Author: J.A. Rock
Cover Artist: MC Blackman
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Publication Date: 06/27/2015
Length: Novel (~ 50K-100K)
Genre: Apocalyptic/dystopian, Gay Fiction
In a future where live sex shows abound to keep a jaded population entertained, dancer Bode Martin falls for the brilliant and unstable Kilroy Ballast, who molds Bode into the star attraction of his erotic circus, the Grand Ballast. Drugged beyond any real feeling, Bode trades freedom and his once considerable pride for an illusion of tenderness—until he inadvertently rescues a young man from a rival show, and together they flee to an eccentric town in the west where love still means something.
Valen’s not an easy man to know, and Bode shed his romantic notions under Kilroy’s brutal employ. Yet their growing bond becomes a strange and dangerous salvation as they attempt to overthrow the shadows of their pasts and wade together through a world of regret, uncertainty, beauty, and terror.
But Kilroy won’t let Bode go so easily. Long ago, Bode was responsible for the loss of something Kilroy held dear, and he still owes Kilroy a debt. As the three men battle toward a tangled destiny, Bode must decide if his love for Valen is worth fighting for—or if he was and always will be a pawn in the story Kilroy Ballast will never stop telling.
Before I begin the review proper can I say whether by accident or design there were no trigger warnings when I looked – This should have warnings concerning ‘noncon’ – ‘dubcon’ – cruelty – physical abuse, and psychological abuse.
The Grand Ballast is not a genre romance. In fact it is not a romance – although there is a love story element. It is more of an intense dissection of the human condition. In many ways it is a minor masterpiece, and I’m sure many will call it so, justifiably, and award it 5*. I cannot – only because the way the rating system stands my ‘enjoyment’ of a book is part of the equation. I cannot say I ‘enjoyed’ this book in the normal way of things.
This is a book for discussion – I mentioned to one of my Goodreads friends that we needed a book group just for The Grand Ballast.
The setting is a dystopian one – where an apocalypse has occurred not caused by war or disease, but by human ennui, following the Age of Outrage.
…The Age of Outrage. That was when everyone was hyper-connected. Logged into fourteen social media outlets at once and in a default state of anger – ‘political’ debates inevitably devolving into grade school name-calling. People getting self-righteously pissed about everything – you’re a racist, you’re sexist, you’re homophobic, you’re anti-religious, you’re ableist, you’re too religious, and so on.’
The world has given up loving, Art, objecting, or caring about anything except the tiny reactions, they still feel when viewing violence, sex and death, as provided in the immoral X-Shows. In this world is, Bode – a dancer in a small theatre who still believes in passion through art, dance and love. He has so much love he wants to give and tries so hard to make people in his tiny audiences – feel again.
Part of this need develops due to his own parents’ fall into mental disrepair – His father knits while his mother plays marbles, endlessly. Bode misses his parents’ interaction and attention– his mother particularly – and is terribly lonely with no real connection to the world. Then he meets Kilroy Ballast – (does his name means he balances Bode or sinks him?) Kilroy is an anti-hero. Flawed to the point of madness, Bode feels Kilroy offers the longed for connection, love, tenderness and feeling. Together they will change the world. Sadly, Kilroy does not see Bode in the same way, or if he does it is buried too far beneath his sickness to prevail. Kilroy proves beyond redemption:
‘Kilroy likes to break things and put them back together. And when he can’t repair what he’s broken, he’s terrified.’
When Bode believes, he has caused the death of a man he is jealous of – Kilroy makes him suffer in a terrible manner by contracting him to his new X-Show – The Grand Ballast.
‘…You’d be paying a debt.’ Kilroy spoke as though he were telling a story. ‘You would have to suffer.’ Yes. That sounded fair. He’d once believed he had so much compassion and empathy. But he might as well have been the glass lodged in Driscoll’s body, fragmented and buried deep in the mess of what he’d destroyed. ‘Okay.’
Bode only survives this ‘contract’ – mostly – mentally intact, by taking a drug called ‘Haze’, which has been created by Kilroy to ensure compliance in his acts. Until about 75% through the book – this story is dark and I mean go to a dark place and then turn out the light. It is gruesome in the descriptions, wearing in the psychological misery, and really, really well written. Some of the metaphors are just brilliant:
‘…she broke Finlay’s heart the other day.’
‘It’s not broken, just knocked around a bit,’ Finley said with what sounded like forced lightness. ‘It’s sitting in a mud puddle, drinking gin from the bottle.’
The characters are richly observed, and no one is all good, or all bad, although many are grotesque. The Grand Ballast puts subjects like obsession, love, passion and Art under the microscope, and then dissects them with tiny painful cuts:
‘…had he [Bode] ever thought that his dancing mattered? ‘Art’ was just a label lazy people put on games to make them seem important…’
Well that’s a discussion for another place another time – but the metaphysical has as much place here as the physical, the abstract with the banal. There is another important MC, ‘The Boy in the Water’ – this is where the love comes in – I don’t want to include any spoilers, and that is difficult with this character.
The two find a ‘sanctuary’ of sorts in Harkville, a disturbing amalgamation, of animal shelter – where activists take liberated ‘smoking Beagles’ and Rabbits with cosmetics in their eyes – crossed with the Wild West.
There is a HEA at the very end, but for me I felt so emotionally bruised and battered that the ending didn’t feel very happy, rather an acceptance on behalf of Bode to live with the horror of his past – in order to enjoy the future.
I have given this book 4* but not without feeling regret. This is a very good book – it makes you really think and want to discuss it, which I love, but The Grand Ballast is too harsh for me – too cruel, and lacks enough human kindness, or gentleness to soothe and balance out the cruelty and hatred. No kind act goes unpunished – this is not a comfortable read, but definitely a fascinating one.
Interestingly, I read one review, which said that several hours after finishing this novel, the reviewer suddenly started sobbing. I don’t know whether this novel is truly cathartic, or whether it is weird coincidence, but I had a similar experience.
I would like to thank the publisher for providing me with the eARC of this title in exchange for my honest opinion.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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