When writing for a specific type of genre, it’s important to read books from the genre itself. That way, you can decide for yourself what you like or don’t like about that genre. Since Isabel’s story (which STILL doesn’t have a title yet) is going to firmly belong in the YA category, I read quite a few YA books to get a feel for the audience and what they like or don’t like. Of course, it’s not just young adults who read YA books.
One of the trilogies I read is called The Lone City, by Amy Ewing. The heroine, Violet, is bought by the Duchess of the Lake as a surrogate. Her purpose will be to bear the Duchess’ child (or daughter, since the Duchess already has a son) and basically to be a pet. A pampered, well-dressed, beautiful pet whose fate is to provide a royal house with heirs – that is, if another royal house doesn’t kill her first, since royal women cannot bear their own children and the best way to ensure a house doesn’t have heirs is to kill the surrogates providing them.
One day, Violet meets Ash Lockwood, a newly-acquired companion to Carnelian, the Duchess’ niece. There is no nice way to say this. Ash is a sex slave. He, along with other young and handsome men, are trained to be pleasing to royal daughters – or, although this is never publicly acknowledged, their mothers. Ash became a companion because his sister caught black lung and the money Ash earned was intended to go towards her medicine (emphasis on intended). This is a horrible situation to be in, and it’s a very sympathetic background. The problem is that while his background is sympathetic, I didn’t find Ash himself very sympathetic.
When he first meets Violet, he mistakes her for Carnelian. As soon as he finds out she isn’t, his entire attitude changes. She is immediately smitten with him – but then, there’s a difference between falling in love with someone at first sight and being attracted to someone at first sight. When reading a book, it can be quite hard to tell the difference.
A hundred or so pages later, they are officially ‘in love’.
The real problems with Ash begin in the second book of the trilogy. Lucien, a male lady-in-waiting, has a deep disdain for companions and makes it clear in the first book that if Ash causes problems, he can make him disappear. Yeah. That kind of disappearing. Lucien has a plan to smuggle Violet out of the Jewel, the royal circle titular lone city. Remember how royal women can’t have their own children? Turns out surrogates can’t bear royal children either. Childbirth kills them. When Lucien gives Violet a serum that will make her look as if she’s died, she gives it to her best friend instead. Meanwhile Carnelian has fallen in love with Ash herself and she’s figured out that Ash and Violet are together. Ironically, she’s the one character in The Lone City I feel deeply, deeply sorry for, but we’ll get to her another time. Ash and Violet are arrested, and the Duchess spreads a very ugly rumour about Ash that Lucien immediately believes. One of his serious prejudices against companions is that their job involves sleeping with a lot of women.
“And you think I enjoy it? Or are you just jealous that I can?”
For the record, male ladies-in-waiting are castrated so they aren’t ‘dangerous’ to royal women. And Ash is aware of this.
Another problem happens when they’ve made it out of the Jewel. Ewing must have realised that Ash had no purpose other than to be the love interest. He’d become The Load and she tried too hard to give him a purpose. Unfortunately, his efforts to help came across as selfish rather than selfless. A love interest needs to have a bigger role in the story than…well, the love interest.
Lucien and Sil, a former surrogate who becomes a mentor to Violet, point out that Ash is a distraction for Violet. She shrugs this off, but the trouble is, they’re right. Ash does cloud Violet’s judgement. He is a distraction, and we are supposed to agree with Violet instead of Sil and Lucien.
Also, it is a little hypocritical of Ash to refer to working girls as ‘common prostitutes’ when the only differences between them are that he’s male and his clients are rich.