical and cutting than anything else. He lives in the moment, anticipating the next move and the move after that. There’s no room for anything but boxing, and here, he experiences the only freedom he can really have for himself. It doesn’t always work in his favor, though. He makes mistakes in the ring, just as people make mistakes in their everyday life, and those mistakes carry over to guide his next steps, even when he doesn’t get to take those steps of his own free will. But through it all, the layers in which he hides – for his own protection more than anything else, from the outside world and from himself – are stripped away, ultimately revealing the man Brooklyn truly is, heartbreaking in all his glory.

Because Brooklyn is such a powerful presence, other characters tend to diminish. Nathaniel is enigmatic through much of the story, and though I enjoyed his overall arc once it was eventually revealed, I questioned more than once what his appeal was to Brook outside of the obvious. His trainer at the start of the story, Les, suffers the same fate, especially when his personality seems to have a transplant when he comes back later on. While I understood intellectually what was going, it didn’t resonate emotionally. I had to remove myself from the story enough to analyze why he had such a turnaround, and that kind of distance is always damaging to a book’s overall effect.

Though this is set in a shared world, it’s not necessary at all to read the previous books to enjoy this one. It’s my understanding that it’s the slavery dynamic that binds the stories together, and that’s all. Not once did I feel like I was missing something. The world-building is rich and detailed enough to create a sense of here and now, without pandering to unnecessary explanation that often bogs down series stories. It’s superlative storytelling, but then again, that’s become what I expect from this author.


10/10 – Impossible to put down

Hero #1

9/10 – Brutal and heartbreaking

Hero #2

7/10 – A little too enigmatic to match Brook, but his arc was well done and intriguing

Entertainment value

9/10 – Bloody, bare, and bold

World building

8/10 – Brook’s sheltered POV makes too much exploration impossible, but what is there works well for a newcomer to the series



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