Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, by Anne Rice

Title: The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty
Author: Anne Rice (as A. N. Roquelaure)
Year of Publication: 1983
Length: 253 pages
Genre: fantasy erotica (and I use the latter term loosely)
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 1.5 stars, and that only because I was intrigued/bewildered enough to actually finish the damn thing
Warnings: As this book is definitely For Mature Audiences Only, this review will also carry an NC-17 rating, as well as trigger warnings for rape and sexual abuse (because that’s sort of, well, the entire basis of the story). You also may learn slightly more about my sex life than you had intended to know.

Edit 27 Dec 2012: Because this post is still getting a fair bit of traffic, I thought I’d stop by and encourage anyone who reads this review to check out Deathless, by Catherynne ValenteDeathless is as gorgeous an exploration of a D/s relationship as I’ve ever seen in fiction, outstripping even Kushiel’s Legacy. The relationship is nuanced and clever, a constant negotiation of power and seduction, not a forceful and unfeeling subjugation or a humiliation. Do yourself a favour — especially if you are new to BDSM relationships or are considering the concept — and read that instead of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. Plus, it’s extraordinarily well-written. Valente has talent pouring out of her ears and is well-steeped in mythology and poetry.


Well, this is just porn.

And no, it’s not that I don’t recognise erotica as a valid genre. I do. This isn’t it. This is just plain porn in verbal rather than visual form.

So, here’s the “story”, such as it exists — The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty revisits the classic fairy tale’s less savoury origins. In an early Italian version of the story, Sleeping Beauty’s prince doesn’t awake her with a kiss, he rapes her while she’s sleeping, and in at least one version, even that doesn’t wake her up; she later gives birth to twins and one of them suckles the enchanted spindle out of her finger. In Rice’s version, Beauty awakes mid-violation; rather than marrying her, the Prince then claims her as a love slave and hauls her back to her kingdom. Her parents allow this because, we learn, they each spent time as slaves in his kingdom in their own youth (in his great-grandfather’s time, thanks to the hundred-year sleeping spell). Claiming to love her overwhelmingly, the Prince begins stripping her of dignity on their journey, forcing her to walk naked in the view of everyone they pass, letting a tavern girl spank her for the amusement of the town, making her enter his castle on her hands and knees — all the while telling her that she needs to surrender her pride, that she’s been a spoilt little Princess, but he loves her anyway and all this will improve her.

… Yeah.

And this is all in the first, like, twenty pages of the book. He gets Beauty back to his castle, where the reader discovers that the entire freaking kingdom is basically one giant BDSM dungeon. Princes and Princesses are sent — as young as eleven years old, it seems, which puts a whole new level of WTFery on this book — to serve time as sex slaves in this other kingdom, where the whole court follows the example of the monarchs in sexual games and punishments. No sooner does Beauty arrive than she gets tied up in public view and subjected to all sorts of fondlings and gropings from the lords and ladies. And the entire rest of the book is pretty much that — Beauty’s training as a slave, the breaking of her willpower, and her interactions with members of the court and with other slaves.

Perhaps I was too spoiled by Kushiel’s Leagcy, where the eroticism exists as part of a well-defined world with history and religion and reasons for being the freaking way it is. The world of this story has all the depth of a porn set. There’s never any background given as to why the Prince’s kingdom is set up like this, why the other kingdoms allow it and send tributes and are apparently all okay with the set-up and have been for hundreds of years. The entire premise seems to me to be entirely bizarre. We’re told that the Princes and Princesses will return to their own kingdoms “much improved” by their time in slavery, but… how? We get no indication. They spend their formative years learning to fetch and carry like dogs and being violated in every way conceivable, learning to surrender their wills completely, being broken of any independent thought, and that… will make them good rulers? Wait, what? I don’t get it.

I got this book because a friend thought I might be interested in it — at least, she thought it would be more up my alley than it had been up hers, and she isn’t wrong there. Aspects of this book do appeal to me. I have an interest in kink, I’ve enjoyed other books that explore it, so, I gave this a shot. The trouble that impeded my enjoyment is that, well, this book isn’t just about BDSM. There’s a whole lot of humiliation in it as well, and that is something that absolutely triggers revulsion in me. There is a difference — for those who don’t know — between masochism and submission, between the role of bottom and the role of slave. Enjoying pain, enjoying bondage, enjoying a struggle in lovemaking — that is not the same as enjoying being made to feel inferior, enjoying being ordered around, enjoying the frustration of inadequacy. I draw a very, very deliberate line — and this way crosses it.

