Latakia by JF Smith

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 
Title: Latakia
Author: JF Smith
Genre: military romance
URL: Smashwords
Price: US $0.99
Other Information/warnings: violence, homophobic language
Summary [from the author]:
Matthew likes his life in Richmond. He has his friends and his softball and his volunteer work. And he has a very good-looking boyfriend, Brian, who he’s been happily dating for over a year now. So what if his friends tend to question just how good his boyfriend is, and so what if Brian tends to have inexplicable mood swings. And so what if Brian seems to invite Matt’s suspicions on occasion. If he just shows a little faith and trust, he’ll appreciate what he has with Brian the way he should. Right?
But suddenly, Matt finds himself in a desperate life-or-death situation on a trip overseas, and he realizes just how much he misses home, and Brian. He’s luckily rescued by a team of US Special Forces, only to immediately find out they’re a bunch of bigoted jerks. Worse, a quirk of his situation forces him to spend time with them that he’d rather not. And that’s when he finds out that first impressions can be misleading. When called upon, he steps up when every fiber of his being tells him not to, and discovers something deep inside himself that he didn’t realize was even there. And his life will never be the same. He finds that he can, after all, make some very overdue changes in his own life.
What Matt doesn’t realize is that the bond of brotherhood runs both ways. And he winds up changing the lives of several of the men on that Special Forces team as much as they changed his.
All it takes is faith and trust.

My review:
Despite its flaws, I’m giving this one 7/10 nudging towards 8/10 because it’s an enjoyable read (after a slowish start), the characters are wonderful, and because the line editing is superior compared to too many self-pubbed books. It compares favourably to some m/m books put out by professional publishers. Once the story moves to Syria, it catches fire, and the descriptions and pacing are excellent, the scene setting visceral and credible. If I’d been the author, I’d have dumped most of Chapter 2 completely and started with Matt in Syria because that’s where the story really starts. I also very much liked the way DADT was woven into the plot without making a big thing of it, and everything I’ve read and heard since that hateful policy died accords with the reactions of the SEALs. Knowing that this story is set in 2010 and just a year later, DADT is to be sent to the dustbin of history adds a poignancy/sweetness to the romance.

Matt’s a likeable guy, although a complete idiot about his lousy boyfriend, and the way he is instantly everyone’s best friend/little brother/condidante makes him a bit more Gary Stuish than is realistic or good for the story. His reactions to trauma and violence are very realistic however, and those parts are very nicely done. As are the SEALs, everyone of whom comes across as real and brave, even if, like Petey, they can be extraordinarily misogynistic dickheads. I enjoyed all the scenes with the SEALs, and would love the author to write more about such extraordinary men who do such horrible jobs. When writing good guys, the author does well. He doesn’t yet have a handle apparently on writing bad guys convincingly, as is shown by the one-dimensional Brian, set up only to be knocked down by worthier people.

The writing generally would benefit from a guiding editor’s hand to remove padding and poor stylistic choices. The abrupt shift of POV about two thirds into the novel threw me, and while that POV was necessary, it needed to be more gracefully integrated. The writing is amateur, in the best sense of the word, for this is clearly a work of love, but if Mr Smith is going to put his books on sale, then he has to polish his craft. I am confident he has the ability.

The plot relies on a somewhat implausible coincidence, and that I somehow doubt that the bond between a wimpy civilian and a group of stone-hard SEALS would form as fast and firmly as portrayed in the book (though I am in no position whatsoever to know one way or the other. It just smelled a bit Hollywood to me.) The boyfriend, Brian, is set up so cartoonishly, and Matt’s attitude to his dickishness is so craven, I had trouble believing it. If Brian had been physically abusive, or more obviously a gas-lighter, Matt’s denial of reality  (and his ignoring of his friends very strongly worded advice) might have been more credible.

With those caveats in mind, I would say that JF Smith has a raw and definite talent, and that were he to submit his work to a decent publisher of gay romance or m/m, his writing would be refined in the process, and I can see him becoming a major star of the genre.

For under a buck, this book is incredibly good value for money, and offers several hours of enjoyment. You could ask for more, but when so many books fail to deliver these things at all, I’m not complaining!