Lauren Dane is probably best known for her erotic and contemporary romances, but my favorite series by her is actually futuristic erotic romance–the Federation books. Sadly, there are currently only five of them out at present, but hope does spring…
Captivated, by Lauren Dane
This is the fifth Federation book, and the third about the Phantom Corps, this universe’s version of special forces. I’ve reviewed the first two books of the series, Undercover and Relentless. Like the first, this one is also a menage story.
The usual warning: erotic romance, graphic language, graphic sex.
This is back cover blurb from my print copy:
Vincenz Fardelle, exiled son of the Supreme Leader of the Imperialist Universes, has spent much of the last eleven years working to stop the threat his father poses. But he’s not alone in his quest. Julian Marsters has lost his best friend and countless others in the war and has made vengeance his only goal. In each other, Julian and Vincenz find not only like minds, but kindred spirits.
However unexpected their relationship, everything changes for Vincenz and Julian when Hannah Black comes into their lives. Having been captured and held in near total isolation by Imperialist troops, their immediate response is to protect her.
Emotionally shattered by resilient, Hannah rebuilds herself. Because of the warm safety she finds in the arms of Julian–and Vincenz–she becomes someone harder, stronger and bent on preventing the Imperialists from harming anyone else.
For the two men, wrestling with their passionate feelings for Hannah is only the beginning. War is about to send all three into harm’s way, and an equally dangerous secret could tear them apart.
I have written before about male/female/male menages, and that my preferred narrative involves men who already are in a relationship before the females shows up. This is such a story.
Quick background: there are two main factions at odds. The Federation Universes (though I think it’s more planets than universes, but whatever) and the Imperium Universes. The Imperium are currently under the dictatorship of Ciro Fardelle,who comes across as a tad more cartoonish Evil Overlord version of Palpatine.
Vincenz managed to escape/defect across the (well guarded) border between Federation and Imperium, and has since become a trusted and valued operative within the Phantom Corps. A few months before the story starts, Vincenz and Julian, a fellow operative, have become lovers. Neither of these men expected to find love together, even as they have always known the other accepts them for who they are.
While this relationship is pretty obvious to anyone who knows them, there are no rules against fraternization within the Corps, so while Vincenz and Julian are not always paired up for missions, they often are. It all depends on the mission and the operative’s individual skills.
Then the tensions between the Federation and the Imperium ramp up, from cold war to almost open warfare.
Early during this escalation, and while on a mission to destroy an enemy installation and a key strategic weapon,¹ Vincenz rescues a prisoner. Turns out Hannah has been tortured, physically and psychologically, for close to a year. Among other things, she has been kept in solitary confinement for most of her captivity. Because reasons–okay, it makes some sense–she reacts positively to touch from Vincenz and, later on, from Julian as well.
Normally, one would expect a liberated prisoner to be debriefed, either at a hospital or at a military installation. More so, a scientist and researcher who has been kept alive for almost a year while most of the other people who worked with her have…disappeared. It is not readily known whether these missing scientists were killed by the Imperialists, or were traitors who escaped across the border.
Thing is, Hannah’s mind is very fragile. The doctor who first sees her after her rescue soon realizes that following regular protocol could conceivably finish breaking her psyche. Which in turn would mean that the Federation forces would gain exactly zero intelligence on why, exactly, she was kept alive for so long.
And so, she is allowed to stay with Vincenz and Julian while undergoing treatments to fix her brain.² As she heals, things between the three of them slowly change.
There are a number of things in this novel that I think Ms Dane does well.
First off, the relationship between Vincenz and Julian is well established from the beginning, and not just as something we are told exists. These two men love and complement each other, and as their feelings for Hannah deepen and change, they both experience some conflicting emotions. Is falling for this strong and intelligent woman, emerging for the fragile victim she was, a betrayal of their own relationship?
Second, the author gives all three characters months (almost a full third of the novel) to grow closer. We see the little things that signal Hannah coming back to herself–not exactly the same person she was before, obviously, but a stronger, slightly off-version. And we see all the little things that show how Julian’s and Vincenz’ feelings for her evolve, from the instinct to protect someone so helpless and fragile as Hannah is when rescued, to admiration for her strength and determination, to love of the person she is now.
Three, even after all three characters come to terms with their own feelings and the feelings of the other two, and accept that they are in a three-way relationship, there are still bumps and fights and misunderstandings as they work out the dynamics of this. Not just in between the three, but their relationship vis à vis what is going on outside–with their careers, politically, etc.
After all, each one of them has a truck load of baggage. Vincenz is the son a megalomaniac who is directly responsible for genocide. Julian is an orphan with a criminal record who is still grieving for his lover and best friend, Marame. And Hannah, who has lost her family, her career and almost her mind in a very literal way. So, having each of them thinking about where they are, personally, and how things between the three continue to change, not only makes sense, but it’s absolutely necessary for me to buy the romance.
However, there are things about the book that bothered me quite a bit. The quality of the writing–the author’s voice–is uneven. There are some lovely passages, not only because of the language but thematically, and then suddenly there are weird point of view transitions. This is not so much of a problem when you have one male, one female character point of view. When you have two males, and no name, it takes the reader out of the scene.
Also, the tenor of the narrative will go from intimate and quiet to loud and…superficial? shallow? Which can be done, but often there were no real transitions between one and the other. We have this intense scene and, without transition, the next paragraph shows the characters somewhere else physically and/or emotionally.
While I am perfectly aware that this is an erotic romance, I was also yanked out of the story by some sex scenes that seemed gratuitous to me. Even worse, at least a couple of these scenes suffered from “you’ll have sex in the middle of a firefight?” syndrome.
On characterization, the only thing that struck me wrong was the insistence on Hannah’s ability to code. Because the world building was sketchy, some of the passages describing her brilliance and Vincenz’ reaction to it, which were intended to show me just how unique and smart and blah blah Hannah is, came across as mumbo-jumbo telling me instead.
Plot-wise, I felt that the final political conflict was too large for its final resolution. Further, the transition after that resolution was unbelievably easy–so easy, I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief. And this was mirrored in the final conflict in the relationship. We go from “I fucked up, you can’t love me, I must leave, now!” to “okay, and now we three will do this together” literally in one page.
Weighing all the good with the meh, not so well done, Captivated gets a 7.75 out of 10.
¹ This happens concurrently with the last few chapters of the previous novel, Mesmerized.
² I mentioned in my review of Undercover that the world building is sketchy, so…just go with it, okay?