Dark Themes in E L James’ The Mister are Balanced by Emotionally Mature Characters

Fans of the Fifty Shades world no doubt wondered where E L James could possibly go after her bestselling books, and the answer can be found in her latest yarn, The Mister. What the novel lacks in sexy shock value—if you’re hoping for some more erotic, BDSM action, you’ll need to look elsewhere—it makes up for with darker themes and emotionally mature leading characters.

The title character is Maxim Trevelyan, a London-based, modern-day libertine with aristocratic roots and a huge bank account who sleeps around without a real care in the world. (Superfans will note his last name is the same as the maiden name of Christian Grey’s adopted mother, Grace Trevelyan-Grey. There’s also one mention of the city of Seattle in the book. Doth we detect a sequel, Mistress James? One that features cameos from some of our old favorite characters?)

Maxim grew up with all of the trappings of a privileged English upbringing—fancy schools, fancy homes, fancy friends, etc. Unlike the business-minded Christian Grey, though, Maxim barely has any drive to make himself useful, and instead of requiring one lucky lady to sign a non-disclosure agreement for a long-ish arrangement, he has nightly bed partners. The most anyone can say for Maxim is that he could be a great musician if he applied himself and took advantage of the many tools at his disposal.

When we first meet Maxim, he’s just slept with his late elder brother’s widow (yes, this sounds terrible, but she’s also Maxim’s best friend and it takes two to tango) and is facing a life as the new Earl of Trevethick. Being the new earl doesn’t appeal to Maxim at all. Indeed, he’s rather emotionally drained, which is why the time is prime for the presence of a certain special lady.

Enter Alessia Demachi, a young Albanian woman who came to the United Kingdom hoping for a better life and instead found out she was smuggled in via a sex trafficking ring. She manages to escape her guides thanks to her knowledge of the English language and some major determination. While she has a couple of familial connections who help her find work as Maxim’s cleaner, she’s still illegal, incredible vulnerable, and cannot afford to make any wrong moves. For reasons the reader will find out, going back to Albania is simply not an option.

Maxim senses this vulnerability and, to his credit, makes it his mission to keep her safe. Yes, he wants Alessia in his bed, but he also comes to appreciate her non-physical qualities. The result is a relationship in which Maxim’s ability to truly love and genuinely adore another person is unleashed. When Maxim learns of the real danger Alessia is in, he spirits her away to his estate in Cornwall—a setting that will no doubt appease Poldark fans who are mourning the upcoming end of the popular television seriesand they get to know each other in all kinds of ways.

Fifty Shades fans will certainly see similarities between those stories and The Mister. Like Christian, Maxim is, to put it bluntly, filthy rich. Also, the whole Angry Boy-Man theme is strong in the beginning of The Mister, as Maxim has some deep-seated family issues. Still, he lacks the emotional devastation of Christian Grey, and it takes a much shorter time for him to recognize the genuine feelings he has for Alessia. He has experienced tragedy, but not to the point where he feels the need to crack the proverbial and literal whip on another human being. And while he has money, Maxim is not exactly using it to sweep Alessia off of her feet. Instead, he uses it to help her meet her basic needs. He also makes plans to harness whatever power he has to help her gain legal status.

As for Alessia, she doesn’t give off an air of outward confidence, but she is a very strong character. Indeed, she certainly wouldn’t have gotten as far as she has without having some guts. She and Maxim don’t have the flirtatious banter of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, but then their circumstances are quite different. Alessia barely has more than the clothes on her back and doesn’t even possess a cell phone. This is not to say the book lacks in sexy times—there’s certainly plenty of THAT and it’s often quite fun—but like the Fifty Shades books, it’s still very much about the emotional journey between the two leads. As the book progresses, the reader will learn more and more about the awful things Alessia has had to endure. It’s all quite dark. Should author James venture into more thriller romance territory, she might find an even stronger niche as a romance writer.

On its own, The Mister is an entertaining read, one that marks a decided turn towards the author’s British roots. Fifty Shades fans hoping for an extension of that world may find The Mister a bit vanilla in comparison, but those who are willing to embrace new characters and a setting that takes place across the pond, will find plenty to enjoy.

The Mister is on B&N bookshelves now.

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