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REVIEWS: Master Class and SUBlime by Rachel Haimowitz

Dear Ms. Haimowitz.

I’ve been remiss in not reviewing these books. I recommended them in November, but then the end of the semester and the holidays and then the beginning of the semester and and and…caught up with me. But I’ve been dipping into them again and again through the last few months when I needed to cleanse my palate from other books.

Master Class Rachel HorowitzNicky Avery is a TV star who is rehearsing for a Broadway show. He meets Devon Turner, film star and all around amazing actor. They connect instantly, Nicky feeling Devon’s dominance, Devon reacting to Nicky’s submissiveness. But this isn’t a touchy-feely story. This is pure D/s with intense sadomasochistic overtones. Devon doesn’t let Nicky get away with anything, either physically or emotionally. The first book, Master Class, shows Nicky and Devon’s meeting and the start of their relationship. SUBlime (really on that title?! Please trust your readers to Get It without the hokey capitals!) is a serious of short vignettes, mostly (really great) wank material more than anything else, that reveals scenes in their daily life, but that doesn’t really forward their relationship.

Devon and Nicky meet at a dinner with friends. I love this. I love that they don’t meet at a Kinky Klub of Kinkiness. They meet like other normal people do. And they’re drawn to each other through mutual attraction rather than some ridiculous set up. The book definitely has a lot of “All-Knowing All-Seeing Dom Who Knows What’s Right for the Misguided Little Submissive”-itis to go around. Devon recognizes that Nicky’s submissive, that he’s deeply masochistic, that he’s utterly fucked up. And he knows just what Nicky needs. Of course. (Honestly, just once, I’d like to read a book with a fucked up Dom and a has-it-together sub who saves him/her.) But if that’s going to be the point of the book, it’s very well done. Brilliantly done, even.

Devon takes care of Nicky. He knows what Nicky needs and he gives it to him. And as physically excruciating as their play can be, both for them and for the reader, depending on the reader’s squick levels, it’s possible to see Devon’s care for Nicky all the way through the book.

As an example of the physical and emotional intensity of the book:

Devon retrieved his crop. He wasn’t usually such a one-toy man, but he needed precision tonight without too much bite. He thwapped it lightly against Nicky’s testicles. Stretched and weighted as they were, even a light touch was painful; Nicky grunted, stumbled, fell. The rigging caught him, and he scrambled back to his feet and forced his limbs back to their straining stance. Devon rewarded this by striking Nicky’s nuts again, upping the force a bit. Perhaps expecting it this time, Nicky kept his feet.

“Now, I do believe we were having a conversation. Tell me what I’m doing.”

Another strike. Nicky gasped.

“You’re cropping my nuts, sir.” Again, and Nicky lifted one foot but quickly put it back, gasping out, “Fuck, it hurts.”

Devon knelt down to add a second weight to the leather cord, stretching Nicky’s sack a little more. He let it go carefully, stroking one sweat-damp thigh as he released the weight. Nicky’s whimper went straight to Devon’s cock, but he ignored it. Right now, his boy demanded all his focus.

Devon picked up the crop again and rubbed it against the stretched skin of Nicky’s scrotum, then slapped it lightly, several times in succession, until Nicky danced away. “Hold still,” Devon warned, grabbing him by the rigging to keep him in place and resuming his tapping with the crop.

It was impressive that Nicky remembered to speak through this treatment. He gritted out, “Tapping my balls, sir,” through increasingly heavy breaths that became grunts, then cries: Devon’s cue to stop. Devon smoothed over the hot skin with his thumb, gave Nicky’s half-hard cock a few quick pumps.

“And I suppose you know what my next question’s going to be.”

Chest heaving, limbs quaking, Nicky said nothing as Devon worked his erection. Finally, he shook his head, looking contrite and a little frightened. A drop of sweat flew from his chin and plopped to the floor.

Good. Nicky was moving beyond the ability to parse every little thing, moving beyond control and into true subspace. Devon added another weight, and another.

“How do you feel, Nicky?”

“Hurts,” he panted.

“How you feel, Nicky, not how it feels. That’s five.”

This book is not for the faint of heart. It shows an intensely physical and deeply emotional relationship between a sadist and a masochist, between a Dom and a sub, that has some necessary suspension of disbelief (do people REALLY play that hard — especially emotionally — with each other right away?), but is otherwise beautiful, brilliant, and if you like that sort of this, deeply arousing.

Grade: B+

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SUBlime, on the other hand, is a series of vignettes that seems to lose sight of the fact that Devon and Nicky are people. In these stories, ever-in-control Dom and bratty sub are thrown in with various kinks (medical play, knives, cross-dressing, isolation, mummification). And while the individual stories stay true to Devon and Nicky’s personalities, and while the stories are arousing if it hits the reader’s kink buttons, and while they’re very well-written, Devon and Nicky are no longer actors with real lives. They’re just posable kink dolls you brought out whenever some nifty new kink caught your fancy.

