Grade : B+

In Olivia Cunning’s Staged, Steve Aimes, drummer for top metal band Exodus End, is a romantic at heart, but after his ex-wife’s betrayal, he’s been abstaining from emotion (although definitely not from sex). When he sees Roux Williams in the limo that picks up the band, he assumes that she’s a “whore” hired for the band’s entertainment, but Roux is actually the keyboardist for Baroquen, a band made up of punk/goth foster sisters. For Steve, that’s actually worse, since Baroquen is the new replacement for Exodus End’s former opening act, which means she replaced Steve’s best friend’s band. Still, his attraction to Roux outweighs his annoyance. Will Roux’s reciprocal attraction be enough to overcome her irritation, and also her band’s pressure to avoid Exodus End lest they look like they slept their way onto the tour?

I enjoyed watching the main ‘separation devices’ evolve and change across the course of the book, as they would in real life. At first, Roux can’t date (or hook up with) Steve because of the issues I just mentioned. Then, she accepts Steve’s suggestion that they hook up for the pre-tour week, but step away once the tour starts. Next, both of them concur that they can’t stop, but they’ll try to keep it a secret, using Roux’s real name Katie when she’s in girlfriend-mode so people won’t connect them. Then they realize that’s ludicrous. It’s great to see the author not sitting on one device and setting the timer for it to blow up at the two-thirds mark, but instead, letting the characters respond to reality.

The band and fame settings are credible. Steve is an established star about a decade Roux’s senior. He’s a hedonist at heart, a guy who admits enjoying the “occasional bump of cocaine”, and who thinks nothing of grabbing the band’s private jet to whisk Roux off to visit a bandmate’s private island. Roux is, by contrast, a performer grounded more in music than stardom. An introverted vegan, she’s also anxious around intoxicated people because as a young girl, she survived her drunk father’s mass shooting of the rest of her family. (Sometimes it feels like there’s an arms race in the horrible backstories of survivor heroines. I’m not fully comfortable with this as a character background, but at least the author carries the trauma through as a storyline). The music festival where Baroquen debuts is fun to watch from the performers’ perspectives, and I appreciated seeing the list of roadies, bodyguards, pilots, and other staff who keep the tour moving.

The most standout aspect of this book is the dynamic within the bands. Unlike a lot of rock bands in novels, especially once you get deeper into the series and the heroes have paired off, Exodus End has internal conflict. Max, the lead singer, is loyal to the band’s manager Sam, whom Steve despises and wants to get rid of - yesterday. Bassist Logan Schmidt hooked up with journalist Toni Nichols in the first book in the series - and Steve doesn’t trust her, and Toni doesn’t like Roux. The fact that they clash on things that are hugely significant and also things that are entirely petty? Delightfully human. Zach, Steve’s gay best friend, isn’t a member of Exodus End, but it’s still a great dynamic. I liked how they stick together in the face of homophobic rumors. Zach’s relationship with a closeted actor nicely serves as a foil for Roux’s reluctance to ‘out’ herself and Steve.

Still, there are areas for improvement. I haven’t read the other books in the series, so while Staged works better than many Book Threes, I felt like I was missing backstory about Steve, his ex-wife, and Tamara, a tabloid journalist who gets an all-access pass from their manager (I cannot understand why the band would not have pitched a fit about that, seeing as Tamara has sexually harassed Steve in the past to the point that he once had a restraining order on her). The Big Mis with Steve and Roux isn’t as poorly handled as many other Big Mises, but it’s still one of those things you see coming a mile away and mutter ‘yeah, come on’, to yourself as you flip pages waiting for it to resolve. The book ends abruptly, especially in the area of consequences for Tamara and the other villains.

Lastly, while the author sold me on the realism of these characters off stage, I don’t think she captures them as musicians. Both of them are shown performing, and both spend those performance sequences internally monologuing about the person they’re in love with. I love to be swept into the moment with musician characters, to feel the ecstasy of a musical crescendo, or the visceral connection with other performers in a group setting. GIving me ‘distracted lusting’ instead of ‘musical immersion’ felt like a missed opportunity, and also diminishes their credibility as greats in their field.

Rock stars have become more prevalent in romance, but the music world of Staged feels far more developed than most of them. If you want a musician romance that leans into the dirty as well as the glitz, Staged just might rock your world.

Grade : B+

Sensuality: Hot

Review Date : May 16, 2023

Publication Date: 11/2018

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Caroline Russomanno

I'm a history geek and educator, and I've lived in five different countries in North America, Asia, and Europe. In addition to the usual subgenres, I'm partial to YA, Sci-fi/Fantasy, and graphic novels. I love to cook.

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