Monday, November 11, 2013

Review of two D.L. King-edited short-story collections: "Carnal Machines" and "Under Her Thumb"

Carnal Machines (steampunk erotica)

What if H.G. Wells, Jules Verne or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been free to write the kind of erotica reflective of their own technologically-obsessed times? If the insatiable scientific curiosity of the Victorian era could have been focused on the myriad questions surrounding human sexuality, what strange and wonderful inventions might well have been wrought? In Carnal Machines, editor D.L. King has dared to ask “what if”, and in so doing, has raised another fascinating question; who knew steampunk could be so sexy?

Carnal Machines has everything I look for in outstanding erotica; rich atmospheric settings, interesting, intelligent characters, well-crafted storylines, and the playful but always cerebrally surprising use of language. These stories also make for a ripping good time. (Or would that be bodice-ripping good time?) There’s not a single clinker in the lot of fourteen, a credit to King and the dazzling cadre of talent she brings together for this anthology.  Having once entered this oddly ahistorical world of clockwork marital aids, tireless sex-slave automatons, and steam-powered fucking machines, readers may never want to leave. 

The consistent high quality of these stories is truly impressive. They have a way of lingering in the reader’s mind, bright sparks of pleasant memory. It’s difficult to cite only a few as standouts. (But, of course, I’m going to anyway, implying no offense to the other authors). The opening story, Human Powered by Teresa Noel Roberts, sets the tone perfectly in terms of language and mood. I was mesmerized by the darkly seductive atmosphere of Her Own Devices by Lisabet Sarai, set in Victorian-era Hong Kong. Infernal Machine by Elias A. St. James offers a refreshing same-sex take on the broader themes of the collection, and Elizabeth Schechter’s The Succubus rings down the curtain with just the right hints of sexual intrigue, mystery and menace.

Highly recommended!

UnderHer Thumb (BDSM erotic romance)

Another recent D.L. King-edited theme anthology, Under Her Thumb brings together twenty-one short stories centering on the experiences of dominant women and the subs who love them. A bracing antidote to the ubiquitous, boring “helpless female as plaything for well-heeled psychopath” narratives, this is BDSM with a decidedly feminist appeal. As the incomparable Midori writes in the introduction (itself alone worth the price of the book):

The femme dom as filled with rage and hate, engaging in vulgarity and thoughtless violence, is a stereotype used to dismiss the complexity of women’s desires. It’s high time we leave that behind.

She goes on to say,

The energy source of the dominant femme is not the artifice of costumes. The truth of Her is the brutal honesty of, and to, her desires, deliberately shaped by equally fierce self-discipline. She must intentionally engage this self-discipline as it’s necessary to resist capitulation to life-long social conditioning and cultural pressures of constant self-effacing and denial of yearnings.

It may seem contradictory that self-discipline would be necessary for the dominant woman to be satisfied. Doesn’t she just have to demand what she wants? First, this assumes that making a demand equates to authority. Any tantrum-throwing three-year-old can demand what she wants, but that’s not going to get results. The brat child has no authority. Pestering others until they give in is merely juvenile manipulation. Authority, however, comes with knowledge, a grasp of resources and limits, respect, and understanding of one’s scope of influence.

King's theme is somewhat narrowly focused, but this is not to say that these stories suffer from a same-ness of tone. The treatment of the subject matter is broadly diverse and multi-faceted. While the writing is not as uniformly fine or consistently engaging as in Carnal Machines, a good number of these stories are outstanding. Among the best here is Valerie Alexander’s La Sexorcista, in which the unrequited desires of a hopelessly infatuated submissive are addressed in a most unusual and deliciously ironic fashion. All Eyes on Him by Aimee Nichols (also included in her own collection, The Mercy of Strange Men, recently reviewed here) is a particularly taut piece of writing, and not to be missed. Perhaps my favorite piece is Laura Antoniou’s Blame Spartacus, with a characteristically humorous take on what can all-too-often be a deadly serious theme.


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