Author: Courtney Milan
Series: Cyclone #1
Published: January 19, 2015
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Rating: 5 out of 5
Tina Chen just wants a degree and a job, so her parents never have to worry about making rent again. She has no time for Blake Reynolds, the sexy billionaire who stands to inherit Cyclone Technology. But when he makes an off-hand comment about what it means to be poor, she loses her cool and tells him he couldn’t last a month living her life.
To her shock, Blake offers her a trade: She’ll get his income, his house, his car. In exchange, he’ll work her hours and send money home to her family. No expectations; no future obligations.
But before long, they’re trading not just lives, but secrets, kisses, and heated nights together. No expectations might break Tina’s heart...but Blake’s secrets could ruin her life.
Courtney Milan writes the best historical romances in the game, filled with Victorian feminists, subversions of tropes, and enthusiastically consensual sex scenes, so despite hating the blurb that conjures “FSoG knock-off” in my mind, I knew she’d earned the benefit of the doubt. This is good, because I have never read anything like Trade Me.
Tina and Blake’s story straddles the line between traditional romance and New Adult contemporary. There’s a romance through-line: meet cute, forced to spend time together, big mis, HEA, but there are large parts of the story that aren’t focused on the romance. Both characters have massive amounts of character development for a romance novel.
Tina is a Chinese immigrant whose mother spends every last dime she has fighting for other persecuted refugees. She’s no lawyer, though. She’s a grocery store cake decorator who delights in ending up on NotCakeWrecks. This has given Tina a more than healthy respect for money, as she struggles to keep their lights on, her sister medicated, and food in her own mouth. She’s pre-med on a full scholarship, but every day is a struggle as she works multiple jobs and studies into the early hours of the morning. There’s no rest or her whole family will fall.
Blake initially seems like the cocky billionaire stereotype, but we quickly learn that not only is he an insanely hard worker, he’s a complex young man dealing with a lot of stress and grief. He never throws money at a problem, (well, once,) but instead works and learns and tries to improve all the time. He didn’t earn his money sitting on his butt, he’s an inventor and designer and takes pride in his job, which requires a lot of time and attention. (Did Christian ever go to work?)
The trade is amazingly fun to read, as I think everyone likes to see the hero humbled a little bit, but it’s also made very clear that you can never really switch lives. Blake can wash dishes and eat rice and apples, but he’ll never really know desperation. Tina’s idea of an impossible luxury is buying a mango. She can’t relax even with Blake’s allowance, lest the other shoe drop.
The love interests have great chemistry. They talk a lot about their feelings and fears and never belittle the other. My only complaint is despite Blake showing over and over again that he cared, Tina kept coming back to, “this, this is the time he’ll say something awful/ be embarrassed by my life/ get bored and I’ll be able to let him go”. It just felt a little repetitive. The sex scenes are hot, but the best scene is a simple picnic with fruit and sunshine.
Like many romance novels, there aren’t a ton of side characters. Tina’s parents factor in pretty frequently and she has a sassy roommate, Maria, who will be the star of the second book. (Quick aside, Maria is trans. Not hinted at. No queer-baiting. This is canonically stated in the text. And she’s going to be the star of the second book. Can you all grasp how massive this is? Four for you, Courtney Milan. You go Courtney Milan!) On Blake’s side, the only character who matters is his dad, Adam Reynolds.
I could write a whole novel about how Adam is the most amazing side character of all time. He’s funny and crude as hell and unlike other billionaire daddys, loves his kid beyond all logic and reason. His secret was intense and not something I saw coming. Keep an eye out for his bonus article at the end of the book, which probably shouldn’t be so insightful with so many naughty words.
Read this book. Support authors with diverse characters, fully fleshed out backstories, and a plot beyond fucking. (And great fucking, too.) It’s funny and sexy and smart and features flirting over legal briefs. Someone goes to the hospital, someone else goes to jail. There’s no fake BDSM. And the white boy’s Mandarin is appalling, which I appreciate because Mandarin is hard as fuck. IT’S PERFECT, OK?