In the south, football is king, and the young men who play it — and play it well — are hailed as heroes or young emperors, untouchable by mere mortals and their laws. Drinking, smoking, beating up queers, getting girls pregnant, all if it is waved aside with a benign “boys will be boys” so long as they win. But Roman King is about to discover that, like Goliath, sometimes all it takes is one voice willing to say enough, one person willing to stand up and say no more. But Jonah is going to realize that speaking up may be the most dangerous thing he can do when it comes to Roman.
Bully King is a book in two parts. The first half — especially the first five or so chapters — seem designed to shock and horrify, doing as much as they can to make you aware of just how vile and cruel and evil Roman is, and how conflicted Jonah is in feeling the way he feels for him. It opens with Jonah thinking about suicide and continues with scenes of bullying, graphic scenes of physical abuse, sexual content involving underage children (and the expected underage drinking, drugs, and smoking), as well as Jonah being sexually degraded and sexually blackmailed. There is also a rape scene, where one character is assaulted in front of a crowd of angry young men. And then the book shifts and slows into a love story where two young, gay men have to face cruelty and bigotry of small-minded small towns and hateful fathers. So, there’s a lot. A lot a lot.
Jonah is the son of a pastor, raised to love God and fear hell because, being gay, he knows that if he acts on his feelings he will be denied paradise and consigned to the fiery pits. That doesn’t stop him from instantly and immediately crushing on the beautiful blonde insulting him, pushing him, mocking him, and bullying him during his first day of school. Turns out Jonah has a thing for humiliation, for being used and forced into a submissive position. All his years of knowing how vile and wrong and perverted he is have left him with hangups, but fortunately for Jonah, his need to please, his need to feel the pain, as well as the pleasure, are a strong turn on.
Roman is the best football player his school has seen in years. It’s both a curse and a blessing as the town isn’t going to mess with their golden goose, even when his ex-NFL father beats the shit out of wife, drinks himself into a daily stupor, and beats Roman black and blue on a daily basis. So long as Roman can play and play well, all’s good. And he hates it. He wants to lash out and hurt someone, to make someone — anyone — feel even a fraction as ground down as he feels. And he gets that in Jonah, so much so that the other boy becomes the focus of every bit of Roman’s attention.
Roman makes his move on Jonah by approaching his 15-year-old sister (which, considering Roman is nearly 18, is a bit of an issue for me, personally. And there’s the sense that he’s done this before, and gotten away with it, as well.) When Roman takes Mary on a date, Jonah’s father makes him go along as a chaperone, having a pretty good idea about what Mary is likely to do when alone with a boy. Here we discover another kink of Jonah’s, as watching Roman make out with his sister — or fantasizing about Roman finger banging his sister — makes him instantly hard. So much so that he’s pretty sure he could easily fall in love with Roman.
Roman, a self-avowed predator, loves seeing Jonah get worked up. He loves seeing him humiliated and afraid, bruised and uncertain. So he tells Jonah that either he does what Roman wants, or he goes after Mary instead. There is a lot of dubious consent in this book. While we can see from both Jonah and Roman’s POVs that both of them are into this, and both of them are getting off to it, it can make for uncomfortable situations. And one scene between them in particular is far more akin to rape than dubcon.
But, as the story goes on, Roman and Jonah begin to get to know one another as people, not just hot bodies with dicks attached. Jonah makes Roman laugh, and Roman makes honest efforts to change some of his self-destructive behaviors at Jonah’s urging. In the second half of the book, when Jonah needs help, Roman is right there to take care of him … and when Roman needs violence, needs to let out his anger and his confusion, Jonah has both the willingness and the understanding to offer what he can.
There are some issues with the book just on a general level. The writing in the first quarter or so is stilted and clumsy. Mary goes from being a horrible person who watches her brother being bullied with an “oh” and then ignores it, to becoming his champion when she finds out he’s gay. And the book itself feels a little too disconnected, with the violent and darker first half not quite meshing with the gentler and more romantic second half. It almost works, but … only almost.
Overall, this book is what it says it is. A bully romance, a dark romance, and a romance. By the end of the book, Roman and Jonah aren’t magically healed; Jonah, who has internalized all of his father’s hatred for gays, still has doubts and issues and fears. Roman, the son of a drunken abuser, doesn’t just get over it. He still has to deal with everything his father did to him and his mother, and even though he and Jonah now have each other, the book ends more on a happy note than a happy ending. This is very much a couple in progress.
I’m going to be honest: for the first third of this book I didn’t think I was going to like it. Even so, for all of it’s flaws, I do think this is a good book. It’s not for everyone, though. Do pay attention to trigger warnings with this story because the first half can be violent and downright unpleasant. But if you enjoy that, or simply don’t mind it, you’ll find that there’s a sweet love story.