Rating: 3.5 stars
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No Flag opens on July 7, 2012, as Will Kelley sees on the news that his husband’s Army platoon was attacked and that the bombing killed 20 soldiers. Since the military does not recognize their marriage, Will has no way of knowing whether Captain Mike Kelley is alive or if he has been injured, though the video of the attack Will finds online looks devastating.
The story then takes us back to December 2010, where Mike, recently stationed at the local base in Philadelphia, wanders into the club where Will tends bar. Since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Mike can finally feel comfortable going out in public without fear of being reprisal. He and Will hit it off and soon begin dating, though Will feels a little confused about how slow things are moving between them. The guys have spent much of their time together over the past couple of months, but things haven’t really progressed sexually. Then Mike explains that he doesn’t do sex without a relationship, and a relationship with him can be complicated since Mike prefers domestic discipline arrangements. He worries that this news will send Will running, but to Mike’s delight, Will is open to trying it.
Will’s one condition is that Mike not be deployed again. Mike is almost at the end of his current commission, and though he can’t make guarantees, he has no reason to think they will deploy him again when he is doing important work at home and almost out of the Army. The men begin to settle into a life together, dating, moving in, and ultimately getting married. Then their life is turned upside at the news that Mike is having his commission forcibly re-extended and he will be deployed for a year.
The news is heartbreaking for both of them, but they manage to get through it because they have no other choice. Will struggles to manage both school and the new business the men have started while Mike deals with being far away and unable to confide much about his job with his husband. When Will sees that Mike’s platoon has been attacked, Mike’s promise to come home to him safely seems in jeopardy. And even once Will learns Mike has survived the attack, the men must adjust to Mike’s injuries and finding a way to make things work between them again with so many changes to their lives.
No Flag divides pretty much in half between two fairly distinct parts. The first portion of the story is told primarily in flashback and focuses on Will and Mike’s developing relationship and how they work through the domestic discipline aspects of their lives. The second half picks up after the attack on Mike’s platoon and focuses on the aftermath and how the two men adapt to Mike’s injuries and the changes in their lives. It also deals with the investigation into the attack and what Mike might be able to remember, as he is basically the only survivor and discovered some information crucial to national security. I found these halves to be very different, both in tone and in my feelings about them, so I’m going to break the review down that way.
I ran into some problems in the first half that fall into two areas. The first is a real lack of relationship development or any good sense of these guys together. Considering the length of the book and the fact that their relationship is the primary plot point in the first half, there is surprisingly little time spent getting to know these guys as a couple. Even up the point where they ultimately marry, I still had no sense of what drew these men to each other, what they had in common, or what they enjoyed about one another. We are given little insight into their emotions for one another or how they developed. The story sort of breaks down into events, but never really gives us any sense of the connection between the two men. So when they ultimately get together, and then eventually face real hardship, I had a hard time feeling a real sense of emotional investment in them.
This leads into the larger problem, which is that I found Mike almost totally unlikable in the first half of the book. Mike is incredibly rigid about just about everything, but primarily this manifests itself in what can only be described as a severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Will jokes at times about Mike needing a therapist, but truly his case is so severe that the only way he functions is to have total and complete control over his environment. Given the nature of their relationship, Mike is able to require that Will adapt to Mike’s rigid standards and rules, of which there are many. The guys can only have sex in the bedroom because Mike can’t handle discarded clothes not being in their proper place. He makes Will spend hours practicing folding towels to ensure the edges literally aren’t misaligned by even a millimeter. Certain foods belong in the refrigerator door and others on the shelves, and any deviation makes him so crazy he can literally not think about anything else. Rather than being considered a mental illness, this is all treated as completely rational by Mike, and with sort of a bemused acceptance by Will. And again, the nature of their relationship means that Will is expected to accommodate every one of these incredibly rigid requirements. So this brings me back to the first issue I had in that I never really felt an emotional connection between these two guys. So I found it almost impossible to see what is so appealing about being with Mike from Will’s perspective that he would be willing to deal with all this insanity. I think if we could more clearly feel the emotional bond between them, and really understand what Will loves about Mike, we could better get why it is all worth it. But as it was, I just couldn’t understand Will’s motivation for putting up with it all.
Just to clarify, this really has nothing to do with the domestic discipline relationship itself. For those unfamiliar, this is a relationship where one partner is the “head of household” and responsible for the primary decision making and rule enforcement. Will and Mike have a contract listing rules for the relationship about how each partner should behave, and Mike is responsible for enforcing the rules and issuing punishment if they are not carried out. As Mike tells Will, Mike’s job is to ensure Will’s needs are met, but they will live according to Mike’s preferences. It is pretty clear that part of the appeal of this arrangement for Mike is the ability to control all these aspects of his environment, but as I said, my problem with Mike isn’t inherent to a domestic discipline relationship. I have read other stories with this dynamic and enjoyed the main characters, including some by this author. So I really think it boils down to Mike and his personality more than the relationship structure.
Once we move to the second half of the story, things picked up for me. Mike has suffered severe injury, one that is totally life changing. So he faces a long recovery, both physically and emotionally as he deals with his new reality. I enjoyed this part a lot more and thought Borino did a great job of showing the struggle both these men face as they look at the long road ahead of them. Here I could feel more of a connection between the two men and the love between them as they face Mike’s recovery together. Will is a big source of strength and support and we see some vulnerability in Mike that really softens him. There is also an interesting side plot about the attack on the platoon and what Mike know about what happened and future attack plans. I did find that it wrapped up way too quickly; they are in full scale investigation right up until 98% of the book and then it ends in one quick moment. But I did think it was a nice way to incorporate a little bit of outside action beyond the relationship itself.
My last note is that I ran into quite a few typos here throughout the book. Just small things, but enough that I found myself being pulled out of the story each time.
So there were definitely elements I enjoyed here and I think the issues surrounding Mike’s injuries were really interesting and well explored. I just found the first half to be slow with not enough connection built between the two men to really give me a strong emotional investment in the two of them as a couple or to enable me to overcome my frustration with Mike. So mixed thoughts here, but overall I feel positive about the story and think if you find less issue with Mike than I did, this could work for many readers, especially if you are fan of military stories.