One of my recent goals as a reader of science fiction romance was to delve into two dark, gritty titles that have been in my TBR pile (I'll share them in a moment). The mood just seized me. I wanted to read stories that would challenge my brain and test my mettle as a fan of the niche. I was looking to experience elements I've never encountered before in SFR. When stories promise to push boundaries or explore new territory (or a new twist on old territory), they get my attention pretty quickly.
Pretty much anything of a dark/gritty/graphic nature will interest me. It can manifest in themes, tone, or a graphic level of violence, horror, or sex. But if I'm going to read dark content I go in with the hope that it will provide me with a new perspective, insight into a particular speculative element, and a greater appreciation for the written word. I don't mind feeling disturbed by a story as long as the graphic content has a purpose. Stories that are dark in gratuitous ways usually leave me cold.
Quite a few of my favorite books, films, and TV shows (regardless of genre) are lighthearted fare. Yet as I've grown older, I've felt an increasing need for adult content, but more specifically stories that are unabashedly for (adventurous) grown-ups. Which is probably why I've enjoyed graphic novels like PREACHER, books like George R.R. Martin's A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, and TV shows like ARCHER in the past decade.
"General audience" stories like Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID are easy to come by. It's the risky, edgy stuff like Hideshi Hino's PANORAMA OF HELL that's a challenge to find. Incidentally, I'm a fan of both, but I'm not sure I could tell you why my taste runs along such a wide spectrum!
At any rate, I wanted to set up this post so you'd have an idea of where I'm coming from. :)
In this post and the next I'm going to reflect on two titles. One is Ann Somerville's COLD FRONT. The other is Darren Bloomquist and Angelia Sparrow's HARD REBOOT. I'll include some non-spoiler tags, but consider these reflections as more stream-of-consciousness impressions.
Ann Somerville's COLD FRONT (Pindone Files #1-3) is a bundle of three stories about two detectives hunting a serial killer. The blurb only hints at how much is happening in these tales:
Dek tops. Ren bottoms. Neither gives an inch. Kinky, tough, troubled, caring. Cops and lovers, fighting crime and, sometimes, each other, in a vast cold land where the criminals read minds and the cops never know what they'll face next.
First half of the "Pindone Files". Contains "One Brief Encounter", "A House is not a Home" and "Cold Front"
The first two stories are novella-length and "Cold Front" is novel-length.
COLD FRONT is set on a world with harsh climate conditions. It's not a futuristic Earth, but rather an alternate time and place.
This is an m/m sci-fi romance. While Dek and Ren engage in a charged sexual encounter early on in "One Brief Encounter," their romance turns out to be a slow burn, so slow it's almost subtle. Their relationship becomes a forbidden one (for reasons I'll not spoil), and occurs against the external plot.
I'd characterize the heat level as erotic with BDSM elements, but IMHO the love scenes are few and far between. In other words, there's plenty of external plot to go along with the romance plot. Sometimes the story felt more like romantic SF.
COLD FRONT is squarely in crime fiction territory and has a very film noir feel. The strongest comparison that comes to mind is the TV show CSI and all its variants. I've probably seen less than an episode of the original series, but I've read enough about it in entertainment articles to get a feel for its rhythm. And COLD FRONT seems to have a similar rhythm. I'm telling you, if you love shows/books like CSI, I'm betting you'll really enjoy COLD FRONT! It's like CSI, but with telepaths of varying abilities.
So one aspect that makes COLD FRONT unique for me is its dedication to fully embracing its alternate reality, crime fiction setting. This is a fully realized world.
The story features an ensemble cast and the hunt for the serial killer is a collaborative effort. Despite the telepathic abilities of some characters, the story is grounded in realism. COLD FRONT has a "day in the life" feel rather than a "larger than life" one.
The story's dark, gritty elements manifest in various ways. The nature of the crimes, for one thing. Additionally, Dek and Ren have complicated lives as well as complicated pasts. There's a tight focus on their traumatic experiences and their attempts to process and heal, yet the characters are very likeable. They each have strengths that prevent them from being reduced to puddles of angsty depression.
COLD FRONT is also a story that takes its time. The pacing isn't rushed and the action scenes are few, but it's not completely sedate, either. This is where being a fan of police procedurals will count in favor of the reader because there's quite a bit of focus on the investigative process. The case isn't easy to solve, and the story honors that aspect with deliberately measured pacing.
The darkest part of the story occurs in the final third of "Cold Front." It's intense, but not as disturbing as I, personally, expected. However, that doesn't mean it won't be intense for other readers. The author truly puts Dek and Ren through the wringer. That was the point where I thanked the gods for digital-first SFR. COLD FRONT is a story tailor-made for niche fans.
The dark elements in COLD FRONT are effective because they're rendered so realistically. My interpretation of the story is it's designed to appeal to readers who have a high threshold for characters in painful jeopardy. (Hmm...should there be any other kind?)
There's no movie equivalent in COLD FRONT of the cutaway edit to avoid shots of blood or the actual punch. This is an SFR wherein you will see the "punch," you will see the blood, and then the story will invite you to reflect on why terrible acts of violence happen to innocent people. And also the extreme dedication and perseverance it takes for everyday superheroes to defend them.
Thanks for coming along on my adventure of Ann Somerville's COLD FRONT. In my next post, I'll share the highlights of my experience with Darren Bloomquist and Angelia Sparrow's HARD REBOOT. Because in response to that book I was all like o_O (but in a good way!).
In the meantime, I'd love to hear about any dark and gritty sci-fi romance titles you've enjoyed.