Dear Ms. Dare.
You have a knack for writing characters who are all different, no matter how many times you seem to write them into similar situations or how similar they seem at the start. And your conflicts are entirely character-based, so the conflicts are all different. I find your construction of BDSM sometimes requires a lot of suspension of disbelief but as you get the emotions right, no matter how far-fetched some of the scenarios, I (usually) don’t really mind.
In my shopping sprees buying your books, however, I had avoided this particular book. I’m a simple girl and tend to like my romance non-paranormal, non-world-building-heavy. I like books to focus on the characters, not on supernatural aspects. But when I was rhapsodizing about your other books, Duck! was recommended so often and by so many people I trust, that I bought it, devoured it, and loved it.
Ori Jones is an avian shifter. The avian shifter community is rigidly heirarchical, with birds of prey as the aristocracy and all other birds fulfilling more or less submissive roles below them. The bird you are seems to guide your personality to a great extent, so crows are assholes who hang out in packs, ravens are clever and strong, seagulls are bad-tempered, peacocks are tattoo artists. And everyone’s gay. Or at least, willing to fuck other men.
Up front, the one thing that bothered me most about this book is that there are NO women. Anywhere. Not one female is mentioned — literally, the words “she” and “her” don’t show up once. I have no idea if there are female shifters, no idea how shifting gets passed down, no idea if women CAN be shifters, or if they can be a part of the shifting community. I found that extremely odd, especially since, if the entire world is built on heirarchies, some species of birds are matriarchal, with reversed gender dimorphism. If the invisibility of women in m/m romance bothers readers, they should avoid this book, because women are more that invisible — they’re almost hyper-present in their complete absence.
Anyway…Ori is “an ugly little duckling,” according to the avian elders who watched his partial shift when he first joined the community. He can’t fully shift until he comes of age at 21. He’s been serving in the “nest” for six months, a sort of communal hotel/dormitory/community center, having come to the community at 20 because his foster parents suggested he see if he’s a shifter (implying a Alternate Universe in which shifting is known and acknowledged by outside humans, but this is never really dealt with or discussed in the book). Ori’s been serving in the communal restaurant/cafeteria, suffering the abuse of the birds higher in rank than him (pretty much anyone). One day, Raynard, a high-ranking hawk shifter, saves Ori (twice) from a pack of crows and eventually takes him from the nest to be a personal servant. And that’s…pretty much the story for much of the book, although the emotional stakes are higher than they sound here. Ori serves Raynard and slowly finds his place in the world as they slowly figure out their relationship. Ori is first servant, then submissive to Raynard, then lover, then beloved. But all is halted when he completes his first shift.
This gets a bit spoilery, perhaps. It happens just over halfway through the story, so if you don’t like to know this stuff, then don’t read anymore.
This story is overtly styled on the “Ugly Duckling” fairytale, so it should be obvious what Ori actually shifts into, rather than a duck. But this changes everything, because swans are:
the purest species of avian that exists. They are good, and noble, and beautiful. They have the most exquisite spirits, the finest temperaments.
Swans are the tiptop of avian heirarchy, treated like royalty, cossetted and served, able to command all other avians, no matter their rank. It would have been nice to have some sort of indication, some foreshadowing, some hint of a swan’s rank prior to Ori’s shift, so we could have known what was coming. Instead, it comes out of the blue, because, really, why would a swan be royalty in the heirarchy except for the need to fit the fairy tale inspiration? So Raynard leaves Ori at the nest to get used to his new life as an unexpectedly high-ranking bird. Except Ori hates it, is actively hurt by losing his master, by not being allowed to serve, as is his nature.
The D/s in this book is all about the characters’ nature, tied up with their avian species. And I love what Dare does with Ori’s nature as a swan, why and how he’s a better swan when allowed to act upon his submissive nature. This is an incredibly emotional book. Not much actually happens, but every action is deeply felt by both characters (and we do get both Ori’s and Raynard’s viewpoints), their motivations deeply explored, their responses deeply examined. And it’s a very sexy book. Raynard and Ori have a lot of hot sex, all of it D/s flavored.
In fact, it’s got one of my favorite lines so far for a D/s sex scene. Ori, of course, is not allowed to come unless with his master’s express permission. Raynard’s just had a wonderful orgasm, leaving Ori wanting:
The older man pushed the last of his clothes off the bed and collapsed back against the mattress. Ori nibbled at his bottom lip as he watched the dominant settle and rest. There was a sensitive spot on his lip, where his master’s teeth had caught him hard enough to draw blood. He ran his tongue over it, relishing the sensations it sent spiraling through him.
The first word almost had him spilling onto the sheet. Somehow, Ori managed to shuffle forward without tripping over his orgasm en route. [Seriously, I just love that. Sweet and funny.] His master’s hand wrapped around his cock as he reached his side, his grip tight and perfect.
Ori met Raynard’s eyes. There was a touch of amusement mixed in with the sleepiness and the afterglow, but all the anger and confusion was gone, at least for a little while. Moving his own hands behind his back, Ori knelt next to his master and arranged himself as close as he could to his rest position, his knees spread wide apart and his head bowed to watch his master’s hand toy with him.
Raynard had always liked to hold him like that, to cradle him in the palm of his hand and know that he had complete control over his lover. He was treating him in exactly the same way he had when he was a duck. Ori had never been more grateful to feel so painfully frustrated in his life.
The word was said at his master’s discretion, and according to his own timetable. Ori knew that. He also knew he’d never been more thankful to hear it spoken.
He came. Lights flashing, head spinning and his master’s hand never even slowing its movements. The older man’s palm kept pumping around his shaft long after he had stilled.
Ori whimpered, too sensitive to truly enjoy his master’s touch right then, too lost in his submission to even consider protesting. Gradually his master’s hand slowed of its own accord until it finally left him completely.
Despite my misgivings about the utter absence of females and the sometimes sketchiness of the world building, I really enjoyed this book. It was such a different take on the fairy tale, such a different take on a shifter myth, such a different take on D/s, that all in all, it was way more interesting — and way more well-written — than it was confusing or annoying.
P.S. Loved the cover. Very evocative. (Except that’s only one full wing, not two, which looks kinda funny.) Copy editing from this publisher sucks (I lost all my OMGWTFBBQ highlights when my Mantano app started acting strangely on my Android device, but still, the copy editing sucks.)