SM Johnson’s new novel, Nervous: The New Dungeon, has a decidedly different feel to it than the earlier books in the Dungeon series. It’s so different I’m still feeling a bit stunned, like my favorite rock band just released a folk album... it’s not what I expected, but it works and I really like it!
Johnson’s creative storytelling, intricate characters, and addictive writing style are all here in Nervous, but there’s a subtlety in this one I hope to see from her again, and soon.
While the Dungeon is one of my favorite series, reading my way through the books is an intense experience. These aren’t simple characters, they’re real and flawed and angry and scared. They live in a world that is sometimes cruel and often unfair but they make their way as best they can.
Johnson weaves unconventional stories around creative circumstances, and when her characters get together amazing things happen.
Nervous is the story of Julian Sparks, a shy and slightly damaged small town guy visiting Manhattan for his job. Immediately drawn to his intimidating boss, Avery Phoenix, the attraction is intense and definitely mutual.
The victim of highly critical parents and a host of neuroses, Julian has worked hard to develop coping skills to deal with his issues. He has become incredibly aware of his reactions and emotions, and he analyzes everything through his internal monologue. Told in the first-person, this novel is all about how Julian feels and reacts, and how he copes with what is happening to him.
Absolutely brilliant with her characters’ relationships, SM Johnson rises to the occasion with Julian and Avery.
The previous Dungeon books move back and forth between the characters giving each of them an opportunity to explain their actions and make amends. Since Nervous is told in the first person, we gradually learn Avery’s story but only as it relates to Julian. I sincerely hope Johnson plans to give us a novel from Avery’s side of things, that would be something to behold.
There are several inspiring messages in Nervous which really hit home for me. My favorite is when Avery tells Julian to just be himself and not worry about “bothering” other people. He says, “‘You have to trust people to take care of themselves.’” What a great thing to explain to a young, insecure man who is trying to make peace with his feelings.
This book doesn’t go as deep into the details and descriptions of the sexual relationship as the previous novels in this series (though there is an amazing edging scene). The pacing of the physical relationship is crucial for both men and is more about the power exchange than the hot and dirty sex. The intimacy is very natural and progresses as Julian gets more comfortable. Avery helps Julian realize the peace submitting can bring him...what Julian comes to describe as an “‘alternate universe’”.
This is one of those books I never wanted to end, and when I finished it I scrolled back and started it again. (After you read it you’ll see why.) I could have easily handled another 200 pages to find out how things progress for this couple and I hope the next book is already in the works. Nervous: The New Dungeon could definitely be read as a standalone, though I truly recommend the whole wonderful series.
(reviewed 30 days after purchase)