The first book in Hudson Lin’s new Jade Harbour Capital series, Hard Sell, takes us into the world of Canadian venture capital. Danny Ip grew up poor but supported by the wealthy Lok family, whose older son Wei he sees as a brother and whose younger one, Tobin, is… emphatically not a brother. As adults, Danny and Tobin’s paths cross at work; Tobin has been hired to work as an outside accounting consultant for a firm Danny is attempting to purchase. But it’s family that’s the real obstacle, as Danny struggles with the fear of losing his friend and his surrogate family if he, as Danny puts it, is “fucking their little prince”. As Danny (now ultra-wealthy) flies back and forth across Canada to sneak around with Tobin and try to rescue the acquisition, Tobin tries to convince Danny that he is grown up enough now to make his own choices, including choosing Danny – if only Danny would take long enough of a break from work to be chosen. If you like stories with one very unlikeable hero, an age gap fixation, and a vague incest vibe, this is your book. For the rest of us, it’s a hard sell indeed.
Danny is an unlikeable individual. He’s a workaholic, and a disrespectful one, constantly checking in with work while on dates and even double-dipping meetings on what Tobin thinks is a weekend getaway for the two of them. The work, by the way, is private equity – more vividly known as vulture capitalism. As one of Tobin’s friends tells him,
“They buy companies on the cheap with lots of credit, load them up with even more debt while firing everyone. Then they sell bits and pieces of it to the highest bidder, rake in the cash, and leave everyone else devastated.”
“Okay, yeah… private equity firms have a bad rap with the bleeding-heart liberal crows, but Danny didn’t do any of that, right?”
Well, let’s pop into one of Danny’s meetings, shall we?
Coworker one “Rio Dios met their KPIs this quarter.”
Coworker two: “Only after they fired third of their staff to cut costs.”
Coworker one: “They needed to cut costs anyway.”
Danny has no issues with any of this.
Danny and Tobin have several obstacles lying between them – the nature of Danny’s work, Danny’s workaholism, the fact that Danny is best friends with Tobin’s older brother – and unfortunately the author runs primarily with the least interesting one to provide the romantic conflict – the third. The thing about Danny’s work being immoral just sort of disappears. Similarly, there’s a weird moment mid-story where Danny, driving distracted, hits a cyclist with his car, that is barely returned to (Danny will write him a check. Danny will not stop using his phone at inappropriate times).
An age gap (Tobin is younger than Danny), can work, but the author dwells on it in a way that’s profoundly uncomfortable. I lost track of how many times the author has the characters call Tobin “all grown up”, or Tobin insist that he’s old enough to make his own choices, which has the effect of making me notice the age gap all the more. I did like that Tobin reads authentically as a young man in his twenties, insecure about his ability in business where he has yet to prove himself, excited to attend the Calgary Stampede in a barechested (except for glitter and a vest) yellow cowboy outfit that sounds like he borrowed it from Lil Nas X. But he and Danny felt less opposites attract than badly mismatched.
Oh, and Tobin and Danny grew up essentially as siblings, with Tobin’s older brother (the same age as Danny) being Danny’s best friend. When Danny admits to Tobin’s brother that he loves Tobin, the brother says,
“Toby’s my brother, and you’re pretty much my brother, so the two of you together was… hard to get my mind around. Not in a weird incest kind of way or anything.”
TOO LATE NO TAKEBACKS. And let’s answer this question: a character says,
“I’ve known you since the day you were born, and I’ve had the honor of watching you grow up from the annoying kid brother into the amazing man you are today.”
This character is:
- The older brother giving a best-man speech
- The boyfriend proposing marriage.
The answer is THE BAD OPTION.
This is the second time recently I’ve read a protagonist (here, Tobin) with access to piles of money who is proud of themselves for making it ‘on their own’ by taking scholarships. Honestly, I find that repugnant. Scholarships are for people with financial need, not for people whose ego dictates that they prove their independence from the billionaires waving checks at them. Oh, and the author has a weird fixation with telling us that the leads are peeing – they never discreetly go to the bathroom, they always “empty their bladders” or “relieve their bladders.” Why do I need that detail? (Spoiler: I don’t).
So what’s good here? Both Danny and Tobin are strongly characterised and effectively written; when I tell you Danny is unlikeable, that’s not the same thing as not credible. The Canadian setting is believable, with Danny’s jet-set lifestyle taking him from Toronto to Calgary to Vancouver, living in hotel suites and demanding custom items from room service. The details of life in a cutthroat finance office are authentic, probably because the author writes in her afterword that she had this career.
Hard Sell is perfectly competent, and people who are either fine with less likeable characters or who don’t find the same characteristics unlikeable may enjoy it. But for me, people I don’t like interacting in a way that reads as vaguely creepy isn’t my idea of a good read even if it’s competently executed.