Sunday, 30 June 2013

City of Soldiers, Sam Burke

Strange that so many people could rally against banks and greed but not blood and bullets. That their passion covered job cuts but not paralysis, prosthetics, and PTSD.

-Review by Kazza K

City of Soldiers by Sam BurkeSean Gordon is a twenty three year old medically discharged army vet who has a bung knee, a head full of dead friends and pent-up frustrations. He lives in Philadelphia with his sister, Marjorie, brother-in-law, Abe, and (baby) nephew, Nicky.  Sean is struggling living with his family, he is encouraged daily to look for work by Marjorie, to help around the house, and to occasionally look after Nicky. He doesn't cope well with any of it. They also don't discuss his sexual orientation - he is gay, but if it isn't mentioned maybe he'll come home with a girl one day. Sean is a negative, disillusioned young man. He calls his BIL Cranky Abe, he feels his sister always has a constipated face and he isn't particularly attached to his nephew. Sean now needs the aid of a walking stick courtesy of injuries sustained during a tour of Afghanistan. A walking stick he's named Bastard. Basically, Sean struggles settling back into everyday life. Having a severely injured knee does not add to his joy, neither does being twenty three and permanently injured, his living arrangements, and the paltry 10% disability he receives.

Sean is walking home after closing time from a bar one night, drinking to his memories of fallen mates, when he falls through a manhole. When he wakes up the next morning, with a few aches and pains and a fair sized hangover, there is another man there who has a sweet manner and offers him a sip of water from his flask -

One last sip of water. Sean wiped his lips on his sleeve. "What are you, the sewer fairy godmother? You wait for drunks to fall in and then tell them everything's going to be okay?"
A considered look, and then a smile came back. "You're about half right."
Sean's sarcasm drifted away. He'd only been in three gay bars his entire life, but if this were one of them, that smile would lure Sean into buying this guy a beer or two, and do his best to get him into the bathroom or alley, anywhere they could rub and grope, hot breath and slick skin. Maybe the guy would pin Sean's hands to the wall. Maybe he'd silence Sean's words with his hands over Sean's mouth. His dirty fantasies must have shown on his face, because the man blushed and focused back down on his puzzle.  

Sean feels pulled towards Roman. He gives him a piece of paper with his phone number and name when Roman gets spooked -

You should go, Roman had said. What had he been afraid of, there at the end?

He worries that Roman is homeless, living with vagrants, the mentally ill, and sex offenders. He can't seem to shake a feeling of attraction and worry all at once for Roman -

Sean stared at his phone, Roman would call. They'd meet up, and Sean would find out that he wasn't homeless at all, just someone who liked exploring underground.
Roman's smile could make someone believe almost anything.

Roman Mahoney is a medically discharged Marine. He has suffered brain trauma and has severe memory impairment, along with jumbled but worrying memories of things he would rather forget. Including a family who disowned him -

The purchase of a large coffee and an everything bagel took the last of his money, but it also bought him a half hour of internet access. He checked his mail - nothing but spam - and his Facebook. His half brother had posted pictures of himself and his new black Ford truck, a college graduation gift from Mom and Dad. Roman tried not to be jealous.
Scott in his graduation gown at the University of Florida. Laura, Roman's half sister, holding her baby. Pregnant at sixteen, a mom at seventeen. But their parent's hadn't kicked her out of the house, no sir. There was more forgiveness in their hearts for teen pregnancy than for Roman's fumbling foray into gay teen sex,  

Roman does live in the underground tunnels, as well as a shelter that is on offer from time to time. He receives a higher disability, due to the extent of his injuries, but he chooses to stay with men he identifies with and cares for. These men include Kristian, Hoss, Doc, and a number of other vets from various wars who live in a homeless commune of local tunnels and subway stations. They look out for each other and for those who are older or more infirm. They help out at the Race Street Shelter, run by the Colonel, and St Jerome's soup kitchen, run by Rev Kate.

Long story short, Sean is smitten with Roman, wants to be with him and hopes that maybe Roman feels the same. But when he does eventually kiss Roman nothing happens, Roman doesn't put anything into the kiss at all, leaving Sean confused and frustrated. Meanwhile, through his connection to Roman and incidents that occur, Sean finds himself drawn into Roman's world, and Roman's world very much includes the stern, large alpha of the group, Kristian. And Kristian cares a great deal for Roman, doesn't take kindly to Prettyboy (Sean) or anyone else who wants to sniff around. Also aiding in Kristian's protection of Roman is Doc and Hoss.  Hoss was in the same unit as Roman  pre brain trauma and they came back to Philadelphia together. 

At the beginning of a book the reader is privy to the murder of an older returned vet and the thoughts and actions of the killer. So there is a murderer on the lose killing homeless men. The last one, the one at the books' beginning, was a friend and one of the men Krsiatian's group watch over, Dave Farr. There are now three dead men and Roman decides he needs to call on the help of a detective that is known to the group, Michael Brackett - another major protector of Roman. Everyone cares deeply for Roman and each man would like to get Roman into their life in more than just a hand-holding way. They each want him in their bed no matter how much they say they can handle a relationship on Roman's terms. But Roman's terms are different to the way each of these men want him. Roman is asexual and all he wants is to cuddle, kiss, hang out, hold hands, date - no sex. Sex does not enter into the equation for Roman which people, even those who have known him for a while, struggle getting past. Once Sean finds out he tries to walk a line, and as much as he cares for Roman, he needs to be tied down and likes the kinky images of bondage and rough play he sees on the internet. He likes the images as much as it paradoxically makes him feel dirty. Sean and Roman grow closer and appear to strike a deal where Sean may be able to see Roman but get his need for kink elsewhere. But it really isn't that easy. Roman pushes Sean towards Michael Brackett, who likes to do the things that Sean is drawn to, but Sean is torn. So is Roman, only he attempts to hide it. It isn't easy being with an asexual man when you like sex, no matter how much you care - Roman understands this but it still hurts.

