BREAKFALL (Fall series #1)
by Kate Pavelle
Published by: Dreamspinner Press
Sexual assault doesn't discriminate. Aikido instructor Sean Gallaway learns that when he falls prey to a violent stalker. Asbjorn Lund, a karate sensei on campus and a Navy vet, yearns to teach Sean how to survive. How to overcome. How to recover. Sean feels hunted and alone as the stalker escalates, testing his boundaries. With the entire dojo at his back, Sean resolves to play bait. He will catch the predator stalking him and reclaim his sense of self if it's the last thing he does. Yet Sean's hunger for justice clashes with Asbjorn's protective streak, and their budding romance might not survive their war of wills.
It's a little bit difficult to approach this review, since the story has so many parallels to the author's real-life experiences. (It's also hard to discuss without including story spoilers, but I will do my best.) During the promotional blog tour for BREAKFALL, Kate Pavelle discussed her martial arts background, her survival of a sexual assault during college (and its aftermath), and how both have shaped her life and the writing of this book. It was impossible for me to read the experience of her character Sean without thinking about how intense it must have been for Pavelle to relive the events during BREAKFALL's writing and editing. Sean's experience is written with sensitivity, but I'm sure it could be an emotional trigger for other survivors. What seemed unrealistic for me was some of Sean's behavior following his assault (I would call it rape, though he does not)...without giving away too much of the story, I found it hard to believe that Sean would eagerly initiate his first male/male encounter the day after being assaulted by a man, when he was so reluctant to even think about his attraction to men beforehand. While Sean's first encounter with Asbjorn is couched as a healing way for him to regain autonomy over his body and sexuality, the timing felt off to me. Indeed, both Sean and Asbjorn's motivations (in general, but especially sexually) are rather murky from time to time, and their on-again, off-again relationship is punctuated by outbursts of temper and rash behavior. This made it hard for me to fully empathize with either man, in spite of their heartrending experiences.
At the same time, BREAKFALL has some really intriguing moments, especially in its first third. While Pavelle's use of martial arts jargon can be a little hard to follow (a glossary would have been nice), her deep understanding of aikido made me consider martial arts in a whole new way. It's telling that the book's sexiest moments are not in its questionably-timed clinches, but rather the sequences where her characters grapple in the dojo: she really conveys the sensuality of martial arts, where the give-and-take of control and surrender and the intimacy of the physical contact are so compelling. It's a lot subtler than, say, most BDSM in erotica, but with equally thought-provoking power dynamics. She's also good at conveying the complicated feelings each man has toward the sport and its teachers. Asbjorn in particular struggles with the death of his beloved sensei, Tiger (to whom he was attracted, but kept his feelings secret). Tiger's widow, Nell, is a compelling character in her own right, and enlivens the story quite a bit.
BREAKFALL ends on a cliffhanger, and while that fact annoyed me, I will probably give the upcoming sequel SWORDFALL a try. I'm hoping that it emulates the four-star early moments of its predecessor, while avoiding the pitfalls it suffers in later moments.