Syncopation by Anna Zabo. Carina Press. 2018.
For the most part, I loved this book. And, I had a lot of trouble with the epilogue, especially with regard to the aromantic representation. I want to explore these aspects of my reading experience in detail, so this is going to be a longer review. I read this book twice before writing a review, because I had such a tumble of complex feels about it, and needed to get clear before I could review.
My first read was a glorious ride. This was the exact book I needed on that particular hard day. Intensely riveting, complex characterization, so well written! All these deep descriptions of different elements of music, from training, to composing, to melding styles with a new band member, to performance. This is one of my most favorite musician romances because of how central music was in the story, and because the writing about the music was incredibly gorgeous and resonant.
The BDSM was wonderful: deeply consensual, beautifully drawn, realistic, compelling, intensely hot. This book has one of my favorite depictions of a D/s relationship that I’ve ever read; it gets at the ways D/s can build you up and create intimacy and be a positive force in your life, a source of strength as you deal with chaos. I loved that so much about it. This depicts D/s that is glorious and intimate and powerful, and it felt so good that so much of it was written from the dominant’s POV. And what a dominant! As a dominant reader, I was so excited to connect with a complex, vulnerable, careful dominant MC who cared deeply about consent; they are rare in BDSM fiction. And these two MCs were so well matched, the D/s was so good for both of them; I loved that.
I loved the band, all of them, and how they worked together, how amazingly queer they were. Dom and Mish were wonderfully complex for secondary characters, and as a group they made a beautiful queer chosen family, one I adored reading about. I cannot wait for the other books in this series, so that I get to read their stories too. I adored them, and the way the band dynamics were depicted in the story.
There were so many small things that just made me smile in this book. A few examples: the synesthesia rep, that both MCs have a history of sex work and it was a non-issue, how caring the band was about their queer fans.
I found the arc with the antagonist, an abusive band manager, quite painful to read, because it was a detailed depiction of abuse, and an abusive relationship that Ray in particular was trapped in, that was destroying him and threatening to destroy the band. This arc made it a hard book to read, and also was part of why it was riveting and high stakes and I could not put the book down. And yet, it also made this a story about the ways that the band as a group, and each of the other members supported Ray through that, cared about him, worked together to keep him as safe as they could. It made this a story where his relationship with Zav helped him survive the abuse, and eventually find a way to address it and endeavor to be safe, and to have the band be safe from this abusive person. I liked that there was no swoop in and rescue, that made me really happy. I think this was a valuable arc for me to read, and one that was more hopeful a reading experience than you might expect, given the situation.
The aromantic representation and the way it unfolded through the main arc of the story was lovely in many ways. It resonated, and felt good to read, as an arospec questioning reader. I liked that Ray already knew about arospec and acespec identities, liked that it showed him wanting to know the parameters of their relationship and also not even thinking of pushing for anything romantic, or wanting anything romantic.
Zav was coming from experiences of not being respected or understood that felt real, and I liked that he was also holding his boundaries as important, his aro identity as real and not something he was going to try to change or mask for anyone. He definitely was coming to this D/s relationship with reasonable fears about what Ray might do, especially given the history with his ex, who was in my mind abusive toward him, and definitely harassed him in the workplace. (That aspect of it was played down a bit too much for me, actually. Though I get why it would be, inside Zav’s POV.) I appreciated the way almost losing Ray was a huge shock and had him questioning what this relationship meant, how he really felt about Ray, what he needed and wanted; that kind of turmoil and questioning made so much sense, and felt sensitively done.
There are some aspects of the aro rep that I found difficult. The first is that there’s a bit of Ray being the only one he could be with/who could accept his aroness that comes out late in the story, when Zav says “I’ve spent most of my life under the assumption that no one would ever come close to understanding who I am…And here you are,” to Ray. My heart sunk when I read that, because it felt like it was about his aromanticism. There was nothing I saw in the text that framed Zav in this way until then, so it was a real surprise to me as a reader.
This is a character that knows the language to describe his aromanticism, has access to aro community online, presumably, is certain that there is nothing wrong with being aro, but assumes for his whole life that nobody would understand him (and that presumably he cannot have relationships) because he’s aro? Yes, perhaps, in moments of depression, despair and loneliness, anyone can be in that place, but to say that this is a lifelong belief? It implies that the story has an acceptance based arc, when really, it didn’t before this. And I was so relieved that it didn’t. So glad that it was instead a story about an aro person forming a D/s relationship, friendship and chosen family relationship with someone he cares about, who cares about him and wants that kind of relationship with him.
