This book launches a spin-off collection of stand-alone romances in a previous series. Though I’ve read the earlier books, I’m pretty sure this one works well in isolation, with some previous main characters appearing as strong secondary characters here, not just as treat cameos for loyal readers. Denning introduces the world and the new heroes without a lot of fuss, and I was impressed by how she quickly supplies both Sterling and Kelly with full backstories that never bog down the narrative with unnecessary explanation or detail. I was immediately invested in these men, even before they met on the page.

I enjoy a good trope inversion, and “newbie Dominant/experienced submissive” (with or without the added age-gap element) has so much room for creativity and variety. Sterling and Kelly initially interact through an intentional power exchange dynamic, but Denning keeps that element more about the emotional connection and fulfillment and less about the external trappings of kink, allowing for a smoother transition through the romance arc. The seamless flow of these men connecting as new friends, then scene partners, then lovers works for this relatively low-angst story that never sacrifices conflict or character development. I was initially surprised by how easily Sterling gives up his goal of being with Jade, but I was more than okay with not reading a contrived love triangle situation when the alternative Denning provides is an external plot that takes a more unique direction (and not just because Sterling is smart enough to appreciate the better potential partner in Kelly). I also appreciated that this age-gap romance focused less on the age difference between Sterling and Kelly and more on the emotional connection they develop despite it, though this is less of a trope inversion and more about how Denning approached her characters.

After all, romance is about the characters at its heart, and Sterling and Kelly are both strong ones. The overall theme of this story focuses more on changes in how these characters come to see others in their life, both old and new, rather than dramatic internal change. Along the way, Denning treats us to spicy scenes that might feel less intense than others in the genre but are still sexy AF. I know I’ll enjoy seeing Sterling and Kelly again as strong secondary characters in future books of this new series, especially since this one both satisfied and set up so much additional potential for this world.

Disclaimer: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5) stars
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2 thoughts on “Book Review: What He Learns (Desires: New Beginnings #1) by E.M. Denning

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