Down in Flames
Kate Meader has garnered quite a few good grades for her contemporary romances here at AAR, but I’m afraid that I found her latest book, Down in Flames, just about average. The romance between a newly-out hockey star and a probationary firefighter with a chequered past is well-written, but there’s nothing new here and the characters are pretty bland. It’s also one of those m/m books where you could switch out either of the protagonists for a female character with very little trouble and it would make no real difference to the story.
The two leads – Jude Torres and Hudson Grey – meet in the short prequel – White Hot Hookup – when a very nervous and not-yet-out Hudson decides it’s time to get rid of his V-card and swipes right to set it up. The gorgeous, inked, built guy who knocks on his door is something out of Hudson’s fantasies; the sex is fantastic and everything he’d dreamed of, but Jude is a one-and-done kinda guy, and one amazing night is all he’s offering. Over the next couple of weeks however, they start messaging each other on the app, just to chat, and despite Jude’s aversion to repeats, they arrange to hook-up again. Before they can get that far though, a chance meeting sends Hudson into a panic (he’s with a teammate and worries about being outed); the planned hook-up never happens and Hudson doesn’t respond to any of Jude’s messages – he’s deleted his profile from the app. A couple of weeks later, Jude sees a post on Instagram in which Hudson announces he’s gay. It’s bittersweet, but Jude is glad he’s felt able to come out at last.
Jude and Hudson don’t see each other for almost a year. In the intervening time, Jude has continued getting his life back on track following a few years when he went completely off the rails, and Hudson has transferred from his old team in Atlanta to the Chicago Rebels. Their meeting here is certainly an unusual one; Jude and some of his colleagues from Engine 6 – where he’s a probationary firefighter – are doing the annual Polar Plunge for charity, and he sees someone in the water who looks like he’s in trouble. He’s making his way over but is beaten to it by someone else – Hudson Grey. Together, they get the other man back to the shore, but before they can do little more than acknowledge each other, Hudson leaves.
The guy Jude and Hudson hauled out of the freezing water – is the PR guy for the Rebels, and it’s his idea that they should get Jude in for a photo op with Hudson after Hudson is chosen by the NHL for a big campaign that focuses on new players. Hudson decides to go to see Jude at the station to apologise for blanking and running out on him, but their meeting doesn’t go well and both jump to unwarranted conclusions – Jude decides Hudson is ashamed of him and won’t want people to know they already ‘know’ each other (or how) and Hudson thinks Jude is judging him for his inexperience – and honestly, I was ready to close the book right there. Fortunately though, the misunderstandings are not allowed to drag on; Jude and Hudson clear the air, and Hudson surprises Jude by asking if he’d be able to give him some recommendations for places he can meet people – guys who might be interested in more than just hooking up. Jude is stunned by the request and then conflicted; the thought of Hudson with someone else is deeply disturbing, but he doesn’t do relationships – he’s “here for a good time, not a long time” – and even if he did, he’s absolutely not the guy for someone like Hudson Grey.
Somehow though, he can’t stop thinking about Hudson or wanting to spend time with him, and a friendship – laden with undertones of longing and attraction – develops between them and they start hanging out together. I liked this phase of the story and their relationship is nicely built, although I didn’t like Jude’s determination to ‘protect’ Hudson from men who (in his opinion) aren’t right for him. He’s a six-foot-something muscle-bound hockey player, not a diminutive damsel in distress!
There’s minimal conflict in the story, and what there is arises mostly as a result of Jude’s lack of self-esteem. A few years before, he was a wild party-boy – drink, drugs, lots and lots of sex – and his many bad choices led to his almost destroying some of his strongest friendships. He’s turned things around now, thanks to the helping hand offered by another good friend, Sam; he loves his job and is doing well, but he can’t help believing that all the shit he pulled back then means he’s nowhere near good enough for someone like Hudson, a clean-cut, clean-living guy with a pristine reputation to uphold.