Now. It may not for everyone. Kinks are definite cases of Your Mileage May Vary, and I certainly don’t judge people if this is what gets them off. It’s a fantasy, and it’s no one’s place to cast aspersions on that. So, if you like ritual humiliation, pony play, debasements of all kinds — this book will deliver for you. But I’ll still judge you for liking it, not because of those kinks, but because the book is also pretty terribly written. Seriously, there’s much better smutty fanfiction out there (I should know; I’ve both read and written plenty of it). The dialogue is absurd, the vocabulary tediously unvaried (I’m pretty sure “spank” in some conjugated form occurs at least once a page), the characters flat and undeveloped. Why is the Queen such a stone-cold bitch? Lady Juliana actually seems like she might be an intrinsically decent person, so why does she so enthusiastically go along with all this? What makes Lord Gregory such a rampaging douche? What sympathy does Leon feel for his charges? I don’t know. There are a lot of characters in here that, in another novel, might be interesting. But not here. They exist only as their functions. We get no insight into any character’s mind except Beauty’s, and even that is uneven and hard to follow. She seems to volley between acceptance of her fate and horror at it with no explanation as to how she transitions from one feeling to the other. There’s no motivation for anything, and her reactions and internal thoughts are completely inconsistent. So, yeah — I accept that Your Kink Is Not My Kink, but whatever the kink is, it’s no excuse for bad writing.

There are two more books in the series, but I doubt I’ll be getting them. I don’t know if I could put myself through another five hundred pages of the humiliation aspect, and it also seems, from the summaries, that a lot of Books 2 and 3 is slash, which is just not my cup of tea. I’m all about people having gay sex, but guy-on-guy action does nothing to titillate me personally, and since these books have no purpose other than titillation, that would seem a silly way to spend my time.

So. If you’re interested in fantasy with an erotic edge, I totally get that and encourage you in it. But pass on The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, and pick up Kushiel’s Legacy instead.

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A Night Like This, by Julia Quinn

Title: A Night Like This (Smythe-Smith Quartet #2)
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 384 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: brand new!
Rating: just shy of 4 stars

As I predicted last year, Book #2 in the Smythe-Smith quartet focuses on the hapless governess who got pulled into the 1824 musicale, Anne Wynter. The book opens in medias res, at that very musicale, when Anne unexpectedly encounters Daniel Smythe-Smith, Earl of Winstead, and brother to Honoria, the heroine of Just Like Heaven. Since she’s never met him, his sudden appearance, lurking in the wings at the musicale, really startles her — and we learn right off the bat that Anne is hiding from someone, and fears that Daniel might be an agent of that person. Daniel’s surreptitious behaviour has a reason: he’s just returned from self-imposed exile and doesn’t want to detract attention from the musicale (much though the guests might have thanked him for doing so). Once Anne realises he’s not out to get her, they have a rather heated moment in the hallway, before Honoria’s story intersects theirs and Daniel storms off to, at least in his mind, protect his sister’s honour. The spark has been struck, however, and Daniel starts finding excuses to visit his Pleinsworth cousins, Anne’s charges, just to spend time with her. When accidents start happening around them, however, Daniel worries that his return from exile might not be as wholly embraced as he was assured it would be. JQ expands on a story we learned about in Just Like Heaven; Daniel got into a drunken duel with his friend Hugh Prentice, and though he meant to fire astray, he accidentally hits Hugh in the leg, crippling him. Though Hugh is inclined towards forgiveness, his father felt differently, and thus Daniel spent three years on the continent dodging the old man’s agents. Only when Hugh tracks him down in Italy to swear that his father has promised to relent can Daniel return to England — but these accidents make Daniel thing that perhaps things still aren’t settled.

