this book is part 1 in a series of free, online reads, available in the authors' blog: http://fallschanceranch.blogspot.com/
i did not know this was a kink book, and a very specific kink -- domestic discipline -- when i started to read it; it was recced by a group in which i participate, which covers a wide range of m/m fiction, and it was recced on the strength of its characters. domestic discipline is not a kink i even understand. spanking for sexual pleasure i can understand intellectually, but for punishment? everything inside me is repelled at that (background: i was physically abused as a child, from spanking to outright being beaten black and blue, and it was all justified as "christian"). so, domestic discipline is anathema to me, even though i realize that there is a huge difference between the serious power imbalance and non-consent situation of an adult using corporal punishment on a child, and two adults deciding with full consent that this is something they want to include in their relationship. i believe corporal punishment of children is abusive and should be illegal. what mentally sane, consenting adults do is none of my business. maybe. i feel profoundly squicked by christian domestic discipline situations where the man is always the top and the women always the spankee. in general, men being tops and women being "brats" bothers me (heck, the terminology alone bothers me). still, i am willing to accept it if i am convinced it's not abusive, but emotionally i do not grok it.
i generally do not like the setup for the story. corporate hyperfocussed CEO wunderkind dale had a mental breakdown complete with hallucinations, and his boss sends him to a remote ranch in wyoming, a working cattle/horse/sheep ranch populated by 4 guys who, aside from running the ranch, also specialize in rehabbing executives who've overworked themselves and run off the rails in some way. they do this by providing a very firm structure, with strict rules, isolating their clients from all outside influence, keeping them there as long as necessary, and retraining them to handle the pressures of their jobs better. which apparently includes spanking them if deemed appropriate *raises eyebrows*. not your usual executive rehab. the problem with this book is that the corporal punishment comes initially across as dubcon at best, and considering dale's mental state when he gets to the ranch, can quite easily be seen as noncon and abusive. he sort of consented to being there, but under duress ("get fired or go there"), and he's too distracted by the sudden ultimatum to actually read the introductory materials. oh man, this is problematic in a lot of ways; there are no safeguards here at all against actual abuse of vulnerable people. i -- figuratively -- tossed my bookreader against the wall. but the rec had promised unusual polyamory, so i picked it back up.
i like the setting -- the story of the ranch's founders, the "strays" they took in, and the network they built, the insights into equine herd behaviour, the connection with nature and the history of the land. very evocative. the world built here is fully realized, and it's a world i wouldn't mind to be part of.
and i am fascinated by dale. the book is very long, and some might find the pace excruciating, but i enjoyed it. i like slow, in-depth character exploration. dale is a work in progress, and it takes a long time to change the damaging habits of a lifetime. the rehabilitation -- aside from the corporal punishment -- is relatively sensible for dale's issues. he's a marvelous character, complex, highly intelligent but hypercritical of himself, extremely analytical and competent when it comes to matters of work, quite inept when it comes to close personal relationships; desperately lonely, yearning for somewhere to belong with someone. i can identify well with him even though we are very different in specific aspects of our personalities, but he's so well designed that i find him easy to understand. and i've learned something about domestic discipline through dale that makes it feel somewhat less objectionable.
i have issues with some of the other characters, though. first, jasper is a cypher and a bit of a stereotyped one (part native american, quiet, connected spiritually with the land, carves totemic animals); i never connect with him and i don't see where dale does -- which is a major problem since we're talking polyamory here. there is a bit more to paul the homemaker who is an excellent listener, and i can write it off as "understated", but i would have still liked to see more. riley is a true brat (and i generally don't like bratty 30 year olds). he has redeeming character traits, but frankly, he seems to me to be quite unaffected by the spankings he gets for any length of time; the effect often doesn't even last for a day. i dunno; my therapeutic abilities tell me that maybe domestic discipline ain't working and they should try something else. also, flynn and riley are locked into a negative behavioural pattern where flynn becomes withdrawn when he gets scared for one of his partners (usually riley), and riley can't stand that and keeps poking him, which results in flynn withdrawing even more, so riley gets brattier and brattier until flynn nearly snaps and leaves for a few days in order to not lose his temper and take it out on riley, all the while riley gets to stew in his own guilt. these two men have done this for 15 years, apparently. hello! the 4 guys specialize in treating bad behaviour patterns in CEOs. physician, heal thyself. maybe flynn needs some spanking? that seems never to be an option for a self-declared "top" -- why not? are there no switches in domestic discipline circles? dale doesn't get to withdraw because it's detrimental to his recovery. flynn's withdrawal is also detrimental. neither flynn nor riley seem to have learned to handle this in 15 years; it takes dale to talk flynn out of his grim mood. i see what you did there, dear authors, and it's too much of a setup.
on the plus side, i adore the unconventional polyamourous family. my own is very different from the norm (though talking about "norm" in polyamory at all makes me chuckle), and it's rare that i read about something that is in some ways quite similar, and is very much how i'd love to live if we all were in the same location. i was glad that there was no sex in the book; it would have been very inappropriate for any of the tops to have sex with dale, and since dale was basically asexual for most of the duration of his initial stay on the ranch due to his mental state, it made sense to keep sex between the others off-screen and at most alluded to. i seriously enjoyed the understatement in regard to sex; usually i find an overemphasis on it in society at large while in my own life it's a whole lot less important than many other things, and i feel quite odd when reading constantly about people for whom sex is a major drive that makes and breaks relationships. it's nice to see an intentional family where their love isn't primarily based on sex.
3.75 stars, docking points for unbelievable and potentially abusive setup, and lack of full character development. still, character-wise this is leaps and bounds above the norm, and the pacing is perfect for this story. also, while the authors could have used an extra proofreader to sort the its from the it's, the book is better edited than some published works. i'll be reading the next volume (and thank the authors for offering a quality work for free; much appreciated).