Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Shifter – Anthology Review

Maybe it’s just been on my mind lately, the question of consent, seduction, romance. Of being carried away, even if it’s irrational, even if it’s a bit – or more than a bit – dangerous, even if it’s inconvenient. But there was a common thread in this collection revolving around choice and will that seemed to really jump out at me.

*In Angela Knight’s Mad Dog Love, a space opera about a politically oppressed princess and an enslaved werewolf, technology has given each person a nanosystem of molecule-sized robots flowing in their bloodstreams, that help fight disease, bolster strength, and house libraries of information. But when hacked or controlled externally, they can turn a person’s body into a puppet at the mercy of the programmer. In this particular story, it was more of an external plot device than something used in the romance, but you can see how easily it could take that turn.

*In Lora Leigh’s “A Jaguar’s Kiss,” the biologically engineered Breed subrace is characterized by, among other things, a heightened mating imperative. When a Breed recognizes his mate, his body begins producing high levels of a particular hormone which can be transmitted via fluids, ie, a kiss. The hormone, to put it bluntly, makes both parties unbearably horny for each other and unable to tolerate the touch of another. In this novella, the heroine, Natalie, receives this hormone completely unknowing of its implications.

*Virginia Kantra’s “Sea Crossing” tells of a young 19th-century schoolteacher, fallen from grace, who is leaving England for indentured servitude in Canada. A community of selkies, elemental sea creatures, arrange matters to bring Emma to their island to teach their adolescent population, teenagers on the brink of their first Change:
”You were needed.” His eyes pleaded with her for understanding. “And you’ve been happy here. Emma—“

“But I didn’t have a choice! Those poor people who lost everything on the ship didn’t have a choice! I may be human and mortal and insignificant, but I know we deserve a choice.” He was looking at her as if she were the monster, as if she were a strange, rare beast who might suddenly sprout fur and flippers and swim away.

“A choice,” he repeated.

Her chest felt tight. She stuck out her chin. “Yes.”

He nodded slowly. “Very well. I will speak to my lord. Tomorrow, after you have said good-bye to the children, I will take you wherever you want to go.”

Emma’s mouth dropped open. Her chest caved in.


What I liked about these stories though, is that regardless of the circumstances that brought the h/h together and their feelings around whatever deliberate manipulation or deception happened, in each of the four stories, the resolution required each character to choose to stay, to make the commitment, to explicitly decide that they wanted the other.

Some did it better than others. This anthology popped my Lora Leigh Breed cherry, so to speak, though I’ve heard an awful lot about them. Frankly, I wasn’t that impressed.
(Saban says…) “I’ve burned for you through the days and the nights. I’ve ached for your touch, and even that you would not give me. I flirted, I teased. I did everything those fucking books said a man should do, and nothing worked.”

Natalie stared back at him, confused, uncertain. “And you thought throwing me into this would?” she finally asked bitterly. “That forcing my compliance was the only step left? You forced this on me, Saban. How is it any different than rape?”

How was it different? His lips opened, fury pounded in his head that she would think such a thing, that she could ever believe that he would force such a choice from—

Saban felt it then, the knowledge, the certainty, from her point of view, that it was exactly what he had done. He had given in to his own frustration, his anger at her defiance, his hunger, and he had unleashed it on her in a way that she could never fight, one that she could never escape.”

Nice, huh? I mean, I guess it’s OK if he was REALLY REALLY hot for her, then it’s different, right? Even this revelation is qualified: “from her point of view.” Now, I realize this hormone thing is fictional, but given that premise, it was rape from ANY point of view. Maybe worse than rape, because there is no out, no escape, no support group, no 12-step program. The fact that Saban gets it holds out some promise, but then it all gets wiped away because Natalie realizes that actually? She was asking for it, so it was her fault:
(Natalie says…) “It’s not the same as rape.”

Saban clenched his teeth and fought the need to fist his hands.

“You decided this for what reason?” He lowered the grill lid and watched it, as though in watching it he could make it heat and burn away the shame inside him.

“Because I already suspected the truth of it,” she finally said. “I knew it existed and I pushed anyway because you were frustrating the hell out of me.”

Oh, OK. Since she was attracted to him, it isn’t really rape. Got it. Yuck.

I picked up this particular anthology for the Alyssa Day story, and liked it well enough. Not as complex or dark as the full length novels, but good characters, and I’m just OCD enough to need to read it because it’s part of the overall series arc.

I also liked the selkie story quite a lot; I don’t think I’m going to be able to resist picking up Sea Witch after the little teaser at the end.

