Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review of "Cover Him With Darkness" and "Fierce Enchantments" by Janine Ashbless

Cover Him With Darkness is an intense, engaging, grandly imagined, intelligent, entertainingly well-paced and very—very—sexy story; erotic romance writ large

Indeed, all the familiar elements of the typical genre story are here; the smart, plucky, headstrong heroine, the attractive, gentlemanly, ever-attentive sweet guy—“Mr. Maybe”—and the hero, the handsome, brooding, dangerous, perpetually-exciting bad-boy with the deep dark past who sets the heroine’s heart (among other parts) aquiver in ways the sweet guy never could. Except this bad boy is really bad—we’re talking bad on a cosmic scale here. It turns out the “hero” of this romance is nothing less than a fallen angel:

Loki, Prometheus, Azazel, Amirani in Georgia, as I found out later when I started searching on the internet. All demiurges involved in the creation and nurture of mankind. All rebels, fettered for eternity by a God or gods who would not tolerate insurrection.

Ashbless’ young heroine, Milja, takes on the role of Pandora in this mythic morality play; drawn to the handsome captive imprisoned beneath her family’s small Orthodox shrine in the mountains of modern Montenegro, her natural curiosity about the creature is at first colored by pity, and later tinged with lust. Sensing trouble, her father, a priest of the Serbian Orthodox rite, sends her away to the US, but the young woman cannot get the image of the bound man out of her mind, even in bed with her new American boyfriend:

But it didn’t work out well in the end: on our third night of actually having sex together I begged leave to tie him up, spread-eagled on the bead. Then I straddled him, slipping him into my hungry embrace. Below me, in the warm, dim light of the candles we’d lit, his body lay stretched out like a sacrifice: narrow hips, long pale hair, elbows raised as he braced against the scarves knotted at his wrists.

A stray thought grazed my mind: a wish that he had darker hair, and more of it on his torso. But it was only momentary, a twist in the rising surge of my appetite. I clenched my muscles and moved to make him gasp. Every time I ground against him a wave of heat seemed to billow up from the point where we were joined, filling me to bursting. My vision grew blurred. I tugged at my nipples, grinding them between my fingers. Ben bucked beneath me, thrusting upward, trying to fill the need he saw in me—but without the slightest idea of how great and hollow and ancient was the void in my soul.

Inevitably, all hell (or, at least, a substantial part of it) breaks loose when Milja returns home and frees the angel from his ancient bonds. The story takes fascinating turns into paranormal action-adventure, ancient Christian myth, and contemporary ecclesiastical-political intrigue, from medieval Balkan monasteries and mountain fortresses to the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada and the New-Age communion of Burning Man.
I hesitate to draw the obvious comparison here. Ashbless’ tale of ancient texts and ruthless churchmen at first seems of a piece with some Dan Brown thriller, though Ashbless is a much better writer—certainly far more intelligent and imaginative than the purveyor of The Da Vinci Code. A more apt comparison might be early Anne Rice; in scale and pacing this novel is pleasingly reminiscent of books like Queen of the Damned, without the tiresome existential inner monologues or cloying narrative excess that overtook Rice after the first blush of literary and financial success.

Apparently the first volume in a projected trilogy, Cover Him with Darkness ends with a cliffhanger worthy of Lord of the Rings, and leaves us breathless for more! Recommended.


Fierce Enchantments Ten Erotic Tales of Myth, Magic, and Desire

These ten deliciously diverse stories reveal a vivid, wide-ranging imagination—one is struck by the sheer breadth of Ashbless’ inventiveness, her natural gift for story-telling honed to acute sharpness with rigorous intellectual focus and well-practiced craftswomanship. Covering all the archetypal bases from folk ballads, myth, legend, and fairytale to futuristic sci-fi, well-researched historical fiction, contemporary horror, paranormal thriller, and post-apocalyptic action-adventure, there’s something for everyone in this wondrously abundant, cerebrally and erotically stimulating, perpetually entertaining collection.  

