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REVIEW: Safeword: Matte by Candace Blevins

Dear Ms. Blevins,

I read this book because the concept intrigued me: a female fighter who is also submissive and wants her dominant to be able to fight her for her submission and win. I’m always looking for maledom BDSM romance I can stomach, and this seemed like it might work. I did indeed enjoy the concept but I doubt I’ll read anything else of yours because your writing is so clunky. This is a huge shame, because I loved the accuracy of your portrayal of a BDSM relationship.

Safeword: Matte by Candace BlevinsSam is a divorce lawyer and a female mixed-martial-arts fighter. She kicks so much ass when she fights that she can kick the ass of most male fighters she knows, and certainly of most of the people she’s interested in dating. However, she’s also sexually submissive and a heavy masochist. But she needs her dominant to earn her submission by taking it from her in a fight. She’s tried dating fighters she spars with, but most of them aren’t kinky and can’t understand or fulfill her desire for pain with sex. She’s tried dating dominants who aren’t fighters, but most of them can’t beat her in a fight. So she’s kinda stuck.

One weekend, she watches a series of MMA cage fights and gets the serious hots for a heavyweight fighter, Ethan Levi. But because Ethan is probably going to fight her sparring partner by the end of the weekend, Sam turns him down flat when he hits on her at some point. Ethan and Tom do fight and it’s seriously hardcore:

They fought so fast the human eye couldn’t keep up – she couldn’t wait to analyze this on video later. At the two minute mark, both were bloody, and when the crowd started the countdown fifteen seconds before the five minute mark, they both flew at each other when the crowd hit three, and once again fought so fast it was impossible to tell who had the upper hand. Blood was flying by this time, but neither of them were slowing down one bit.

Afterwards Tom and Ethan talk and Tom invites Ethan to dinner with himself, Sam, and their friends. Sam continues to turn Ethan down all through dinner without telling him why. He eventually leaves her alone. So it’s a huge but very welcome shock when a few weeks later, Sam and Ethan meet at private BDSM party. They immediate start playing and find their kinks match perfectly. They stay together the entire weekend, finally having sex AND having the fight that they both want:

She’d seen Tom hit Ethan full force and he took it, which meant she could truly fight him, all out. This wasn’t going to be a spar, this was going to be a fight to a simulated rape, and he was going to unmercifully fuck her with his wicked cock if she lost. When she lost.

Ethan is a sadist, Sam is a masochist. The scenes are intense, but the negotiation beforehand, and even during the scenes, is realistic, focused, and extensive. Ethan’s during and aftercare of Sam is wonderful. As Sam thinks to herself at some point:

He was such a contradiction, such a caring person who went above and beyond the normal caretaker roll. But then his inner sadist took over, capable of doling out pain in measures she’d never been able to handle before, and somehow made her want even more. And more.

It’s so *nice* to see realistic BDSM that still has a twist to it. There’s no Kinky Klub of Kinkiness, there’s not Magical Dom Who Knows What You Want, there’s no clueless submissive who is clueless. There’s two people with very specific needs and desires who find each other, work to build a relationship, fall in love, and commit to each other, all in the context of those needs and desires. That was lovely and why I kept reading.

Two (and a half) problems.

First, there’s no narrative tension, no will-they-or-won’t-they, no dark moment. While it’s good to see realistic BDSM, it’s still a romance novel. It still needs a Barrier to the relationship. There’s no question that Ethan will be able to take Sam in a fight. He’s a fighter who we first see hold his own in a vicious cage match and he’s got eight inches and 120 pounds on her. It might have been more interesting to read about a hero who is similar in stature to Sam, so that he really would have had to work for her submission.

Halfly: does his dick really have to be the Biggest Dick Evah?! Really? Like, his dick is actually part of his sadism because it’s so big it hurts. That just seems…a bit too much.

Second and biggest problem, OMG, your writing. ::sob:: The characters felt like puppets drawn on a lollipop stick, moved back and forth by a precocious six year old (well, maybe not, considering the sex they have). Except…not quite. The characters have *character*, they have motivation, they have needs and wants and desires. Except eveything is utterly wooden. There’s no sparkle in the dialogue. There’s no heat in the sex. There’s no tension anywhere. There’s infodumping everywhere about stuff I don’t care about:

“What time do you start your days during the week?”

“I usually get to the shop around seven in the morning, which gives me some time to get organized before the men arrive.”

“What days do you work? People move on the weekends, right?”

