Review: Bad Boy by Elliot Wake

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Bad Boy by Elliot WakeBad Boy by Elliot Wake
Published by Atria on December 6, 2016
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 256
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
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one-star

Vlog star Renard Grant has nothing to prove: he’s got a pretty face, chiseled body, and two million adoring video subscribers. Plus the scars on his chest and a prescription for testosterone. Because Ren is transgender: assigned female at birth, living now as male. He films his transition and shares it bravely with the world; his fans love his honesty and positivity.

But Ren has been living a double life.

Off-camera, he’s Cane, the muscle-bound enforcer for social justice vigilante group Black Iris. As Cane, he lets his dark side loose. Hurts those who prey on the disempowered. Indulges in the ugly side of masculinity. And his new partner, Tamsin Baylor, is a girl as rough and relentless as him. Together, they terrorize the trolls into silence.

But when a routine Black Iris job goes south, Ren is put in the crosshairs. Someone is out to ruin his life. He’s a bad boy, they say, guilty of what he punishes others for.

Just like every other guy: at heart, he’s a monster, too.

Now Ren’s got everything to prove. He has to clear his name, and show the world he’s a good man. But that requires facing demons he’s locked away for years. And it might mean discovering he’s not such a good guy after all.

I’ve read all of Elliot Wake’s books, from Unteachable through Black Iris to Cam Girl, and I’ve watched the way his fiction has evolved from the earliest Leah Raeder days. Though I’ve had mixed results all along (Unteachable pissed me off, Black Iris surprisingly delighted me, and Cam Girl I was torn on), I can say with some amount of authority (how much that is you can decide on your own; I’m not claiming expertise here, but I do have knowledge) that Bad Boy is Wake’s weakest novel thus far.

Before I really launch into this review, which is going to consist of a lot of quotes from the ARC (note that they may have been changed in the final copy), be aware that, though this isn’t officially a series, this is totally a series. Characters from Black Iris and Cam Girl are present for all of the book; it’s way past cameos. In fact, they all run a vigilante group that takes out asshole men together called, you guessed it, Black Iris. The opening chapters basically feel like a circle jerk (unfortunately not a literal one, which could have been fun) of how amazing and dark and sexy all of Wake’s characters are. It doesn’t make any damn sense for them all to be there together (especially since Ellis is here helping out but Vada is off somewhere doing something for some reason ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ). The first part of the book feels like reading a fan fic of Wake’s books where the gang’s all together, and they’re the Justice League, but super dark and sexy!

What has been consistent throughout the Raeder/Wake books is the darkly poetic and compelling prose, a gift for metaphor and dark humor. There’s some of that in Bad Boy, but the writing, like the novel as a whole, is a mess. The writing isn’t consistent in style. It alternates between being the simplest I’ve seen in a novel by Wake and florid, over-the-top metaphor that doesn’t fit with the simpler narration. Part of why the more poetic prose worked for me from Wake’s prior efforts was that it fit so perfectly with the characters and the tone, and it was used consistently, so it felt like an authentic voice. I just don’t get that here. Some metaphors threw me out of the book with their oddness. Some examples.

Her lips made me think of my finger parting freesia petals.

Oy with the petal metaphors already. (To be fair, this is the first one for you guys, but there’s soooo much in this book).

The gold stromata in her irises burned like fuses.

I googled the word “stromata” and I still don’t have any idea what this sentence is trying to say.

Her hands were all over me, raising static from the wool suit, then touching my face in pops of little blue sparks.

I don’t know why blue sparks are happening in the midst of this sex scene. After each of these, and many more lines, I paused and went “wait, what?” and that shouldn’t happen. With Black Iris, if I paused to read back over a line, it was because it was so beautiful and perfect (there were a few of these here too, but more of these clunkers), not because it actually made no sense.

It’s not just the writing that’s confused. Consequently, the characterization is a mess. The writing is Ren’s voice, and it’s all over the place. It doesn’t feel like it fits him, because I’m not sure than any human would really talk/think precisely like this. Banter felt forced and awkward. One example of this is the flirting between Tam and Ren, which mostly involves them calling each other Mr. and Ms. like rejects from 50 Shades of Grey.

“Tell me your story, Ms. Baylor.”

Drowsy smile. “You’ll think poorly of me, Mr. Grant.”

They do this over and over again, throughout the novel. Basically any time they’re having a “cute” bonding moment, they call each other Ms. Baylor and Mr. Grant, and it’s weird af. You guys aren’t in a business meeting. This is not THE PAST. It’s stilted and uncomfortable and not the least bit sexy. There’s a reason this is one of the many things people mocked about 50 Shades.

