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Sean Gordon returns from the war in Afghanistan with a bad leg, no job, and a heart grieving for lost friends. Lonely and searching, he’s interested in exploring his submissive side but can’t even tell his own family he’s gay. He’s unable to find a strong man to fulfill his deepest, most shameful fantasies and sees only a bleak, unhappy future.
Everything changes when he meets Roman Mahoney, part of a secret group of former soldiers who live in Philadelphia’s forgotten underground and protect an ancient secret. Roman is asexual and proud of it, but yearns for romance with a man who will tolerate the lingering effects of his head injuries and not pressure him for sex. He ends up emotionally caught between two dominating men—the disgraced veteran who cares for him and a Philly cop with a love of bondage. Slowly Sean and Roman begin to connect, adding fuel to the fire of old rivalries and insecurities.
With a serial killer on the loose and targeting homeless veterans, Roman, Sean, and their friends struggle to meet across sexual divides. True love awaits—but so does a killer’s vengeance.
I started City of Soldiers with some excitement but also a little trepidation. It is the first book that I’ve read that featured an asexual character, and being asexual myself, I was worried about how it would be portrayed, and also interested in seeing something—anything—that had a character like me.
Just as a quick primer, because I know it can be confusing—asexuality is the orientation when a person doesn’t feel sexual attraction. They can feel romantic feelings, and they can fall in love. They can like touching and kissing and cuddling. Some are into kink, some aren’t. Some can like sex and be aroused while others can be repulsed by sex. There are hetero-romantic and homo-romantic and pan-romantic and aromantic asexuals. I’ve come to understand that it’s a really wide spectrum of people, where the real commonality is the lack of feeling sexual attraction towards others. (Also, many share the same feelings of confusion, since there is no education about asexuality, that this is something that exists, so you have a bunch of confused people who don’t understand why they don’t feel the same way as others. You have this group wandering around thinking they’re “broken” because there isn’t a lot of understanding or acceptance that who they are is a real thing.)
For me, I like to categorize it like this. “There’s this cookie. You can find this a very handsome or beautiful cookie. You can eat the cookie. Some will enjoy eating the cookie and some won’t. Some will eat the cookie because they really want their partner who likes cookies to be happy. But you can walk by the cookie without eating it. Because you are not compelled to ever eat the cookie. You can love that cookie, and never eat it, and that feels totally 100% okay with you.”
Now with that said, how did City of Soldiers hold up?
Actually very well. It’s a good novel with compelling characters, an interesting story, and is well-written!
City of Soldiers is not a traditional romance, and that’s not because one of the MCs is asexual. It’s because the focus is on four key characters, and how they relate or have feelings for each other. This is not a journey of one couple getting to their HEA, but of a group of men finding their purpose or their true desires or just someone to love and have love them.
Roman is a young veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury while in service in Afghanistan, and now is back home in Philadelphia, scampering through the tunnels underneath the city with a close-knit group of veterans, all of whom are homeless and carrying various scars and injuries from battle.
Roman is also the soul of the story—a character that draws others to him, because they’re attracted to him, because they’re worried about him (and his habit of losing his memory or wandering off not knowing where he is), or for one, because they want to harm him. He is a sweet, gentle character, who also understands that his asexuality will continue to frustrate those that want more from him.
That includes Sean, nicknamed “prettyboy” by some of the other veterans. Sean is the only one not living on the streets on in shelters, but he is also feeling lost after he was forced out of the military due to an injury. Meeting Roman in one of the underground tunnels suddenly shines a light on his life that he didn’t know he could find again. After that brief encounter, he can’t help but seek more of that light, and he pushes his way into Roman’s world.
Poor Roman. He finds himself drawn to Sean too, but he feels that the truth about himself will never be enough to keep Sean, so when an old friend shows interest in Sean, especially when Sean’s desire for submission and bondage begin to stir, Roman feels compelled to be a good friend and push them together.
“And he’d ask Brackett to be good to Sean. Roman might be destined for a life lived alone, but that didn’t mean other men were too.”
Burke described very well Roman’s dilemma—his lack of desire for sex, but his want for love, to have someone to go home to and sleep next to and wake up to and to love him, even if he doesn’t want to be sexual with them. And she conveys also his grim understanding that there may never be someone who will want to stay with him, and so he sees Sean’s puppy attraction to him as just waiting for the inevitable—to once again be rejected and alone and unloved.
Thankfully, although Sean is confused by Roman’s lack of sexual desire, he still is determined, because he can’t help but feel a desire to be closer to him.
Meanwhile, back on the Philly streets, someone is murdering homeless veterans, and the killer is closing in on Roman and Sean and those they care about. This part of the story was very intriguing and was drawn out in a way that I couldn’t guess who it was until the author started dropping hints in the last half.
I can tell that this isn’t Burke’s first time at the rodeo. Her writing is self-assured and smooth, and her characters are very realized, from sincere Roman to persistent Sean to protective Kristian to controlled Bracket to the gruff Colonel that runs the homeless shelter with her iron fist. Each comes off the page, lived in and very believable, each with their own voice. I’m not usually a fan of multiple POV stories, but this one was handled well and each character was very interesting, so it was easy to travel on these different paths through the story.
That writing ease probably comes from the fact that this is the first novel by “Sam Burke” but not by the author. She has written novels under the penname of Sam Cameron, has won a Lambda Literary Award under the name of Sandra McDonald, and writes fanfic under the name of sendal.
I see City of Soldiers as a compelling, character-driven novel that is partly a thriller, and has some romantic elements. There is no cheating, but multiple relationships are explored as these characters try to find a balance that will fit for their mix of desires and needs.
My main issue with the book is that I did have some unanswered questions in the end, and I found the climax a little drawn out as characters were coming together, but overall, it’s a gripping read.
No spoilers, but the ending is good for those who are wondering, and for those who are like me, who asked this question to another reviewer before starting, “Is Roman ‘Fixed’ at the end?” Meaning, is his asexuality nulled or removed to have a more “traditional” romance story?
And the answer is “No.” He is not “fixed” or made “normal”. His trajectory is consistent with who he is, which I was very thankful for. I don’t think I could read a story where an asexual character is dramatically changed to fit a more mainstream-accepted relationship or for a wish-fulfillment fantasy where the wish is for them to not be asexual.
Recommended if you’re looking for a compelling read with complex characters and an interesting story. Also recommended if you want to see how an asexual character can be handled since I think Burke did a good job overall. My one misgiving is about the exploration/underlying need for poly, but for these characters, I can only wish them to grasp and hold on to what happiness they find with each other. Because they all deserve it so much.
My hope is that as more awareness comes out about asexual people, more love stories will also follow. Because everyone should have that chance of a love story, especially those who fear that it will always be out of their reach.