Rating: 4.75 stars
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Benjamin Martin’s sister Juliette was murdered in a violent and horrific way and Ben has always blamed himself. He was taught to take care of his sister, and even though he couldn’t have stopped her attack, he still holds himself responsible for not protecting her. And now, even four years later, Ben is filled with such incredible internal pain that the only outlet for his nightmares is to experience physical pain to block it out. Ben is a sub in a hard core BDSM relationship. Even though his connection with his Dom Kage is not an emotional one, Ben needs their encounters desperately to keep him grounded.
When a terrible accident leaves Ben severely injured, Kage decides that he doesn’t want to wait for Ben to heal and terminates their Dom/sub contract. Ben is devastated, since the only things holding him together are his sessions with Kage and the loving support of his roommate and best friend, Jude Archer. Ben has been afraid to tell Jude about being a sub, worried that his sweet friend will be so turned off as to want nothing to do with Ben.
As it turns out, Jude has been in love with Ben for years, and nothing could make him turn away from his friend. And in taking care of Ben as he recuperates, Jude is finally able to make clear to Ben how much he loves and wants him. But Jude has no experience in a BDSM lifestyle and he is not sure he is up to being the Dom that Ben needs. The idea of hurting Ben, of leaving marks on his body, is terrifying and overwhelming for Jude, even as a small part of him is turned on by Ben’s reaction. As the two men grow into a deeper relationship, Jude must figure out if he can be the Dom Ben needs to keep the pain at bay, or if he must accept that he and Ben are not meant to be.
Painting Fire on the Air follows J.P. Barnaby’s amazing book Aaron and features Benjamin, the brother of Juliette (the girl who was kidnapped and attacked along with Aaron). Although many of Ben’s emotional issues stem from the aftermath of his sister’s murder, the two stories are not intertwined any further than that, and this one stands alone nicely (though seriously, READ AARON! It is amazing!). That said, I found it interesting to look at these two stories together as both Aaron and Ben face serious emotional trauma from this event, though it manifests itself in different ways.
In Ben’s case, his internal guilt and pain almost overwhelm him. Despite the fact that he is not responsible for his sister’s death, Ben still holds himself accountable. It has affected his relationship with his parents, he suffers terrible nightmares, and without that release from an intense session, he is a total mess. We see early in the book how a hard core scene helps settle him, how focusing on the physical pain keeps that emotional pain at bay. And we see the utter panic Ben feels when he faces losing Kage and is set adrift with his own demons and no real outlet. It is heart wrenching to see his pain and Barnaby does a great job helping us inside Ben’s head to understand what he is thinking and feeling and to really see how the submission helps calm him and eases the guilt and heartache. Ben is such a sweet, loving guy, and as a reader, I couldn’t help but feel for him as he tries to find his way and figure out how to ease the torment inside him.
Jude is also a really well developed character. He has been in love with Ben for a while, but after a drunken hookup a while back led to much awkwardness between them, Jude is afraid to reveal his feelings. Even once Jude shares how much he cares for Ben and the two begin a sexual and emotional relationship, Jude still struggles to understand and accept Ben’s needs. Barnaby gives us a very realistic portray of Jude as a guy totally out of his element. He has never heard of half these things Ben is into and he is not sure he can mentally handle being a Dom to Ben. This is a whole new world for Jude, and even once he begins to learn more, he still isn’t sure he can hurt Ben and do the things Ben truly needs to feel calm and safe. Jude really has a fascinating journey throughout the book, almost as complex as Ben’s. We see him go from panic and even revulsion at the idea of being a Dom, to deciding to put Ben’s needs ahead of his own and try to find a way to make this work, to the point that he truly comes into his own as a Dom. He gains confidence and strength and seeing the two of them making it work at the end is so sweet and heartwarming.
I did appreciate how it is clearly acknowledged through the story that Jude is sort of the one forced into this difficult position. He wants to be what Ben clearly needs, and the only way to make that happen is to put himself far outside his own comfort zone. I was glad to see that it is pointed out to Ben just how much Jude is sacrificing of himself here, and how hard this all is for him. Part of me wondered why the two roles couldn’t be separated — have Jude be the boyfriend and someone else be the Dom. After all, Ben’s relationship with Kage wasn’t emotional at all. But while in real life that would probably be the ideal solution, I get why in Romanceland no one wants to see Ben get his needs met by someone other than his true love forever. So I can let that go, but I did appreciate the recognition that this was a big leap on Jude’s part and something he does truly out of love for Ben far more than his own needs.
I really thought this book was wonderful and just had a few small quibbles. First, the title of the book refers to fire flogging (pretty much what it sounds like), which is a hard core activity and something which requires a lot of training. While it is clear Kage has plenty of experience, I was a little disturbed by the fact that Ben’s first introduction to this idea is about 20 minutes before he does it on stage in front of an audience. Now Barnaby is VERY clear throughout the book how much training and communication is involved in a BDSM relationship and safety and precautions are built into every facet of the story. This was just one spot where I felt like Ben was sort of rushed/persuaded into something, and given how extreme this activities is, I would have liked to see him have more time to prepare.
I also think the pacing was a little off here. There is a lot of set up for the story where we see Ben with Kage, Ben and Jude as friends/roommates, and Ben recovering from his accident. By the time we get to the point where Ben and Jude are in a relationship and exploring BDSM, we don’t see much of it in practice. After understanding how difficult this all is for Jude, and how hard these guys have worked to figure out a way for their D/s relationship to work between them, I would have liked to see more of it in action. We do get some (hot) scenes toward the end, but I would have liked some more payoff between them. That said, I do want to point out how nicely Barnaby manages to convey the difference between the purely transactional nature of the scenes between Ben and Kage, and the emotional and loving nature of those between Ben and Jude. You can really feel the difference in the way these guys interact and the heat between them as we see them in their loving partnership.
J.P. Barnaby really has a way of creating these characters who are filled with emotional pain and suffering, and letting us share in their journey as they find happiness and redemption. For those of you who read Aaron, I didn’t find this quite as intense, at least in the same way. Ben is managing to keep much of his pain at bay, and this book focuses mostly on how he and Jude work through their relationship and find a way to make it work for both of them. So while they both go through a major emotional journey here, it is not quite as raw. I loved Jude and Ben, and couldn’t help but root for them to make it work despite their obstacles. I really enjoyed this story and definitely recommend it.