If I had the power to rewrite the canon of this story, I would edit that line. And, one more piece of the story. Because the aro rep that I mostly loved turned into something quite troubling in the epilogue. So much so that when I was reading it the second time, I was dreading getting to the epilogue. I actually stopped reading, because I was having a hard day and couldn’t bring myself to read the epilogue. I had to go back and reread just the epilogue to write this review.
Throughout the book, when Zav is thinking about his aro identity, he names things like wine, flowers, chocolates, candlelit dinners, staring dreamily into someone’s eyes as symbols of romantic love, something he very clearly is not up for as an aromantic person. “He didn’t comprehend that kind of love—or the trappings of it. So much of romance seemed downright silly.” It is very clear to the reader that he isn’t interested in or up for the trappings of romantic love, and in particular mentions flowers a few times as a limit. The story also describes past partners (including his recent abusive ex) not accepting this about him, pressuring him to do these things, expecting them from him, again especially regarding flowers. And Ray when he is thinking of Zav’s aromanticism, says to Zav “You don’t love me, not hearts and flowers love.”
(I discuss the epilogue in detail, highlight to see text.)
So to have the epilogue start with Zak getting Ray flowers…it set off all of my alarms. Particularly because they are flowers that have a clear special meaning. Ray is confused and thrown, and thinks of Zav’s limit about flowers; the flowers are the first thing he mentions when he sees Zav. And Zav…blushes and asks if the flowers are okay. As I read this, my stomach was full of dread. It seemed clear that Zav was doing this to please Ray, and Zav is so relieved that Ray is pleased. Then there is a mention of chocolate that Zav got him last week, and I realized that Ray wasn’t worried about this pattern. He says that Zav doesn’t have to do this, and thinks very clearly that he doesn’t want to change Zav’s aromanticism. But he also isn’t troubled by this behavior. And I was intensely troubled. Because it was clear that they hadn’t negotiated this, and it could very well be that Zav felt pressured or obligated to violate his own limits around these things. For this to feel okay to me as an arospec questioning reader, I needed them to negotiate around romantic-coded behaviors, what Zav calls the “trappings”, and for Zav’s consent to be clear. Especially given the intense amount of pressure Zav had experienced in the past.
I was troubled by this happening at this place in the story, by the way it was being told from Ray’s POV, by how it seemed to be setting up marriage or his relationship with Ray as a way to change Zav’s aroness and make him do romantic things. Then it got worse. Because what follows is a scene where in Ray’s sense of it, Zav “wasn’t just fucking him—he was making love to Ray.” (emphasis added) And then Ray teases him by saying Zav loves him. It didn’t feel like something to tease about, especially in the midst of all this stuff that was framing an aro character as doing romantic things. It didn’t seem clear that Zav was okay being teased about it, especially given his immediate objection.
In the romance genre–and the author refers to this as a romance, and it is structured very much like a romance–epilogues are there to give the reader a glimpse down the road, cement a sense of security in the HEA, and wrap up loose ends. The book ends before they get married, so showing their life together is supposed to create this sense of warmth and solidity in their relationship. This epilogue basically throws all that was established about their relationship out the window, and shows Zav doing romantic things. This doesn’t make me feel secure as an arospec questioning reader; I felt betrayed and hurt. It feels like this epilogue is suggesting that if you wait around long enough, an aromantic partner will eventually start doing romantic things and you can have a romantic relationship with them.
In my headcanon, I want to remove this epilogue and replace it with the band hanging out together at Ray and Zav’s house, and then showing Ray and Zav doing their regular D/s ritual before bed. Reinforcing the chosen family, the new record’s success and how the band is solid again after trauma, perhaps planting seeds for book two, and showing that Ray and Zav are still strong and happy as a couple, creating home together, their D/s feeding them both in the ways they need and want.
I loved so much of the aro rep; it’s primarily because of the epilogue that I’m hesitant to recommend this book to arospec readers. I suggest that arospec readers avoid reading the epilogue. For opinions by other arospec and arospec questioning readers, here is a review by an arospec reader that had similar concerns about the epilogue and here are reviews by arospec readers who loved the aro rep.
- Gay man trauma survivor MC with synesthesia, former sex worker
- Pansexual aromantic man MC, former sex worker
- Bi/pan non-binary author
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Casual ableism including use of slurs, sometimes challenged by others. Alcohol use. Verbal/mental/emotional abuse and bullying, in a professional relationship. Depression. Anxiety. Trauma. References to an abusive relationship in the past that included aro antagonism, menacing (thrown vase), threats and workplace sexual harassment. References to addiction of former band member. Description of an argument that included yelling and menacing (thrown bottle). Drugging/non-consensual drug usage. Anaphlaxis. Hospitalization. Sex on the page. Consensual BDSM including D/s, pain play, chastity play, orgasm control, bondage.
- Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley.
- I have had some contact with the author on Twitter.
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