Hudson has some anxiety issues – a panic attack is what initially caused him to ghost Jude all those months ago – which he mostly deals with himself (through breathing exercises) because he’s terrified that if he seeks medical help, he’ll be benched. He’s determined to do better though – by Jude and by himself – and I liked seeing him growing in confidence and coming into his own over the course of the story.
Of course, Jude’s past comes back to bite him in the arse towards the end of the book, but it happens so late that there’s never any sense that the HEA might be hanging in the balance. The way it plays out is very realistic, especially in these days of fast moving social media and viral videos, but in terms of the romance, it’s just a case of waiting for Jude to come to his senses and realise that he’s not the fuck-up he was a few years ago and that he really does deserve to be happy and loved.
Down in Flames is one of those books that’s neither good nor bad – it just… is. The characters are nice but basically unmemorable; Jude’s backstory plays a fairly large role in the story, but Hudson is quite bland – he’s gorgeous, he plays hockey, he has anxiety issues – and that’s basically all there is to know about him. The sex scenes are well written, but I skipped most of them after the first couple because they don’t have much to add to the story.
The blurb for Down in Flames trumpets “a brand new MM standalone” but according to Goodreads, it’s book two in the Hot in Chicago Rookies series, so I’m guessing “standalone” here means it’s the only queer romance in the set. In addition, the series is a kind of crossover between the Chicago Rebels (hockey) series and the Hot in Chicago (firefighters) series; there are LOTS of cameos from characters who I’m guessing got their HEAs in those books; they mostly just pop in and out and don’t carry any of the main storylines, but it does mean there are loads of names thrown around and I sometimes struggled to remember who they all were and how they related to each other and the two leads.
I can’t recommend it, but if you fancy a steamy, low-angst story about a firefighter with a shady past and a shy hockey player, Down in Flames might work better for you than it did for me.
Buy it at: Amazon or your local bookshop
Visit our Amazon Storefront
|Review Date:||December 14, 2022|
|Book Type:||Contemporary Romance|
|Review Tags:||Chicago Rebels series | firefighter | Hot in Chicago Rookies series | Male/Male romance | Queer romance|
I have the same problem with Kate Meader that I have with Sawyer Bennett: they write books that, based on the blurbs, themes, and tropes (whether m/f or m/m), seem as if they would be totally my catnip; but when I start reading them, I find their writing to be pedestrian, their plotting predictable, and their pace plodding. The whole time I’m reading one of their books, I’m usually thinking, “So-and-so does this trope/theme/idea so much better.” Meader is not a bad writer, but after trying a number of her books, I’ve accepted that she just isn’t for me.
I will freely take my share of the blame for my disappointment – this is the second or third book this year I’ve tried by an author who usually writes m/f romance, and none of them have worked for me (one was by Chloe Liese, and I can’t remember the other off-hand). While I applaud their decision to diversify, it really isn’t as simple as changing the names, genders and mechanics of the sex scenes, but that’s pretty much all that has been done here. I’ve really struggled to articulate exactly what it is that is such a giveaway that KM writes mostly m/f and I’m still struggling – if you read a lot of m/m, it’s just obvious.
I know what you mean, but I can’t quite explain it either. It’s usually an author who primarily writes m/f, and they basically write the same story, but with two guys. The dynamics are NOT interchangeable. Yes there are effeminate gay men, but they’re still not interchangeable with women. Being LGBTQ, like being black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese, etc., ought to have an impact on the character and the story. You should come away understanding that the sex (or ethnic heritage, etc) of the character(s) makes a difference in how the story is told and how in unfolds. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons I tend to read LGBTQ romances, I’m really tired of the cis-het m/f gender dynamics.
I’ve also often noticed a difference in how sex scenes are written when it’s an author who writes primarily m/m and those who don’t. I don’t mean they’re not good, sometimes they are, but I find the emphasis is somewhat different.
I’m curious about what you’ve both mentioned – the more subtle differences between m/f and m/m romances, which seem to be more obvious when an author who is used to writing straight romances tries m/m ones. If either of you wants to write in more detail about this, maybe as a blog post, I would be very interested in reading!