Which is not to say they’re not fun, but I doubt very much that an A-list film actor can bring his A-list stage and TV actor boyfriend to a huge party, no matter how “private,” and parade him around in pony-play gear without having to worry about it getting out to the press. No matter how much you trust other people in the lifestyle, stardom is still fraught with blackmailers and paparazzi, and I just missed the real lives of Devon and Nicky amidst the kinkiness.

I feel like I’m hammering these stories for not being something they never tried to be, and I REALLY hate it when people do that. I *think* they were written first, precisely AS wankable shorts, and Master Class was written to show how Devon and Nicky got together. But however they were written, they were published as a stand-alone story and some sequel shorts, so that’s how I read them. And with that in mind, the posable kink doll thing bothered me, as much as I enjoyed the individual stories themselves. They were more erotica than romance. Brilliantly GOOD erotica, with each short having an emotional arc of its own, which is SO important, but erotica, not romance, nonetheless. As erotica, I’d give it another B+. But as romance:

Grade: C+

Best regards,
-Sarah

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Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

12 Comments

  1. Kaetrin
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 19:59:12

    I have SUBlime on my TBR (I won it, which I was happy about). Sounds like I should read Master Class first. Riptide books tend to be a bit pricey. So, is Master Class worth the price Sarah?

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  2. etv13
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 20:08:29

    Did it bother you at all that Nicky’s masochism was explained as an outcome of his privileged upbringing?

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  3. SarahF
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 20:12:23

    @Kaetrin: If you like BDSM that’s *real* BDSM, yes, absolutely.

    @etv13: You know, I read it twice (three times?) and I didn’t get that. Which is not to say it’s not there, but I think there was some confusion in Nicky’s own mind about the causes (if there are any) of his masochism and his unemotionalism. There were lots of things offered up as possibilities, but I also got the impression that even if any of them were true, it was also still who he was and wasn’t something he was looking to be “cured” of. I’ll have to read it again and look for it (no, no, not that! :).

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  4. Etv13
    Feb 09, 2012 @ 23:07:09

    Devon says iin chapter 4 that Nicky is seeking a dom because he hates being “so blessed” and feels guilty. Nicky denies it, but later he says it is true.

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  5. etv13
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 02:26:45

    I should add, too, that “submissive/masochistic because you feel you’ve been unduly privileged and all your success has come too easily” is a much more benign explanation than some of the ones we get.

    I can’t think of a story where the really-together sub helps a troubled dom get it together either. The closest I can think of is Chaos Magic and its sequels, where both heroes have their issues and insecurities, but on the whole I think the submissive character has it more together than the dom, and eventually (over the course of three books) they work through their problems to a reasonably satisfing resolution.

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  6. Sarah Frantz
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 07:27:53

    @etv13: Chaos Magic REALLY bothered me. I loved it till the very end, where it started to edge into non-con domestic violence to me. I was so squicked by it I started a review a few times, but couldn’t bring myself to reread it.

    I’ll have to go back and take a look at Nicky and Devon. I remember that part, but it didn’t stick with me as much as other bits.

    ReplyReply

  7. Laura
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 10:32:59

    I don’t seek out m/m very often, but I buy books when you give them positive reviews because you have never steered me wrong. Thank you so much!

    ReplyReply

  8. Sarah Frantz
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 11:25:15

    @Laura: Aw, thank you! That’s very sweet. I’m glad you enjoy my reviews AND enjoy the books I recommend.

    ReplyReply

  9. etv13
    Feb 10, 2012 @ 14:23:25

    Re Chaos Magic, they deal with that (and acknowledge it’s a genuine problem) in the sequels, especially the last. It isn’t just romanticized or swept under the rug. Don’t know if that would alleviate your squick or not.

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  10. etv13
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 03:06:06

    Even aside from fucked-up doms who are helped by a really together sub, do you know of any stories, from the dom’s point of view, about learning to be a dom, and coming to terms with liking to hurt people who like to be hurt? I sure can’t think of any off hand. Most fictional doms seem to be very experienced, and the coming-of-age/coming-into-your-sexuality stories all seem to be from the point of view of subs. I would really like to see a young dom from the inside.

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  11. Sarah Frantz
    Feb 15, 2012 @ 07:25:33

    @etv13: The best (only?) ones I’ve read are Victoria Dahl’s THE WICKED WEST (historical maledom/femsub) and Matthew Haldeman-Time’s AFFAIR IN PARADISE. Both of them are short stories. But they’re both really great. Dahl’s has a little more about pain play than MHT’s does. It’s hard, I imagine, admitted that you get off on hurting someone–against everything our culture teaches us is right.

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  12. Zhu Yingtai
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 20:32:09

    @etv13: There is a GREAT story where a really-together sub helps a troubled dom get it together: The Eternal Dungeon series by Dusk Peterson. It begins as a torturer and his prisoner, but it becomes D/s very quickly. The first novella is available for free.

    ReplyReply

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