Still, that fear doesn’t stop him from pursuing Anne, who has utterly struck him to the core — real love at first sight on his part, and though she tries to put him off, she’s more than a little intrigued by him. We eventually learn that the reason for Anne’s skittishness is not unlike Daniel’s: a man from her past has sworn vengeance on her, and she’s feared for years that he’ll find her and succeed. JQ gives us a flashback to the event, and it’s a little painful for anyone who’s ever been young and stupid and made poor decisions because she was besotted with some guy (so, most readers, I would assume). Anne gives up the prize to a man she thinks will marry her; he has no intention of doing so, but also no intention of giving up his bit on the side. I’ll say, I really thought for a moment that we were going to be dealing with a rape survivor in Anne. It doesn’t quite come to that, though not for lack of effort on the odious George’s part. In self-defence, Anne slashes his face open with a letter opener. This, naturally, causes some problems. In return for not pressing charges against her, George’s father forces her to leave the county, which is why she takes up first as a lady’s companion and then as a governess. George isn’t letting things go quite so easily, however, and vows to make Anne pay for having disfigured him.

One of the things I like about this book is that it sort of deals with the concepts of slut-shaming and victim-blaming, albeit from a Regency-era perspective. The rules for women were different then, even stricter than they are today, and the options a woman had were a lot fewer — but the slurs a woman would hear are still the same. She had it coming. She got what she deserved. She let him sleep with her once, so of course he would assume he gets to again. If she winds up pregnant, it’s only her own fault. JQ brings that up and doesn’t just brush it aside; those words clearly have stuck with Anne and affected her sense of self-worth. I, as I’ve mentioned before, love a non-virgin heroine. I wish we saw more of them — and I do wish we saw more where the circumstances aren’t like they are here, where it isn’t a source of trauma for the heroine, but I recognise that’s asking a bit much of historicals. What we do get, however, is a woman who does know what sensuality is — and who has to reconcile the idea of physical pleasure with having been mistreated, and to learn to trust another man not to treat her the same way the first did. It’s a very grown-up lesson, in a lot of ways, and Daniel is a hero eminently worthy of it. He has a boyish charm and sometimes roguishly oversteps boundaries — but when Anne points this out to him, he stops, and reflects, and apologises. He doesn’t let either his own self-assurance or his passion for her push him too far, he doesn’t ride roughshod over her hesitations — he takes the time to help her deal with them. Then, when he finds out she’s not a virgin, he quite flatly says that he doesn’t care, and he means it.

Overall, I quite enjoyed A Night Like This. It’s a perfectly solid Regency romance, and if it doesn’t have the laugh-out-loud humour of Just Like Heaven or the early Bridgerton books, it has instead a quieter sort of charm. And it does have its moments of JQ’s trademark snapping wit, My favourite:

Harriet let out a delighted gasp. “Maybe she has formed a tendre for one of the stableboys!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Elizabeth scoffed. “One of the stableboys? Really.”
“Well, you must admit, it would be very exciting if she had.”
“For whom? Not for her. I don’t think any of them even know how to read.”
“Love is blind,” Harriet quipped.
“But not illiterate,” Elizabeth retorted.

There’s also a fair deal of romping while the Pleinsworths are in the country, when young Harriet, an aspiring authoress, writes a multi-act play featuring evil queens, dashing heroes, and wild boars. As ever, JQ does a great job with family-building, and the Pleinsworths are an entertaining bunch. The climax of the book felt a little rushed and a little, well, too adventurous, in comparison to the rest of the book which had not really had that sort of tone to it. This is definitely a book where you can believe in the Happy-Ever-After, though, because Anne and Daniel complement each other so well, and that’s quite heart-warming. While not among JQ’s best (it’s going to take an awful lot to ever challenge Bridgertons #1-4 for that honour, after all), this is still a very strong book and well worth the read. There are ways in which JQ is starting to deal with more mature themes in her books, and mature in a way that has nothing to do with erotica and everything to do with people — with psychological troubles, old wounds, recovering from past betrayals, and the damage that society can do to a person — and I find that very interesting.

Coda: I’m hoping the next book will feature Hugh Prentice as the hero — and if I’ve learnt what I think I’ve learnt about how romance authors tend to work, I believe it will. We get a rather incredible glimpse into his character when he tells Daniel why he knows his father will no longer pursue vengeance: because Hugh has sworn to commit suicide if his father does anything to Daniel. He tells Daniel to be careful and “not get yourself killed in some unhappy accident,” because he would blame his father “and honestly, I’d rather not see myself off unnecessarily” — but there’s clearly a lot going on beneath the surface there. I hope, and anticipate, that JQ is going to let us in on that next year.

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