“We have teams out seven days a week, but if I don’t want to work weekends then I don’t. I had planned to work yesterday, but the great thing about being the boss is you can pull other people in if you need to. I have someone I knew wanted the extra hours, so I didn’t feel guilty about calling him in. What hours do you usually work during the week?”

“It kind of depends. On days I have court sometimes I meet the client at the office at eight and we talk about the expectations for the day and then walk to court together. Sometimes I just meet them at the courthouse at nine. I see people later in the day on Monday and Wednesday, and try to end things earlier on Tuesday and Thursday so I can get something light to eat before going to the dojo. I try to keep Friday evenings free so I can leave early, but I sometimes schedule mediation sessions during that time if I sense people are close to agreeing. Sometimes waiting too long means they talk themselves out of seeing things eye to eye.”

And then skimming of stuff that would add to the story:

Ethan grilled steaks and vegetables while they talked, and pulled out a fantastic bottle of red wine to go with them. He made a raspberry dish with drizzles of chocolate over it for desert, and hand fed it to her, letting her lick his fingers clean between bites. She helped him clean the kitchen, with the conversation going all over the place – their most embarrassing moment in high school, the details of their first kiss, how they lost their virginity, how strict their parents were, what made them start taking martial arts, how they discovered the world of kink. When dinner was over, they moved out onto the screened in porch, which had an incredible view of the city below.

And there’s no follow-through. Ethan hits Sam ten times each with a wicked flogger, a steel cane, a rattan cane, and a tawse, all in one evening, hits her so hard she screams, orgasms, and almost passes out, all from the pain. And the next day they go jetskiing with no mention whatsoever of how her ass must feel, no playing with the marks, no admiring the bruises, no mention that she has to sit a bit funny. No…life to the story.

It really hurts to have to slam a story that’s such a great representation of a realistic BDSM relationship AND that has a fascinating kick to it, but the only thing that kept me going was the idea. The writing was so clunky, the sex was not hot, the story was not motivating. I really REALLY wish the execution were better so I could be excited about reading more of your work, but I can’t. Still, it was at least readable.

Grade: C-

Best regards,


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.


  1. cbackson
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 11:21:58

    Oy. That dialogue snippet reminds me of the little role-playing scenarios I used to write up to use with my ESL students. This is exactly the kind of story I want to like (in part because I’m an alpha-female lawyer, and I’d like to read about a character like me), but this is painfully clunky.

  2. rebeccaj
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 13:36:20

    Didn’t know about the book, but they certainly overdid the muscles on that dude!

  3. Aleksandr Voinov
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 14:04:01

    Funny, and I thought it’s spelled Mate (but I see how that looks like the wrong word).

    Also, the usual “fight scene is so blurry so the author doesn’t have to do any research” thing – honestly, if the POV character is a fighter herself, she KNOWS what’s going on. She’s trained to respond to the fast moves, and she’d definitely analyse it differently – she’d not a hapless civilian. That’s why they get boxers and fighters to comment on fights – they can see and sometimes even explain what’s going on.

  4. HollyY
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 14:04:46

    The clunky writing would kill me because I like realistic BDSM too. Though I must say, the concept, while cool, seems a little “Red Sonja” to me. But it would probably work if the writing was better.
    And the cover – um…what’s with the hat and shades? I’d much rather see the model’s face.

  5. Aleksandr Voinov
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 14:14:27

    @HollyY: The idea of a female warrior only yielding to a man who can best her goes definitely back as far as the Nibelungenlied (Bruennhild, a queen, only yields to King Gunther if he can best her, so Siegfried tricks her and helps Gunther in return for marrying into Gunther’s family) – if not a lot further. So the pattern is actually pretty old (700+ years).

  6. Jenny
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 16:02:05


    I really like the premise of this book. Too bad it fell short. Can you rec anything similar that you have liked, at least with some of the same aspects if not the MMA?

  7. Laura
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 18:19:27

    Is that cover a pic of Mark Wahlberg from his Marky Mark days?

  8. SarahF
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 19:35:15

    @Jenny: No, unfortunately. That’s why I was so excited about this book. I tend not to like most maledom/femsub BDSM, especially if the sub is clueless and the dom knows everything (a la 50 Shades). I really wish this had worked.

    @Laura: Ha! I don’t think he was ever that muscled. Yeah, it’s a weird cover.

  9. Janine
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 22:38:13

    What a shame about the clunky writing. I liked the concept too — I remembered it from the review request and wondered if my suspicions about the quality of the writing (based on the excerpt) were correct. It sounds like they were.

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