Welcome back to the Book Club, dearest friends! When I started writing book reviews on a regular basis, I figured that there would be certain subjects that would be avoided. While the concept of dark romance was kind of new to me, a young British author living in Scotland named Sarah Bailey was looking for reviewers of her new Corrupt Empire series. What’s the worst that could happen? I thought to myself. My reaction to that first chapter could best be stated as, “shaky.” After reading the cold blooded murder of the parents and subsequent capture of the female lead, I had such a weird reaction that I actually read most of the book backwards to see exactly how far and fucked up the elements of the story would get. In the months since, I’ve thankfully calmed down a bit and have even been lucky enough to get some insight as to what makes a story in this genre come together. It’s fair to say that I’m hooked on this unique brand of fiction, and I’m already getting that familiar twitch in the back of my head that flicks whenever I’m about to leave my comfort zone. As usual, reader discretion is advised with this story, and anyone with strict concerns about themes of rape, abuse, violence, or consent should consider their personal feelings before proceeding. I’ve already signed my waiver, so let’s see what the Queen of Steam has for us this go ’round!
Promises by Sarah Bailey marches on with the Corrupt Empire universe that we’ve both enjoyed and been scared to fucking death over. While not required reading for comprehension, this novel is a follow up the last story, Provoked. That novel featured dark romance elements somewhat similar to the ultra dark concepts we’ve grown accustomed to, however, Promises looks to take things in a new direction. Throughout everything in the series so far, a young man named James has been at least partially involved in everyone else’s romance. As the best friend of Avery (from the trilogy), and the brother of Dante (from Provoked), James is a man out of place in this literature universe, hilariously clueless at first glance to the dark horrible details of the relationships he has indirectly helped cultivate. As you’d expect, this has left James on the short end of the stick, and very sullen about the prospects of his own love life. While holding up a barstool at his brother’s wedding, compelled to do so from watching his only true love, Avery, live her life with another man, a pretty bartender manages to grab his attention. Ellie’s a pretty good reader of human emotion, and she is drawn to strike up a conversation with James about what’s bugging him. After a surprisingly pleasant back and forth, Ellie writes a “promise” on a bar napkin that she and James will meet again and start to share a little about their lives. From the end of their first conversation, James and Ellie will live by their promises, but could they possibly understand what they’ve just gotten themselves into?
As we’ve grown accustomed with this series , the POV will flip back and forth between the pair with each chapter. As the reader settles into a VERY slow burn dark romance, we’re fed bits of what brought Ellie and James together in this context. Moments during the exposition will fill you with palpable amounts of dread of course, and the human suffering will be a cause for pause and attention during certain exchanges. What is new, however, is the presentation of these dark elements. James and Ellie have a dark and horrible past with horrible parents, and in Elle’s case, years of absolute torment. Reading her hardship is bad enough in past tense, but it’s an important step to have a story approach this from the angle of healing. The kindred spirits of the two make for a beautiful concept of love when all else appears completely hopeless. James being involved with a love interest where the male MC isn’t the man responsible for the female lead’s trouble is a nice change, and the relationship can develop and blossom in a way we can all root for. Promises gives the author a chance to flex their muscles into more identifiable romantic elements. The genuine flirting and buildup makes for an amazing first kiss…and other “first” things as well. Bailey is the “Queen of Steam” after all, and the sexual elements of Promises are delivered with scorching heat, and without compromise. James is learning to be himself beyond the shadow of his despicable father, and maybe now can finally express that in a healthy and meaningful way.
Verdict: Promises by Sarah Bailey is a fresh approach to the Corrupt Empire’s ever challenging and ever more rewarding dark romance idea. While most of the intensity comes from character background instead of present-tense moments of panic, the shiver down your spine moments will still take the reader to the darkest depths of the human mind. Moreover, it will still amaze you that that love can blossom out of this wretched hopeless soil. James and Ellie come from very different places, but are connected through the series’ universe which will satisfy fans of this evolving setting. As a standalone novel, the love story is enriching and believable, with spark igniting sexual encounters and a HEA ending that makes the whole journey worthwhile. When I first picked up this novel, I couldn’t think of anyone less to aspire to than James Benson. Now that I know what makes him tick, he’ll forever be one of my favorite literary characters.