Amor en retrogrado by A M Riley – review

Rating: 7.5/10 ★★★★★★★½☆☆ Title: Amor en retrogrado
Author: A M Riley
Genre: Contemporary romance, mystery, crime
URL: Loose ID
Price: US $7.099
Other Information/warnings: explicit sex, violence, racism, homophobic attitudes, kink
Summary [from the publisher]:
In the year since JD Ryan, Robert Lemos’s life partner, packed his bags and moved out, Robert has been in a painful daze, anesthetizing himself with work. Then one rainy night, he gets a call that his ex has been beaten and shot in a parking lot outside a gay dance club. JD is in critical condition and the man who was with him is dead. Robert rushes to JD’s bedside to find him recovering from the gunshot wound but suffering from retrograde amnesia. As JD slowly regains his memories, he recalls everything except the circumstances of the murder, and the reasons why he left Robert. He remembers their love, and seems determined to reconcile. It’s the miracle Robert’s been hoping for.
Interference comes from all sides. Detective Bill Turner, who seems to have too personal an interest in JD, pegs Robert as the primary suspect in the shooting. Robert’s best friend, police Captain Gabe Lara, seems to feel that Robert is better off without JD. Even JD’s returning memory seems to conspire against Robert. And as the detectives track down the killer, Robert helplessly waits for JD to recall the truth of their relationship and leave him yet again. But if they survive the investigation, they just might find love in retrograde.

My review: I love amnesia fics, I really do, and I love cop stories, but they are usually so badly done. Not so in this novel, which is clever in so many ways, starting with the title – ‘Love in retrograde’ – referring to the flashback method of telling the story, as well as the amnesia JD suffers as the result of a near fatal assault.

It’s a dense, complex novel, with several stories going on at once. There’s the crime which puts JD in hospital, and whose perpetrator must be caught – that’s where Detectives Kate Crandall and Bill Turner come in. Then there’s the torrid, stormy history of Robert and JD’s failed relationship, which is told intertwined with the present, with JD struggling with his amnesia, and Robert with his still intense feelings for a man he’s sure will hate him once he regains his memory. And there’s also Turner, a closeted, presently sober alcoholic cop and AA sponsor, conducting his own twisted affair with Christopher, in a relationship which mirrors the self-destructiveness and denial inherent in Robert and JD’s.

It could be a mess, but it’s not. It’s absolutely compelling, the characters rich, the interactions passionately absorbing, the plot mostly credible, and the wealth of local and cultural detail creating a powerful and vivid story that left me quite stunned at the end.

A few negatives, before returning to my praise of this story. The editing is utterly diabolical – character names in at least two places were switched without anyone noticing, which is inexcusable (for example, Turner becomes Tanner for a good while, before swerving back.) Another editing flaw was that the head hopping wasn’t eradicated. Normally this would be something that I wouldn’t tolerate in a story, but in this case, I was well sucked in before the first instance occurred. It isn’t all the way through the story, but shouldn’t exist at all – the sad thing is, it probably could have been eliminated with an editor’s help.

The formatting was inconsistent and confusing, so it was often difficult to work out if we were in a flashback or not – and speaking of formatting, using MS Word to produce your HTML is unprofessional and quite unnecessary. The style sheets don’t work in Firefox, so the text is dense and hard to read, ugly in presentation – I had to turn styles off for this to be readable. How much effort would it be to produce a simple style sheet in standard CSS format to allow the products to be easily read? Every time I buy a Loose ID HTML formatted story, I come up against this.

There’s a lot of sex in this – now normally that would be a turn off for me, and depending on your tolerance, it could a plus or a minus. It’s all very over the top and floridly written, but it works, strangely, because it perfectly sets up the tempestuous, co-dependent relationship between Robert and JD, a relationship based squarely on lust and physical attraction, an amour fou, but although operatic, you know these two men are simply meant to be together. They’re empty and broken without each other – the question is, can they be together and not destroy each other?

This brings me to the characterisation, which is simply masterful (although I think making JD an alcoholic Irish writer was pandering just a teeny bit too much to stereotypes.) We see Robert and JD at all stages of their relationship and their lives, see them growing, falling in love, destroying each other almost completely – and then, through force of circumstances, coming together again with something of a clean slate. Robert is the more compelling character for me, because he’s intense, passionate, loyal, flawed, human. He lives with such vigour – even his sins are the result of an overflow of passion, rather than a lack of it. JD is a bit of a shit, really – refusing to accept his homosexuality and punishing Robert for it, using alcohol in the most unhealthy manner to deal with his demons, self-indulgent and spoiled. But Robert’s desire and love for him elevates him to the status of almost worthy partner. This, to me, was Robert’s story more than JD’s. Of course, others readers might see it another way.

Turner is another flawed, apparently unlikeable character which we only come to slowly know. I thoroughly enjoyed that process, even when he behaved like a complete dick. It’s a masterful piece of writing when you want to bash a character’s head in while compulsively reading more of his story.

There are many minor characters, each vividly drawn in a way I found rounded. I enjoyed Kate Crandall as a no-nonsense detective who drives the investigations with guts and brains. Gabe Lara as a possibly dirty Latino cop was creepy and nasty, and yet you see why Robert trusts him. None of these people are one-dimensional. None of them are what you think they are at first sighting.

It’s not a perfect novel, mainly due to the faults I mentioned earlier, but with so many stories in this genre flat, boring, peopled with idiotic characters and stupidly plotted, Amor en retrogrado stands head and shoulders above the crowd. Heartily recommended.