My personal favorites from this outstanding field include The King in the Wood, a marvelous glimpse into the life of ancient Rome, where the erotic and the sacred were often one in the same; Sycorax, a delectably sexy re-imagining of The Tempest, re-casting sweet Miranda as a rather adventurous wild-child; At Usher’s Well, based on an old folk ballad (familiar to many from the version recorded by the folk-rock group Steeleye Span in the 1970s) in which the tale of three-doomed brothers’ homecoming is related from the point of view of the serving girl who loved them all in life; and A Man’s Best Friend, the story of a wandering bard, seeking out the young widow of his fallen comrade, a gorgeously detailed story, told with such familiar ease and poignant beauty that it seems to come alive within and all around us.

Ashbless’ tales are full of lively spins and twists that almost always surprise, yet never fail in retrospect to seem exactly right, as with Bolt Hole her steamy, claustrophobic take on the zombie apocalypse; or the portrayal of BDSM-as-PTSD-therapy for emotionally scarred vampire hunters in The Last Thing She Needs, or the pleasingly Heinlein-esque The Military Mind, in which a squad of futuristic Marines bonds with the aid of a sexy telepath. Turnabout is more than fair play (or foreplay) in Knight Takes Queen, in which the familiar legend of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is transformed into something that neither Mallory, T.H. White, or Lerner and Lowe would ever have thought of, a twist so ineluctably sexily perfect that readers will be nodding their heads even as they sit gape-mouthed, trying to get their minds around what they have just imagined.

Enthusiastically recommended! 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Review of "Porked" and "Rumpled", Erotic Fairy Tales by Madeleine Shade

These gripping, intensely erotic retellings of familiar fairy tales are vividly conceived, expertly executed, and make for some of the most thoroughly entertaining light reading published in recent memory. Madeleine Shade brings impressive erudition and deep psychological insight to her seductively ingenious craft, all the while remaining accessibly down-to-earth and mind-blowingly steamy—in itself, a feat akin to magic!

A self-described “passionate collector of fairy tales”, Shade has done extensive research into the origins and literary lineage of these stories, their unique cultural significance and revered status as collective archetypes and mythic icons. She has thoroughly mined each one for its unique pscyho-erotic potential, further refining them with a frank contemporary sensibility. These are not the bowdlerized bedtime stories of Andrew Lang or Joseph Jacobs (though the lovely covers do pay homage to Lang’s blue  and green fairy books, and several Nineteenth-century retellings of each tale are thoughtfully included as appendices in both e-books); Shade’s princesses and fae folk are all grown up and seething with grownup passions, portrayed with near-palpable intensity.

Porked, Shade’s twist on The Three Little Pigs amuses on many levels. When the nefarious painter Raul Villalobos (“The Wolf”) accepts a portrait commission from voluptuous Deidre, mysterious heiress and matron of a small community of artists in the Deep South, he believes himself to have stumbled into a garden of earthly delights, yet, ultimately, his fate may be more like the hapless huntsman intruding on the private revels of the goddess and her companions. Beyond its deliciously compelling story-line, Porked is a puissant exploration of issues of self-perception, body image, and sexual ethics.

Rumpled is a much simpler story, but, in its way, no less fascinating. Here Rumpelstiltskin is a member of fae royalty, deceived and imprisoned by the human woman he once helped to win the hand of the king. Reduced to the form of a hideous dwarf, Rumpelstiltskin kidnaps the princess who was once promised him in exchange for his labors, “feeding” on the lovely girl in an endeavor to restore his own once-considerable beauty. His plan of revenge is put into motion with exquisite cruelty, and yet, as he is gradually restored to his former self, so too do the memories of nobler aspirations return, culminating in an orgasmically explosive happily ever after.  Rumpled offers readers a rare and tantalizing glimpse into the world of erotic lactation, still one of the most obscure, taboo-shrouded subgenre niches in all erotic writing, here illuminated with surprising taste and sensitivity.   

Shade has expertly turned these once-simple stories into something resembling the cornerstone of a vast novelistic edifice; a new and exciting erotic-fantasy “verse”, familiar, yet uniquely her own. A few of the characters from Porked also show up in Rumpled, and, should the series expand (may it be soon!) readers should expect to see considerably more delightful literary “cross-pollination” with diverse characters from the various tales crossing paths with the same familiar ease of the dramatis personae in a Dickens’ novel. I, for one, can hardly wait!

Enthusiastically recommended.