But Roman is also sick of having to explain himself all the time, the looks, the attitude, the disbelief that a man cannot want to have a sexual relationship -

"You probably still got that celibate thing, right?"
The coffee tasted terrible. Roman pushed away his cup and enjoyed being able to breathe.

"Asexual. That's the word for it."
Brackett grimaced.
Roman had only told the truth to a hand full of people in his life, but he learned to expect grimaces, frowns, questions: "Are you sure?" or, "You haven't found the right person yet," or, worse, "You should take hormones." As if he was broken and needed fixing.

He'd known about it long before he could put the right word to it. Celibacy was a choice, asexual was just who he was.

Despite the fact that Roman has more problems than the others - his long term memory is impaired, he has migraines, he scrambles words, wanders off and gets disoriented - it is Roman who brings detective Michael Brackett onto the case. Going behind Kristian's back to get some help. Krsitian and Brackett have history and they are also both alpha-males in one territory with different ideas of the law. Roman knows they need assistance. That they can't do this on their own - even with their nightly patrols - in spite of what Krisitan thinks. He's seen enough death and suffering to last a lifetime in another country, he doesn't want to see it in his own backyard. He wants justice and to stop whoever is killing these men.

On top of the murder/suspense there is a lot going on. There are four men - Sean, Roman, Kristian, Brackett -  who have a loose yet complex relationship that transcends the war, transcends friendship, transcends the murders, but is not something that can be defined. There is a statement on the treatment of vets at the hands of successive governments that don't seem to care. There is the home life that Sean has but can't handle, life in the tunnels that some choose over an apartment, and those who have no choice but to live on the streets. There is a sense of these men trying to do something that helps an ignored, threatened community when others don't seem to care-

These guys still thought they had a mission, Sean realized. Still thought they could be useful. No one had told them, or they just hadn't learned, that their country didn't need them anymore.

The storytelling is good. The narrative is primarily downbeat. Sean does not look at life in a positive way and he is the main MC along with Roman. I understand it but it doesn't make for easy reading, and I was never drawn to Sean. Roman is a sweet, sweet man with problems and he constantly fights people looking out for him, treating him like a child, which is understandably frustrating for all concerned. Detective Brackett is not an easy man to warm to either and neither is Kristian, but they all have good qualities. The character I liked in this book was a side character, Jason, who was always decent. He liked Sean but Sean could not reciprocate, didn't try. Used Jason. Despite my thoughts on the characters I felt the sombre overtones and characterisations were warranted.

What didn't work so well -

This book could have been titled - Everyone loves Roman. I get that he was a lovely character but  it was too much for me. If City of Soldiers was more along the lines of a romance, even an atypical one, this would have worked better.

There were some questions that didn't get answered. Some I can't mention because they are major plot spoilers, but others are about Kristian and also Michael Brackett. They're  strong characters but not quite fleshed out as well as I would have liked.

Jason felt like a clunky plot device in the latter stages, and that was disappointing. Once again, I have to be careful what I say.

Whilst I appreciated one of the leads being asexual, and I thought it was refreshing, I would have liked to have seen more of an exploration of Roman's asexuality. More development of the complex relationship dynamic and the full extent of what that meant for those involved. Roman is one of the main POV and I felt like it was an opportunity lost because there were so many other things that were concentrated on.

I needed more from the BDSM components. Once again I felt it was something that wasn't explored enough because there was focus elsewhere.

The last two comments I feel could have been solved without the murderer's and Doc's POV. Also the time spent on some details that didn't value-add to the story as a whole.

 What worked well -

I liked getting both Sean and Roman's perspective. Seeing Roman's mind, at times, was an interesting study in lucidity then disorientation. Sean's was a negative outlook except about Roman. Never Roman.

The genuine knowledge the author displayed of the plight of injured and troubled war vets without being overtly political was well done.

Some of the frustrations of asexuality were very nicely handled in a way that gives readers food for thought.

The understated yet well portrayed effects of PTSD, injury, and trauma. The well written experiences of trying to settle back into civilian life after seeing/experiencing things that humans are better off never having to see and experience.

The parallels of someone living at home versus someone living on the streets and the interesting psychology and outcomes of that.

The power of being around like-minded people after severe life events.

For anyone worrying about BDSM, it is light-on with Shibari primarily being used - clothes on.

There is also a mythological and mystical element to do with the lake whiskey, but I can't say any more than that

Overall -

This is by and large a well written book. But I have to say this, if you are looking for a romance - and the blurb does tend to lead you to the conclusion that there may be true love, combined with a somewhat sexy cover - then you could well be disappointed. This book is more about the effects war has on people. What happens when ex-service personnel return home to little assistance and in various states of emotional and physical damage. How much easier it is to be with others, no matter how complex the relationship, who understand what you have been through, what you still endure. There is also a brief look at different sexual identities. And there is the murder/suspense component, which did make the pages turn easier. Who is the murderer? Is it someone they know? What are the reasons vets are being targeted? It you like any of the above themes then I recommend City of Soldiers, with an understanding that it has an atypical relationship at the centre as opposed to a typical M/M romance book.

4 Placebo or Not Stars.

This book was supplied by the publisher, Dreamspinner Press, in return for an honest review.


  1. Every time I see a book about how service members come home and are basically forgotten my heart breaks. This looks like a complex story with interesting characters. You don't see much in books about asexuality so that alone is unique.

    Another great review.

    1. It is my first book with a clearly defined asexual character. An MC no less. Thanks Cindi. The book is very interesting and, sadly, returned service personnel with injuries or psychological trauma are often neglected by the country that they served.