The novel as a whole feels like it’s not sure what its message is. Though there tend to be some feminist infodumps, Bad Boy comes across as meninist at times, due mostly to the unfortunate and problematic falsified rape plot that makes up the core of the novel. The villains are feminists (specifically TERFS, trans-exclusionary radical feminists), and there’s an undercurrent of the mistreatment of men while the novel also tries to point out privilege. It’s a mess, and it had me cringing and occasionally dropping my jaw out of shock. I have a couple of scenes to share, because I don’t think I can explain it sufficiently.

“What’s her motive? Why would she hurt you?”

“For being a man. That’s all the reason she’s ever needed to hurt someone. And all I needed.”

“That’s absurd,” Tam said.

“It’s not. All those men she sent me after—I never once questioned their guilt. Why? Because they’re men.”

The context for this is Ren starting to think that maybe Black Iris (the vigilante group run by Laney and staffed by the characters from all of Wake’s other novels) has turned on him because he’s a man. Thinking that Laney has betrayed him, he’s now assuming that the other men they’ve gone after were being unfairly maligned. I mean, if one case is falsified, they all must be, right?

“If he held something against you, you didn’t have full agency. You were a captive. A captive can’t give consent.”

Tam shrugged. “We’re all trapped by something. Freedom is an illusion. It’s the wind in your hair as you plummet off the cliff’s edge.”

This is a conversation Tam and Ren have in the context of past abusive relationships about consent. The fact that it seems to come down on consent not being a real thing is pretty fucking scary honestly. As I’ll say over and over again, I don’t know that this moment is intended to resonate like it does, but I find it completely terrifying.

Laney was no different from Norah. Both girls who’d accuse a man of the worst crime. Foment loathing and indignation against him. Because who wouldn’t believe a guy would do the worst thing? Of course he would. Rape culture, patriarchy, misogyny: these words had leaped from academic discourse into the common vernacular. Norah’s accusation needed no proof. Just her tears, and the whole history of men hurting women behind it.

While I don’t think (though I really can’t know for certain based on just the book) that Bad Boy was meant to convey how hard it is for men because of rape culture, there are times that that is exactly what the book manages to convey. It’s a controversial topic, and it’s handled sloppily, as though Ren himself doesn’t know how he feels about the subject. It’s a mess of internalized misogyny, even beyond what it is acknowledged within the book, and remnants of feminism from a transgender man who no longer knows quite how to feel about feminism.

How she’d believed my version of events. No question. Like Crito said, all a girl had to do was cry.

This is Ren agreeing with a misogynist internet troll who targets outspoken feminists, the same sort of outspoken feminists who end up being the villains of Bad Boy.

Choosing to center everything on a falsified rape makes a statement, and not a good one. The only thing to counteract this is a couple of paragraphs of narration which acknowledge that it’s fucked up without changing anything about the actual plot of the book:

Norah did most of the talking. Eager to take the blame, do penitence, absolve herself. The world held no pity for a woman who’d falsely accused a man of rape.

I knew how hard it would be on her. They’d hold her up as proof all girls were liars. They would hate her. They would say she should actually be raped, for lying about it.

Strange, how those so eager to punish girls for lying turned a blind eye to the boys who raped. As if the real goal was merely to inflict hurt on female bodies. To punish femininity.

I knew these things. I knew exactly how hard it was to be believed after you’d been hurt. Even by yourself.

But believing was Black Iris’s job. I needed my name cleared. My life back.

This bit of narrative monologuing acknowledges that this whole thing is completely fucked and will help rape culture, but Ren doesn’t give a shit. And I get that on some level. But also, this is a novel. Everything is a choice. And the choice was made here to depict a woman lying about rape, to make feminists the villains.

“Then why did you say it was rape?”

—Because I felt slutty, okay? Everyone made me feel like shit about it, except Ingrid. She said I could make myself look better if I played the victim. That I could fix my reputation.

I really just can’t fathom why this is where the novel ended up. It’s puzzling and upsetting and no doubt massively triggering. Ren’s so much angrier at the women who hurt him than the men who hurt him, and there’s no real in-text acknowledgement of that. He lets the man who raped him walk away after a relatively polite discussion, with only the threat of potential future attack should the man step out of line, while the female villain they debate murdering with her tied to a chair.

It’s a shame that the novel loses itself in this horrific plot, because there are the bones of an excellent book in here. There’s so much detail and true, honest emotion in the parts about transitioning. I learned a lot from that, and Wake does a brilliant job highlighting the complex emotional landscape of a transgender man. Unfortunately, that’s all mired in a muddied, problematic novel.

Bad Boy doesn’t feel like it knows what it wants to be. This novel is messy in characterization, sloppy in prose, and problematic in plot. I doubt I will be reading another Elliot Wake novel after this.

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