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 Valente. Deathless 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.
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.