Rating: 4/10 Title: If All the Sand Were Pearl
Author: Pepper Espinoza
Summary (from the Publisher): A Calling of Souls story. Love…or freedom?
As a youngest son, Jag Martin has eagerly walked a life-long path toward the priesthood. Then his once-great family falters under a mountain of debt. Their only hope—marry Jag off to an appropriately wealthy suitor. Brace Rivers desperately wants more than just a short fling. However, his economic and political reality makes finding an appropriate male partner next to impossible. When the Martin family offers Jag’s hand, it’s a dream come true. But his suspicions mount that the young man is being forced into an unwanted marriage.
Compassion wins out over loneliness, and Brace offers Jag a pearl ring valuable enough to both save his family’s fortunes and give him freedom. There’s just one thing Brace wants in return—twenty-four hours together. Brace can only pray it’s long enough to convince Jag that a life together is worth more than all the pearls in the sea.
My Review: One of the potential problems with will-they-or-won’t-they in m/m erotica is that -– in a genre where a happily-ever-after endings are nearly mandatory — nine times out of ten, the reader already knows that they will. The result is that any tension between the characters vis-à-vis the future of their relationship is lost, and the author must make that journey to that HEA intriguing, different and utterly enjoyable in order to keep the reader hooked until the very last words fall from the characters’ lips.
In If All the Sand Were Pearl, author Pepper Espinoza attempts valiantly to create some tension by introducing a plot device that may or may not bring our heroes together. I say valiantly because, while an interesting idea, the plot device has an inherent flaw which keeps the tension from mounting and we know from early on what the end result will be. So, what we are left with is the question of whether the characters and their journey make up for this lack of tension?
Jag Martin is a poor but educated young man whose life was all mapped out in a course of devotion to the Goddess as a priest in the local temple. But his life is thrown a twist when his poor parents betroth him to a slightly older man whom he has never even met. But even that may not be as firm as Jag first believes. A package arrives one day and inside is a gift from his future spouse, Brace Rivers. It is a priceless pearl ring which, as Jag is told, is his to keep even if he were to break off the marriage to Brace, a choice he did not know that he had. This ring could solve all of the financial problems of his family, but Jag is a thoughtful young man and he realizes the choices are not so easy. If he breaks off the engagement and sells the pearl, is that fair to Brace? And if he does this, is he damaging the honor of his family. But, if he accepts the marriage, he would be giving up the life he believed he would lead. Is that far to him? Jag has only 24 hours to get to know Brace in a private setting before he must render his decision. Will the two have enough in common to stay together?
Let’s start with the good points. Espinoza has created some likeable—if thinly drawn—characters and the novella is a quick, light read that goes down easily enough. The suitor, Brace, is a strong man, someone born to be a warrior, who has known all his life that his future was to be with another man, although like-minded men are not easy to come by in this village. He wants and needs a life of companionship. Alternately, Jag is a slight youth who honestly wants to do the right thing, even though he’s not sure if the right thing is to benefit himself or others. In making Brace somewhat “desperate” (for lack of a better word) for a spouse, the author has set up an interesting dynamic once the two meet. In this relationship, who exactly is the more powerful, the older, more masculine man or the younger, more docile man? Espinoza flirts with this power-shift dynamic (the shaving scene in particular is rather charming), but never seems to fully commit to it. What could have resulted was an intellectual and sexual tête-à-tête, but because we hover just around the edges of it, it never blossoms into a really fascinating dynamic that can overcome the lack of tension in the piece.
Speaking of that…the flaw in the plot device was one that was fairly obvious to me. If the pearl is Jag’s to do with as he pleases, he can certainly sell it to benefit his family regardless of whether he marries Brace or not. Now, had the device been reversed so that Jag could only sell it if he agreed to the marriage, it might have worked better. So, the end result is that the dilemma must become one of Jag’s conscience, his innate desire to do the right thing. Unfortunately, because we see the ending coming a mile away (due more to the predilections of genre than the author’s writing), that moral dilemma just doesn’t pack any punch.
Now, there is plenty of sex crammed into this 56 page story and it is all handled fairly well, albeit a slight bit on the clinical side for my taste, and the dialog does have some nice moments. But the piece also falls into some little traps that it didn’t need to, and those things kept the work from really capturing me.
The author employs the convention of male-female designation in designing the relationship between the two men by the use of certain vernacular. Brace is referred to as the “husband” and Jag is referred to as the “wife.” Brace is big and muscular, whereas Jag is slight. Brace is the top; Jag is the bottom. Jag becomes the “woman” of the relationship and the feminization of him makes the story fall a little bit into the “chick-with-a-dick” formula. Now, this might have worked had the author committed to the potential power play I mentioned earlier, but we never quite get there.
Two other minor problems niggled at me throughout the reading. Firstly, the author has a tendency to use interior monologue to explore each character’s feelings (a device I enjoy), but then she has the characters utter the same things that they were just thinking. Also, there are contradictions in the text with respect to Jag who, in one chapter, describes himself as not muscled or rough. [I] was protected and soft. However, in a later chapter, Brace is captivated by Jag’s defined muscles and his muscled thighs and calves. Now beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, but even so, I think there is such a distinction drawn that the variation of the description can’t be chalked up to starry-eyed love.
None of the foregoing are fatal flaws to the story. The prose is easy and clean, the story simple and straightforward, and the sex more than plentiful. If you have an afternoon where you want a quick, breezy read, this might be the story for you. For me, there wasn’t anything in particular that made me think “I am so glad I read this.”