Where to start with Judgment Road? Well, I think it’s fair to say that there is a subgroup of romance readers that will really love it and another that will find the graphic depictions of biker club life very off-putting. This is an often visceral book that will generate strong reactions from readers, and my own assessment as a reviewer comes out somewhere in the middle because I felt parts of both strong reactions. I could respect the vivid writing even as some of the scenes personally repulsed me, and I have to admit that there was something about the hero’s deep confidence in the heroine’s goodness that made for a cracktastic reading experience in the best parts of this book. However, the troubling first half made it hard for me to really root for the main couple.
I tend not to give many trigger warnings in my reviews, but for Judgment Road, I feel like I need to mention a few things off the top. This is first in a series revolving around a motorcycle club and while the book is well-written, it contains pretty much every trigger that I can think of. There’s pedophilia, rape, suicidal thoughts, and almost every kind of violence imaginable. If it’s not happening onscreen, so to speak, it gets discussed – usually more than once – in graphic detail.
And while not in the same category as the list above, I know the issue of birth control is a concern/source of frustration for many readers. Suffice it to say that the characters in this book treat birth control the way most of us treat getting our recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables. Everyone agrees it’s a good idea and even talks about what a good idea it is, but no one does anything about it.
Now, on to the story. This book revolves around a smallish motorcycle club called Torpedo Ink. They’ve made nice with the big club that controls their area so they can run their biker bar and live their lives without a lot of hassle. As the story unfolds, we learn that the members of Torpedo Ink share a terrible bond. They are the survivors of a very abusive ‘school’ for what sounds like spies and assassins. They escaped and now they live their lives below the radar in a self-made world where their club is everything. Reaper is one of the club’s enforcers, taking on all kinds of dirty jobs that are the club’s business and being expected to protect the life of club president Czar – with his own life if necessary.
Anya is an outsider. She has a job bartending at the club’s bar, but it’s obvious she’s not what she seems. She drives an old beater of a car, lives in a campground and bartends in a rough biker bar. However, she also owns designer jeans and has skills one would expect from a more high-end bartender. Reaper notices that her story doesn’t match what he has observed of her – and he’s spent plenty of time observing her.
One night some rough guys try to assault Anya in the club parking lot. Reaper comes to her rescue, and from that moment, Anya’s life completely changes. She clearly wants to be with Reaper, but it’s also clear that even if that weren’t the case, she wouldn’t be able to shake him after that night. Reaper pretty much lives for his bike and fighting, so his attraction to Anya takes him by surprise. He is used to having total control of his body, so believe me, readers will get to hear a LOT about how Reaper just can’t control his… erm… impulses when Anya is around.
Reaper isn’t really a relationship kind of guy, so for him, interactions with Anya start off purely sexual. On the one hand, I could see the mutual attraction, but on the other, the manner in which Reaper treats Anya at first is alternately protective, domineering and even degrading. I can tolerate a hero who behaves badly if he makes up for it, but Reaper never entirely does. It’s not until he pushes Anya into a situation which is one that I suspect most readers will consider beyond the pale, that Reaper seems to figure out that the way in which he is behaving is most emphatically not okay.
The romance between Reaper and Anya is not a delicately told one, but mixed into the frank and sometimes crude exchanges we see the growth of protectiveness and a conversion of lust to love. As a reader, I wanted to believe in it but I had trouble entirely accepting Reaper’s change of heart as permanent because of how harshly her treats Anya in the beginning. In addition, his love for her seems to be a mix of being in awe of how amazing she is and a feeling almost of ownership. Given Reaper’s background, one can see why feelings of protectiveness, friendship and even the possibility of love are almost alien things that he just doesn’t know how to cope with. However, in my mind, that still doesn’t excuse some of what Anya has to go through to get to the HEA.
One last point to note: If you’ve read Feehan before, you will know that she is well-known for her paranormals. And yes, the members of Torpedo Ink do have hints of paranormal abilities. By and large, those hints are unobtrusive, but they also felt unnecessary. The members of the club are already well-trained machines, so the addition of supernatural powers felt like overkill.
To be very honest, Judgment Road is an incredibly difficult book to grade. On the positive side, it’s quite vividly written and Feehan sets up the Torpedo Ink club very well. The dynamic between members of that group feels solid and I did find myself coming to care about some of Reaper’s fellow club members. Some readers will likely also really enjoy the main romance in this book. It burns hot and passionately, and while there are all kinds of things going on between Anya and Reaper that are emphatically Not Okay for me, these may not be a stumbling block for others. Given the handling of the paranormal element, some of Reaper’s antics and the way he talks down to Anya, I can’t wholehearedly recommend this one, but if you like biker books, it may be of interest.