Story Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.25 stars
Narrator: Kirt Graves
Length: 10 hours, 11 minutes
Cuffs & Carnations is a spin-off story from the Fire and Brimstone Scrolls series, thus it contains spoilers for how that series ends. The story stands alone well, though it may be richer for those who experienced Uriel, Delilah, and Obie before their tragic end. Additionally, there are mentions of suicide/suicidal ideation and depictions of alcohol abuse/addiction.
Jesse is a first generation hybrid, a product of Lucifer’s twisted plan to create an angel/fallen hybrid army by raping kidnapped angels. He is also cursed to look exactly like Lucifer, and so Jesse has been forced to carry the weight of his sire’s sins. Most angels in Utopia cannot look past his visage to truly see Jesse; they only see Lucifer. So Jesse keeps a smile on his face and his head down, doing his best to live his life free of negativity and full of compassion, despite how others treat him. He lives with the quiet hope that someday his presence will no longer strike fear and anger in the angels and that someone other than his BFF will finally see him and love him. Despite watching Uriel stagger and swear and lash out for decades, Jesse can’t stop himself from crushing on the heartbroken archangel and wishing he could take his pain away. When the pair end up at the same bar and Jesse pulls Uriel away from a masochistic beating he provoked, they end up in an alley with Jesse on his knees being dominated and humiliated like he always dreamed of.
Since he lost his Committeds, Delilah and Obie, and after a few unsuccessful suicide attempts, Uriel spends his time drowning his grief and memories in waves of ambrosia-laced scotch, in physical pain from being curb-stomped by hulking humans, or wallowing in the burning agony of his unhealed broken Committed bonds. Watching Jesse’s obvious joy in the pain and domination Uriel gives him is the first time he’s come close to pure pleasure and solace since he lost his Committeds…and he’s not having it. Uriel wants to punish himself for his Committeds’ sacrifice to save him and for not being able to follow them into death. He sees happiness and moving forward as dishonoring them and something he doesn’t deserve, so he chooses to continually punish himself and push everyone away.
However, Uriel and Jesse continue to cross paths, and Uriel can’t keep the ball of sunshine out of his life. He doesn’t want to want Jesse or to think about him, but Jesse’s interest in BDSM sparks Uriel’s dormant protective streak. Through chess games, sexual tutelage, and unexpected closeness, Jesse slowly carves a small place in Uriel’s life, praying that one day Uriel will accept the love he offers, but Uriel is a ticking bomb who may find it easier to burn in the fires of self-destruction rather than save himself.
Oh Uriel! What a heartbreaking journey Cuffs & Carnations is. Gone is the commanding but fair mentor that helped train Riley as a fighter both physically and mentally and the person who offered kindness, protection, and shelter to Riley. In his place is a bitter, self-destructive well of almost endless despair, guilt, and rage. Uriel won’t let himself grieve his loss because he believes he deserves to spend the rest of his existence in pain and mourning and, after decades, it’s easier and more familiar to let himself rot and wither away than to process his loss and face truly living. The narrative displays the poisonous combination of addiction, grief, and depression without it feeling performative and for the sake of angst. It also deals with the ugly and hard bits of recovery; how it’s a personal journey that isn’t linear; and that love and support alone can’t fix a person, only their perseverance, continued diligence, and hard work.
Jesse’s presence in Uriel’s life isn’t a cure, and he isn’t a one-note white knight sent to rescue Uriel from himself. He acts as a fresh pair of eyes for Uriel to see the world and what living may offer him, but Jesse has a personality and history beyond being a catalyst for Uriel’s recovery. Jesse is a lovely, kinky, sweetheart whose face inspires horror and loathing in most angels, no matter how kind, compassionate, and opposite to Lucifer in every way Jesse is. The story doesn’t delve much into the bigotry Jesse faces, but there’s enough to show how truly resilient and good his soul is, as he’s not resentful of growing up being disdained and orphaned for his unearned status as a villain. His longstanding crush on Uriel and his empathy for Uriel’s suffering enables him to forgive Uriel for almost anything just to spend time with the broken man in the hopes of making him smile, which makes it hard to see Uriel hurt him in the not fun way. Jesse quickly tumbles into love with Uriel despite his warnings that he has nothing to give nor does he want to give Jesse anything. The story is mired in grief, self-destruction, and selfless love, and Uriel and Jesse have a hard but satisfying road to happiness. Jesse’s friendship with his bi-gender bestie Kelly/Kelli adds some levity (and provides a nice set-up for a future pairing), and it’s immensely satisfying to see Uriel and Riley reconnect.
While enjoyable overall, there are some quirks I found irritating at times. The series always had trouble not making Utopia and the angels too human, and it seems this book doesn’t even try anymore, as there are quips about not speaking good English when everyone would be speaking Utopian or elements like angels using SSRIs to treat depression. I get that angels have similar genetics/physiology to humans to make breeding possible in this world and to be relatable as imperfect beings who share some of the same human experiences, but between all the English colloquialisms, the American feel of Utopia, and other remarks/elements that really make no sense in the context of this angelic society, this had me rolling my eyes. There’s also never any explanation for how/why Jesse ends up at the same bar as Uriel for their first sexual encounter. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Jesse walks into Uriel’s? Is Jesse low key stalking Uriel? Does he occasionally follow Uriel to keep tabs on his physical health since Uriel goes trolling for beatdowns? Did the Maker have a hand in bringing them together? Who knows! Since the Christian God exists in this world and isn’t a completely absentee father, I’m assuming it’s the latter.
However, it was pretty easy to breeze past Knight’s way too American Utopia and go with the flow as Kirt Graves again really brings this series and its characters to life. My one quibble is that sometimes Jesse sounds like Riley, and in certain scenes it pulled me out of the emotion because it felt wrong. However, it doesn’t happen often and mostly only in the first few chapters, so by the time the story hits its stride, Jesse’s voice becomes more distinct and his. Overall, Graves conveys all the characters’ turmoil, light-hearted moments, soul-deep pain, and everything in between well, and makes Uriel finding love again and Jesse being loved for the bratty, heart-eyes cinnamon roll he is even more satisfying.