The big surprise for me was the Angela Knight story. Futuristic, techy sci-fi space opera is probably my least favorite sub-genre, with or without romance; however, I’m a total sucker for compelling characters and Knight drew me in instantly. Within 20 pages, she establishes two unique main characters with compelling motivations; the ruthless depths of the primary villain, and an irresistible storyline where we’re already wondering who can be trusted and who has betrayed whom. Fabulous! And hey, how often do we get a good zero-gravity sex scene? I had my doubts about some of the technical details, but what the hell, it was good clean dirty fun anyway.


FD said...

Oh, how timely. I recently read two books – well almost read, more like skimmed and DNF – which stomped on my squick-meter about non-con like whoa.

Let me amend that – non-con / forced sex / rape, I find inherently squicky, but I won’t necessarily stop reading because of that, because y’know, rape, whether you call it that or not, is inherently squicky, or at least it should be. It’s when it’s presented as being OK during/after the fact because the heroine has enjoyed it, that I get the urge to barf.

I’ve been seeing books tread on this line a lot lately. Used to be it was reserved for old-skool type dominant, big he-man boss/secretary style romance. Or Bertice Small.

With the rise of the paranormal romance genre, the “alpha” type is getting more prevalent again. Something else that bothers me is that I’m seeing far too many generally OK books, with an interesting premise and characters, that suffer from
‘insert-sex-scene-here-itis.’ You know – you’re trogging along, and suddenly the heroine has a 180 character switch, followed by wild & wanton moaning and expletives of the give it to me big boy variety. Then the scene ends and you’re back to the competent / shy / bitchy / whatever personality the char had in the first place, with no explanantion ever given as to why exactly the 180 happened. Character development through sex, as happens in well written erotica is one thing – but these scenes don’t add anything.

Lora Leigh in particular bugs hell out of me, because there’s potential for so much more in her series, and she’s taking the easy way out with it, having the heroine fall in love after the fact, therefore all sins are retrospectively forgiven and justified.

Quite apart from the EW factor, it makes me angry – using the mate-mate trope, and the ‘overpowering’ attraction to skip on character development and flaws in the logic of the story. I feel short-changed.

The DNF books were “Mating Claire,” and “Taming Samantha,” by Jenny Penn. I won’t be buying or reading any other of her books in the future – I came away with that strong a feeling of revulsion, and annoyance. She’s a competent writer, although she ‘tells’ a bit too much, but what we saw of her chars/world was interesting – you get hero & heroines povs.
However, in the first, the book was ruined by the hero’s pushiness, his ignoring of her repeatedly stated no, his disrespect of her opinions / abilities, (which nearly gets her killed) borderline abuse of his position as Sheriff – then there’s the fact that he deliberately gets her pregnant and turns her into a shapeshifter, without either her knowledge or consent.

The second is even worse. I couldn’t finish it even to rant about it. In this one there are two shifter brothers, unmated but looking. One is a Deputy Sheriff. He comes across a woman working alone. She presents as slightly bitchy – but then, he’s a rude, condescending arrogant jerk, so y’know, go her.
He immediately recognises her as ‘their mate’ and in his own words: “What a little beauty she was, all curvy and rounded. She was physically perfect. Her disposition, on the other hand, needed some fine-tuning. That was all right. He would be glad to instruct her on the proper way a woman should behave.”
I had to stop for a moment there to beat my head against the desk – but it gets worse. As she’s not immediately co-operative with his demand she stop working, and come along with him, he threatens to arrest her for “impeding a police investigation,” nevermind that there isn’t one, and physically drags her to his police car. He then proceeds to grope her under the pretext of “frisking her” and for good measure uses something called “mating musk” on her, making her “compliant.” This btw, is something like a cross between a date-rape drug and an aphrodisiac, and use of it is entirely voluntary on the males behalf – ie, he chooses to use it on her.
He then handcuffs her, spanks her and has sex with her on the hood of his police cruiser. After that, for an encore, he drags her back to the house he shares with his brother and they both have sex with her until she’s unconscious. In the process they bite her. Turning her into a shapeshifter. They also are intent on getting her pregnant asap.

She wakes up, naked and chained to the bed, as they’ve gone out for the day. Because y’see, they’re aware she might not be happy about this and might try to escape. Just to remind you, one of these guys is a Deputy Sheriff, upholder of law and order, sworn to defend. Uhuh.

She picks the locks (with what I do not know, as it isn’t mentioned, and did you see above about naked?) and escapes.

