At Any Price
by Brenna Aubrey, contemporary (2014)
Silver Griffon Associates, $2.99, ISBN 978-1-940951-01-0


Brenna Aubrey's At Any Price is, in many ways, the author's battle scar as well as pride and joy. You may have heard of her rejection of a traditional publishing contract because of the evil influence of authors that had gone indie (rumor has it, Courtney Milan was the dirtiest influence) - they help her realize how you can make more money going the indie route.

As a result, the grognards of the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum raised their heads out of their war bunker, pushing aside the "NO INDIES ALLOWED: WE SHOOT ON SIGHT" signs and barb wire fences, to accuse the author of lying and generally being all fifty thousand shades of shifty for turning up her nose at such a contract. The ensuing drama was quite entertaining, as crazy is always so delicious when one is watching from the sidelines with popcorn in hand.

Then, the author posted on her blog the profits from the early sales of this book, and it's a lot of money. The Absolute Write grognards retreated back to their war bunker to continue rehashing publishing rules and tips from 1999, while pretending that the whole thing never happened, just like Kindle, Smashwords, and other vile developments never happened. The indie scene high-five'd one another and cheered. Validation! See? Traditional publishing is the scum of the earth, the indie scene is where all the cool people are, and if you aren't one of the indie supporters out there, you are too school for cool, GTFO.

So, so entertaining.

That's not the reason why I bought this book, though. I bought it because the heroine is a gamer, the hero makes MMORPGs, and the synopsis is just adorable in its use of gaming jargon to describe a plot that is, while commonly found in historical romances, rarely present in contemporary new adult stories. I like games. I'm a big Dragon Age and Mass Effect stan, and I have fun role-playing in Guild Wars and, to a lesser extent, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I just can't get into the first person shooter format, as my aim is horrendous, but I love watching the cutscenes on YouTube. And, don't hate me, I thought the new Dante from DmC: Devil May Cry isn't that bad. Old Dante is always cooler, but as a stand alone character, he's not bad. Could use more clever lines, though.

Anyway. I'm always keen on finding romance stories that manage to combine the good and bad quirks of the gaming world.

Emilia "Mia" Strong is offering her virginity to the highest bidder. She runs a popular gaming blog, and being that she is a female gamer that isn't writing for Kotaku, she is somewhat of a novelty in the scene. However, Mia in real life is a different story. Her mother has cancer, and the family ranch-cum-B&B was mortgaged to pay for the medical treatment. Mia knows that the money is running out. Also, her grades is slipping, and she would be in danger of flunking if she doesn't get her act together. To solve the money issue, she decides to offer her maidenhead online to a bloke with the dough. I don't know what would happen if a lesbian ends up being the highest bidder, but we all know there are no lesbians in romance novels, only gay best friends, so there's that.

The highest bidder is Adam Drake, a self-made billionaire who struck gold with his MMORPG game at the age of 17. I know he is fictitious because he has a flat stomach and he dresses up like he's ready to walk down a red carpet. He also has no weird habits, body odor, hygiene issues, or ten hard drives full of pornographic Japanese cartoons, so yes, he's definitely not from this world. He soon takes Mia to Amsterdam, where it's okay to pay for sex, and from then on, it's love. Or is it?

There are several good books in here, but they are all chopped up before they really come to life. There is a really good story here, about a female gamer deliberately selling her maidenhead as some kind of subversion on the unrealistic and even unreasonable value many cultures have placed on a woman's virginity, but that is quickly squashed as Mia admits that this stance of hers is a front for the fact that she just wants to sell herself for money. The justification - her mother is sick, and you don't want to see the poor mother die, do you? - is there, so we are not allowed to think bad things about her, so there.

Still, it could have been an interesting tale, then, of a traditional historical plot transported to modern days. It is just as well as the author throws away the initial interesting premise, as there are many elements here that would make the whole thing seem like an exercise of hypocrisy. Mia gives some predictable, even formulaic, babble about bikini chainmails and damsels in distress to show that she is some kind of feminist gamer, but just look at this story. She is rescued from her money problems by hooking up with a billionaire. This isn't exactly a spotlight on the empowered woman.

But then the author morphs the story into a standard new adult fare. Despite the fact that Adam has... softer... reasons to bid on Mia, he treats her like crap for no reason in their initial face-to-face meeting. Maybe it's because every other new adult hero has to think of all women as whores, and it's the heroine's job to prove to him that she is the exception of the "Whores, Whores Everywhere!" rule? I don't know. They just argue. Mia doesn't have much of a ground to stand on - she is, technically, a whore in this instance, so she has no right to feel offended.

Then again, Mia is so full of it. She tells Adam that there will be no chit-chat, no blowjobs, just get in there and get out. However, she is soon trying to pry every single detail of his personal life from him. Even more bewilderingly, all those issues about her falling grades and mother's financial problems take a backseat once Mia is obsessed with Adam. Once they reach Amsterdam, the story becomes a very, very familiar new adult fare, one where everyone has issues, the amount of baggage a character has is passed off as the entirety of his or her personality, and falling in love means acting melodramatically in the battle to see who has the biggest woe-is-me story in the land.

And then, I realize that this story will be continued for two more books. I don't think there is much here to warrant prolonging the formulaic fare for two more books, but what do I know. That's what everyone is doing these days, so that is what the author will do as well. And yes, the second book is told from the hero's point of view. If it's the same story narrated from Adam's point of view, then we have officially entered cliché territory here.

The end result of this mess is the story feeling way too contrived for its own good. The unusual setting ends up being an obvious gimmick to get the hero and heroine hooked up. The gaming culture is just superficially mentioned, and I never get the impression that Mia is genuinely into games. The story starts out being humorous and wry, but quickly switches gears to angst-laden melodrama marathon. I get mood whiplash. It doesn't help that the baggage is standard young adult cliché and there isn't anything in the author's treatment of the now overused "abuse, addiction, and other fashionable issues of beautiful emo people" formula that make me sit up and go, "Okay, so that's not tired and boring."

The author has a nice sense of humor, which makes the story's melodramatic dip into formulaic young adult trilogy territory all the more disappointing. The quips and one-liners work, while the more "emotional" moments make me chuckle at the wrong moments, especially the heroine starts catching her breath and gasping like someone has forced her to choke on a goldfish every time she realizes how yet damaged the hero is.

At any rate, the cover and the drama caused by this title are all far more interesting than the story itself. It's just another standard "I'm abused! You're harassed! We're all so tormented! But we're hot and we're sexy, all the better to pout at the world!" first book of a trilogy, one of the many in the market at the moment. It wins some cookie points from me, however, for having less pointless misogyny and more actual coherent and readable narrative.

This may sound like backhanded compliment, but it's not. In a market where many Sylvia Day and Jamie McGuire wannabes put up the stories they wrote in one week, most of them written in a language that bears only slight resemblance to the English language as well as containing gasoline-soaked "WHORES! ALL WOMEN ARE WHORES... except for our heroine, of course" screes, At Any Price is actually one of the more readable and occasionally genuinely funny stories. That is why it is all the more disappointing to find that this story is trying so hard to be just another generic new adult trauma porn entry.

Rating: 60


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