Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review of "House of Sable Locks" and "Tales from the Arena: Opening Gambit" by Elizabeth Schechter

Writers must read. This is a truism, already deeply internalized by all but the greenest of beginners. Reading is the fuel of the imagination. We hear it echoed everywhere from classrooms to on-line discussion boards. Our jaded eyes sweep across a sidebar passing it off as unique wisdom in yet another of those “how-to-be-a-fabulously-successful-writer” pulp-fodder manifestos from authors and agents we’ve never heard of. We crane our necks to hear it mumbled in listless c-list panel discussions at every over-priced seminar with a cash bar and third-rate swag. Serious writers are serious readers. Yet how often do we recognize the virtue of simply reading for pleasure?

In my own regular constitutional routine, carefully developed to optimize physical and mental health, I’ve learned to set aside the last half hour of each day to indulge myself with books that I want to read, after getting through the latest chapters in the ones I have to read. Lately I’ve been leisurely working my way through the first five books of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones); dipping into Junot Diaz’ short story collection This Is How You Lose Her, and laughing and nodding at linguist Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word among other things. There is something to be said for the restorative and quickening power of reading for fun. These last couple weeks have been especially enlivening, as the two books I “had” to read for review here also happened to be the kind of delightful, magnetically engaging page-turners I’d choose if I was looking for pure down-time enjoyment; things to take with me to the beach if I ever got to go on vacation, or peruse by the fire if I actually had a fireplace.

Elizabeth Schechter fuses diverse genres with such artful subtlety that we barely notice the genius at work before our eyes. Steampunk, erotica, fairytale romance, horror, sci-fi; Schechter does it all so deftly, blends it all so seamlessly, we are left wondering by what weird and wonderful magic such stories are created. Her latest novel House of Sable Locks is based on The Succubus, one of the most hauntingly memorable short stories in the D.L. King-edited Carnal Machines, an anthology of steampunk erotica which was included on my Best of 2013 list here on EFTBB.
The original short story, related entirely from the melancholy perspective of a dominatrix-automaton in an exclusive London brothel, becomes the first chapter of the novel, virtually without alteration. But now, Schechter has expanded her somewhat narrowly defined steampunk/BDSM story-verse as well as her narrative point-of-view into the realms of alternate world history, gothic horror, mystery and romance. We learn The Succubus’ fascinating and disturbing backstory along with that of William, the young man she comes to love and long for as no other. An artificer or mechanical scientist, William just on the cusp of majority, is a virtual prisoner in his own home, under the sway of his grasping uncle, his life, present and past, not wholly his own.

The brothel itself, a sort of Victorian BDSM Disneyland, complete with automated pirates in one of its many sexy theme rooms, becomes a virtual character in the story; the too-long neglected machinery in its dusty attics and crawl spaces akin to a beating heart, keeping everything in operation, yet vulnerable and, at times, dangerous. William is drawn to the house as much by his scientific curiosity as by his need for physical release and psychological clarity. The very-human soul of The Succubus longs to help the young man overcome the demons of his past:

“Read it aloud,” Rupesh commanded, an odd note in his voice. William hesitated, surprised by Rupesh’s sudden intensity. Rupesh scowled and snapped, “read it!”

Obediently, William went back to the book and slowly started to translate. “There are two kinds of people of . . . of the third nature: those that are disguised as males and those that are disguised as females . . . Rupesh, what’s the third nature?”

“The third nature . . . that is what we call men who love men, women who love women,” Rupesh said, his voice deep and gravelly.

“Men . . . with men?” William asked, stunned. The very idea was both shocking and thrilling at the same time. Men loving men . . . so he wasn’t strange for desiring Rupesh?

Schechter is not only an engaging storyteller, but a perceptive and intelligent observer of the human condition. (Can we say icing on an already tasty cake?) Among other things, I was refreshed and delighted by the author’s sensitive, beautifully naturalistic treatment of William’s bisexuality; the luminous descriptions of the polyamorous m/f/m relationship he enjoys as a student in Paris, and the romantic white-knight chivalry in his endeavors to rescue The Succubus and be united with his love. Amazing! Fantastic! Glorious! All this and more. I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter as each day drew to a close, and I suspect that readers with more unregimented time on their hands may gobble it up in a single sitting.  Enthusiastically recommended!


Quite different, though in its own way no less diverting, is Schechter’s futuristic Sci-fi-adventure/BDSM-romance mash-up, Tales from the Arena: Opening Gambit.  In order to keep their animal side in check, a group of genetically enhanced soldiers, The Swords, are allowed to enjoy a recreational facility known as The Arena, where trained submissives (The Collared) make themselves available for high-tech bondage as well as older-fashioned forms of play. Beautiful Iras is the mother-figure, heart and soul of the Arena, and most accomplished of The Collared. Gavir is one of the toughest and most highly respected Sword commanders. Romance may well be inevitable, but, of course, dark secrets from each other’s past and the politics of rigid caste-society are there to complicate things in the most entertaining way possible.

“I . . .” Iras stopped, her hands in Gavir’s shaking. “It was when you brought me the books.”

“What was?”

“When I fell in love with you.” Her voice was quiet, trembling almost as much as her hands.

Gavir squeezed her fingers tightly then gave in to his own need and pulled her across the space between them, pulled her into his arms. She molded herself to him, kissing him hungrily, her fingers working at the catches on his coat. He leaned forward, letting go only long enough to help her push the heavy coat off of his shoulders and down his arms, tossing it into the back-seat before pulling her back into a tight embrace.

Mistake. Her hands trailed down his chest to his abdomen and found the heavy compression bandages that his singlet did nothing to hide. She pulled back and looked down at him. “What . . . you’re hurt?”

“You knew I was hurt, Iras.”

“But that was weeks ago. You were in regen up north—” she stopped, a puzzled look on her face

It’s probably not possible to reveal any more without dropping a spoiler. Suffice to say, the mysteries here are well worth the delving. As the title suggests, this is the first in what may well become a classic series of short novels. I, for one, can hardly wait for more, and wholeheartedly commend Tales from the Arena and House of Sable Locks, to all readers, but especially to all readers-for-pleasure.

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