Deputy guy tracks her down to her sister’s house, they have words, he threatens more abuse of his police powers. She accuses him of rape and abduction, apparently, it doesn’t count as that among “his kind” Uhuh. The news is broken about the were thing – funnily, she’s not happy about that either and he feels rejected, and pissed off. So he uses the “mating musk,” on her again, and has sex with her.

He tries to get her to go with him again in the aftermath, but she’s not playing and there are other people around – and despite the threats, he doesn’t have a warrant. So, he goes off thinking, “Tonight, when she was alone and defenceless, he would be back.”

However, it’s his brother who breaks into her house that night (apparently, he trains SWAT teams, gosh what a wonderful depiction were getting of America’s boys in blue) and wakes her up out of sleep. To seduce her. She tells him to get out. Five times. She’s very clear that she’s not happy.
He loses his temper and she bolts to the bathroom. He breaks down the damn door. She has sprayed herself & the bathroom with perfume, figuring that’ll help her resist the “mating musk”. That really pisses him off. He grabs her and starts spanking her, ordering her to submit.

At that point, I had to walk away. The whole point of the old-skool asshole-alpha trope was that he eventually repented and was redeemed, and changed, or modified his behaviour - at least as far as the heroine was concerned. That clearly wasn't happening here - these guys were starting as the meant to (and did) go on.

Incidentally, these books were labelled ménage a trios / vampire / werewolves. Non-con was not mentioned.

Now, I also read a number of Kaitlyn O’Connor books recently. These also have forced sex / non / dubious consent in them. They are labelled as such. Both the hero/es and the heroine are aware this is the case, the sex is not necessarily of their choosing and any pleasure the heroine may or may not feel, does not ameliorate that fact that she had no choice in the minds of either her or the hero. Part of the plotline is in fact spent dealing with that unfavourable initial impression and the after effects of it. That’s the difference - that the forced sex is not depicted as a-ok, whatever needs must situation they are in.
Like I said earlier, it used to be that you’d mainly see this kinda thing in old-skool romances. As erotica becomes mainstream, it seems to me at least that it’s becoming more common again. My personal theory is that the rise in prevalence is due to people playing with D/s themes, outside of a D/s setting.

The problem is, these authors don’t seem to be totally au fait with D/s – it’s not my thing, but done properly D/s romance/erotica doesn’t hit my squick button – because the lines of power are correctly articulated, and it’s a choice on the behalf of both parties. What I’m seeing in these “mate” stories is a removal of choice, not an abnegation, but having it taken away from them. And no matter if it’s prettied up with the language of love and spine cracking orgasms afterwards, that’s still rape in my book.

FD said...

Erk, I'm sorry about the novel - I typed it in the comment box - didn't realise it was quite so ranty/long. *redface*

Nicola O. said...

Oh, errgg, that sounds really awful.

What I’m seeing in these “mate” stories is a removal of choice, not an abnegation, but having it taken away from them. And no matter if it’s prettied up with the language of love and spine cracking orgasms afterwards, that’s still rape in my book.

That is a *great* way to sum it up, FD. I'm not a huge fan of the "one true love, predestined, forever n ever" meme with or without the forced mating thing.

and: It’s when it’s presented as being OK during/after the fact because the heroine has enjoyed it

YES. I mean, I get that relationships are not as black and white as we would like them to be, especially when there is sexual fantasy involved. But somewhere, there has to be a way that the "submitter" can communicate his/her true feelings on consent. And the "dominator" needs to respect that, either way.

Anonymous said...

FD, I enjoyed your astute post; please don't apologize for writing something so thought-provoking.

The problem is, these authors don’t seem to be totally au fait with D/s – it’s not my thing, but done properly D/s romance/erotica doesn’t hit my squick button – because the lines of power are correctly articulated, and it’s a choice on the behalf of both parties. .

This is one of the things that bugs me about most of the books with Dom/Sub themes I've happened upon. The 'consent' discussion that I understand is the hallmark of any healthy dom/sub relationship gets the short shrift, or is not adressed at all. I'm not in the scene, but I wish authors who write about BDSM topics would do just a smidgen of research before writing about the dynamics of a relationship some of them clearly do not understand. The sub actually has the power in the dom/sub relationship, because they get to set the limits. They get to SAY NO. It's the job of the dom to know the sub's limits, and push them right up to the boundary. It's entirely about consent.

Frankly I think some authors are writing about topics they know very little about to capitalize upon the burgeoning erotica market. I just hope the readers of some of these books realize they're not always getting an accurate or authentic depiction of some of these less-than-vanilla relationships - because the author hasn't done their homework.


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