It’s difficult to pin down because every way I try to explain it isn’t quite right. By saying it, it makes it sound simple to see, over perhaps oversimplified. It’s not a “thing” so much as an impression in a lot of cases. But mainly, good queer romances are written by someone either in the community, or who has done thorough and respectful research into the community, and not just into how the sex works.
Honestly, I’d say the differences between m/f and m/m romances are not that subtle, or they shouldn’t be. But describing why isn’t always straight forward. And part of it for me is also the way I perceive the interactions between the romantic leads. In male/female stories, I’m bringing with me an acknowledgement of our cultural problems with misogyny and toxic masculinity, and how that impacts a woman’s agency. Being (overly?) sensitive to that, I often get really frustrated with much of contemporary m/f romance. Even with “strong, independent heroines” we are still often dealing with gaslighting, pushy men who still vacillate between seeing women as either “virgins or whores.” Guys can act the same way towards each other, but, at least overall in our society, they are on a more equal footing by virtue of both being men, so I don’t perceive the same imbalance of power.
Anyway, I’m not a writer, but maybe Caz is interested in doing a blog post.
Hah – I might, if I wasn’t having the same trouble defining it as you are! I think the problem I have with finding ways to talk about it is the obvious – I’m not a gay man, or any sort of man, and I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations about men in general seeing as I can’t have their experience of life. But I think it’s reasonably fair to say that men approach sex and relationships and emotions a bit differently (differently – not better or worse) to women, and the authors who really understand that mindset and outlook craft their stories in a way that reflects that (even though the majority of m/m romance authors are not men). Of course, MCs in m/f have sex outside of relationships, too, so it’s not something as simple as “gay men sleep around more” – although that culture is usually acknowledged in m/m.
The only thing I can suggest, Marian, is to read this book and then read something by Jay Hogan; I bet you’ll notice the difference straight away!
Thank you to both of you for responding. This was very helpful information.
I actually did try reading this book. I got through the first couple of chapters, but it just felt like watching two guys who got along well have great sex. I’m happy for them, but the minimal conflict at the start wasn’t enough to hook me. I also find it really difficult to enjoy contemporaries – the moment the story gets into texting and Instagram and Tik Tok, my attention starts drifting.
The reason I was interested in your impressions, though, was because I’m planning to release a m/m romance next year. It’s the first m/m romance I’ve written, with all my previous experience being m/f. I’ve read m/m romances, but that’s as far as my research into the gay community goes. That said, the story is a fantasy set on a different world with people who have different cultural practices, and my beta readers liked the story. Though they’re all straight women, so who knows. Thanks again for your thoughtful answers!
Yep, that’s pretty much it. Minimal conflict pretty much all the way through. Jude was more interesting than Hudson; it felt to me like the author had to give him some “issues” as well just to try to even the scales, but he’s still very bland.
Good luck with the book!
Many readers of what I call “hawt” m/f contemporary fiction (very similar stories with lots of sex, for example Lauren Blakely) will enjoy the m/m contemporaries which are the same types of stories but with two men. I’m not trying to diss it, just say that there is a very happy, vocal fan base for this type of book. So there is an audience out there.
Also, if you are curious about how your story comes across, make sure you’ve included some avid m/m readers in your beta group. People who read Jay Hogan, for example, and perhaps look into some successful m/m fantasy writers, Kim Fielding, Lee Welch, and I’ve enjoyed H.L. Day’s 13 Kingdom’s series.
I don’t think my story has lots of sex (just four scenes), but hopefully someone will like it. Two of the people who read it edit for small presses which do m/m romance, and while they did suggest a few changes, these didn’t involve the relationship or the way the heroes were characterized.
I love the story, but obviously I’m biased. So… fingers crossed.
I just wanted to add that “an imbalance of power” can definitely exist in m/m romances (and often does), it’s just that the source of the imbalance isn’t their gender. It can be social class, money, education, etc., but not simply because of their sex.
Have you read Playing with Fire? I love that one!