This fascinating erotic sci-fi novel was sent to me “over the transom”, otherwise I would never have known about it. And that would have been too bad; Peggy Barnett’s Lips Like Ice is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of storytelling, effortlessly melding elements of classic feminist science fiction in the best tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood with an intriguing—albeit sometimes hair-raising—vein of extraterrestrial erotic romance.
A young earth woman, Lydia, one day wakes to find herself transported to a cold, brutal alien world, where she has been consigned to the role of a pet for the spoiled, petulant, adolescent offspring of local royalty. The alien species on this planet, which Lydia can only describe as “Ice-Elf Monsters” is born genderless, and individuals eventually choose whether to become anatomically male or female, though that choice is often influenced more by political exigency and family expectation than the leadings of one’s heart. And woe to anyone who chooses “wrong”.
The story unfolds at a leisurely pace—sometimes, perhaps, a bit too languorously—focusing on the heroine’s inner monologue, her torturous journey of identity accompanied by a seemingly endless cycle of self-doubt as she struggles to discern her place in this strange new world.
She wakes when the light of the sun, filtered through the amber window, puddles golden and warm on her face. The Prince is sitting on a deep, plush chair beside the head of the bed. The spindly table that had once graced its position has been moved between the two windows, flush against the wall. The lamp is still upon it, but Lydia’s writing desk is on the mattress by her feet. It must be the weekend again. She isn’t sure; she keeps forgetting to make a calendar. Her period is over, so that’s been four days at least.
She sits up blearily and rubs her eyes. The air is comfortable this morning, which means the Prince must be too warm. He is wearing only a loose pair of trousers that end well above his ankles and are held on his narrow hips by a silver sash. He has a loose, linen-like shirt on as well, but the neck is unlaced as far as it will go, the vee gaping obscenely and offering a glimpse of pointed collarbone and a glimpse of the dusky blue ridge of his pectoral muscle. He hasn’t any chest hair. Or nipples, as far as she can tell.
It seems strangely sensual and modest after he had stood before her in all his proud nakedness the other night. Knowing what is beneath the billowing drape of sleeve, the fold of belt, makes her feel sort of squirmy inside, like she is privy to a secret that she shouldn’t have even known is a secret to begin with.
Later, when the Prince asks Lydia whether she chose to be female, she finds it difficult to give a simple answer:
“We don’t choose,” Lydia says, “We’re born one or the other.”
The Prince shudders and stills. “So I would have been male right from the start?”
“Well . . . it’s complicated. It’s not . . . there’s biological sex, and then there’s gender, and sometimes they don’t match. Sometimes biological sex isn’t just one or the other, either; and gender can definitely be fluid. And that’s not even talking about romantic or sexual attraction spectrums. Humans are . . . we. we’re a fucking compli—ah! Ah! God, are you actually-- !”
Her eyes slide shut as another orgasm rocks his body, stiffens him against her, inside of her. More pulses of heat, sweet and dark.
“Biology class is sexy,” the Prince rumbles in her ear when he’s stopped clutching and shaking. He laves her sweaty neck with his tongue. Lydia falls into her doze with a chuckle . . .
Lips Like Ice offers readers adventure and palace intrigue, seeking out new life and new civilization with a thoughtful exploration of gender issues, and a probing reflection on the nature of free will, specifically, how one’s concept of liberty defines his or her humanity.