Blow Me Down (Signet Eclipse, 2005) by Katie MacAlister is a romance novel I picked up to read with my friend. We were searching for something sexy and chose this novel as our first two-person-book-club read. Blow Me Down is about Amy, a single mom who is all business, who agrees to play a virtual reality game her daughter loves to prove to her offspring that she will try new things. Once inside the game, Buckling Swashes, Amy tries to become an officer, but she has no idea how to go about it. In her attempts, she meets Renata, a kindly madam (the whorehouse kind) and Black Corbin, the most dreaded pirate on the Turtle’s Back island. When she tries to get out of the game, Amy finds there is a problem: her virtual reality glasses don’t seem to be on her face. Locked in the game, Amy must make alliances to get herself home before her physical body becomes a useless meat sack from sitting so long, and her daughter is orphaned as a result.
Around 2004 I read Katie MacAliser’s novel A Girl’s Guide to Vampires and loved that the leading lady wasn’t having any bullshit. Amy from Blow Me Down was a similar woman, which gives the book a much more realistic feel than other romances I’ve read. Amy doesn’t want to be saved, but from time to time it would be nice to see the man she falls in love with in the game–Black Corbin–when she’s in trouble, because she’s looking for support. It’s also Amy’s wits and standards that keep her from becoming smutty, though she is sexual. While Amy resides in Renata’s whorehouse, she grows to like the prostitutes and respects what they do, though Amy knows she’s a modest woman.
There are a few characters in the game who know it’s a game: Amy, Black Corbin (who is the game’s creator), Holder (Corbin’s friend and co-creator), and someone else who has infiltrated the game like a virus to trap the three players within. I thought this plot point was a bit strange. The “virus” player has made it so the gamers can’t feel the glasses on their faces, causing their physical bodies to just sit in their chairs at home. If you overlook that the book is asking you to believe the virtual reality is so realistic that the players aren’t aware of their human bodies, however, it becomes a non issue.
Early on, Amy tries to fix the lives of the computer characters, taking their situations very seriously. Corbin realizes what Amy is doing and scolds her: “The problem is that you’re supposed to be a pirate—carefree, wild, and heedless, not organizing people’s lives and setting up eighteenth-century versions of 401(k) plans.” His character serves to remind readers that Amy is too work-oriented, which is the whole reason she’s in the game in the first place. Corbin is a normal (albeit nerdy) guy who has a sense of adventure about him, but also a realistic attitude for the game. At first, Corbin appears to Amy as a chiseled blond beefcake, but when Amy points out she would never go for a man who looks like him, Corbin changes his avatar to match his real body—which is a bit soft in places, but still handsome in a realistic way. Corbin can be a real-life hero because he isn’t fakey in looks or personality.
Because certain characters know it’s a game, the plot can get quite funny, and that is MacAlister’s best quality as a writer. The three gamers must follow the scenarios set up in the game in order to further the story along. In one instance, a blockade must happen, which would cut off supplies to the Turtle’s Back, the island on which Amy resides. If she marries Corbin in the game, they will create an alliance, and he can get supplies to her from his island of residence. They are married by Holder, who gives them their vows: “Do you promise to climb no masts other than his?” Holder is a rather goofy character who serves to reassure Amy that real-life Corbin is not a womanizer, and that Corbin genuinely likes her. All three gamers say and do funny things because they can take some assurance that it is a game, even if they are trapped within it.
In another funny moment, Amy is made captain, and she gets really into it. She even starts singing piratey songs to increase her spirits. One of her crew members (a computer character, not a gamer) asks, “Is the cap’n insultin’ us by sayin’ we’re pirates who don’t do anythin’?” His question is an allusion to the Veggie Tales song “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.” Here, MacAlister reminds us that Amy is a mom who lives in a world where Veggie Tales exists, and I found it hilarious in the context of the game.
This is not to say that the computer characters aren’t funny, too. Bas (short for Bastard) is an orphan boy with a ratty pet parrot named Bran. Bas is fascinated with death and disease, and he hopes every scenario ends up with someone suffering or dying and that he gets to see the gory bits. He announces, “Tarts get the pox…. Me ma said they do. The pox eats away at ye until ye’re nothin’ but bloody pustlues and scabby sores and boils that erupt all over yer–” ( and then he is cut off by Amy). Even Bran is a cute character, one that squawks responses and always wants his head patted in greeting. He’s also made to take baths with his owner.
The characters are truly what make Blow Me Down a fun read. The last fifty pages (out of 359), though, seem like one big mistake. I got tired of the “my love” thing that kicks up:
“Corbin, my love, my darling…”
“Watch where you’re walking, love.”
“Come here, love…”
“Go ahead, love…”
In real life, the characters have been playing for about three hours. In the game, they’ve lived about two weeks. Either way, the deep love and cheesy language wore on me, and I just wanted Amy and Corbin to sound human. While some of the earlier plot points seem more for convenience than logic, and then ending was so poorly done that I felt embarrassed for the author. For one, it takes place in real life, meaning the reader expects a modicum of logic to prevail, but it doesn’t. The characters’ “gut feelings” about danger seemed premature, leading them to make decisions on instinct alone.
For instance, back in reality, Amy waits for Corbin to contact her. However, why is Amy so worried that Corbin doesn’t call her between midnight and the next morning after they got out of the game? It’s only been a few hours! Also, Holder now seems bossy. He talks to Amy for about three minutes in real life during which time she expresses some nerves about meeting Corbin before Holder’s decided she’s such “a woman” and a “wimp” that he needs to tell her to suck it up. Why wouldn’t she be nervous about meeting Corbin in real life? Holder also is also surprised that Corbin didn’t call Amy, but, again, a few hours. These few hours cause Amy and Holder to decide to go into some spy mode and rescue Corbin, and of course they take swords with them.
I can imagine the story ending with Amy about to knock on Corbin’s door, her stomach in knots, and when he opens the door, his eyes shine just like they did in the game, and that’s the end. The opening up of the relationship was the beauty of Amy and Corbin getting out of the game, not what the author did, which was essentially make real life like a game.
If I could erase the last fifty pages from my mind, I would without a doubt recommend Blow Me Down. But, because the ending was so disappointing, I would point readers to other Katie MacAlister novels—she has dozens.
*This review was written from my personal copy of the book. I have no personal, professional, nor familiar relationship to the author.