Dear Ms. Hart,
I’ve enjoyed several of your books, and three of them, the novels Dirty and Broken, and the novella collection Pleasure and Purpose, are among the best books I’ve read in recent years. I was thrilled by Pleasure and Purpose and greatly looking forward to No Greater Pleasure, its sequel, so I’m genuinely sorry to report that I found the first half of the book unsatisfying enough to put the novel down unfinished. The following, then, will not be a full review but rather an attempt to articulate the reasons I stopped reading.
Like Pleasure and Purpose, No Greater Pleasure takes place in (to crib from my review of the earlier book) “a fantasy setting which resembles mid nineteenth century Europe in terms of its technological development.”
It is the prevailing religious belief that each time a soul finds perfect solace, even if only for a moment, an arrow appears in the god Sinder’s quiver. According to legend — and many people’s faith — when the quiver is full, Sinder, his wife and his son, The Holy Family, will reunite, bringing peace and harmony to mankind.
To that end, the Order of Solace was created. The women who enter the order, called handmaidens, make it their task to bring solace to the patrons who engage their services. Sometimes doing that involves sex, but there is more to it than that. To give an idea of the handmaidens’ outlook, here are the five principles which comprise the tenets of the Order of Solace’s philosophy:
“1. There is no greater pleasure than providing absolute solace.
2. True patience is its own reward.
3. A flower is made more beautiful by its thorns.
4. Selfish is the heart that thinks first of itself.
5. Women we begin and women we shall end.”
Tranquilla (“Quilla”) Caden, a handmaiden in the Order of Solace, arrives at a house called Glad Tidings as No Greater Pleasure begins. The owner of the house is Tranquilla’s newest patron, Gabriel Delessan.
Quilla is greeted with suspicion by Florentine, Gabriel’s chatelaine and cook, and with surliness by Gabriel himself. Gabriel is an alchemist and has retained Quilla’s services to have his comfort and order in his laboratory seen to, not to attain solace. As he explains to Quilla, he requested a handmaiden so that he would not have to put up with “lies” and “pandering.” He does not want to hear that it’s her pleasure to please him, merely that she will do her job, which will not involve sex.
Quilla does her best to perform her task, seeing to it that Gabriel doesn’t forget to eat, replacing his broken teacups with whole ones and oiling a squeaky hinge on one of the doors, cleaning his lab, conversing with him when he seems to want conversation, and keeping silent when he doesn’t.
From Florentine, Quilla learns that Gabriel is married to a beautiful woman who may or may not be mad. Saradin cheated on Gabriel and drank some potion from his lab in an attempt to abort a baby. Her son was born healthy, though it is unclear whether or not Gabriel is the father. Sometimes Saradin screams in the middle of the night, but at other times, she seems completely sane, if oblivious to Quilla.
Gabriel does not discuss his wife with Quilla, but he does tell her that his own mother betrayed his father in a similar fashion. Gabriel’s half-brother Jericho is the result of an affair between Gabriel’s mother and her brother-in-law, Gabriel’s uncle. Gabriel is disgusted with his now deceased mother and uncle, but he does not take out his anger on Jericho, who is not to blame for the circumstances of his birth.
As time goes on, Quilla feels thwarted to realize that Gabriel does not want joy or solace. He will not cooperate with any of her attempts to help him become happier. Yet he doesn’t send her away, even though Quilla feels she is doing every task but the one that gives her purpose.
Gabriel’s half-brother Jericho arrives at Glad Tidings and is instantly smitten with Quilla, but Quilla doesn’t trust his sincerity. Jericho flirts with Quilla and makes it clear that he wants to pursue a relationship with her, something Quilla cannot indulge in while Gabriel remains her patron.
Quilla is startled to comprehend that she is beginning to feel jealous of Saradin for holding Gabriel’s attention. In previous assignments for married patrons, Quilla has never envied a spouse, nor was she sorry if her presence in a house brought a married couple closer together. But now she finds herself feeling differently.
No Greater Pleasure was a frustrating read for me because its premise sounded so intriguing and I hoped for an emotional reading experience. Instead, I found myself feeling relatively indifferent to Quilla and Gabriel’s fate.
One of the problems was that in the first quarter or so of the book, there was a lot of dialogue that seemed geared at explaining the principles of the Order of Solace, as well as the nature of a handmaiden’s role and work. Since I had read Pleasure and Purpose, I was already familiar with all of this, and I felt I was treading well-worn ground.
It didn’t help that some elements of the scenario — the surly patron who does not believe in solace or in the order, the skeptical servant who sees the handmaiden as a whore — were present in your wonderful novella “Stillness” and were therefore familiar to me as well. I suspect that to readers who have not read Pleasure and Purpose, this material might feel more fresh.
Quilla wasn’t unsympathetic, but she also wasn’t as compelling to me as the three handmaidens in Pleasure and Purpose. True to her name, her mood stayed even for a good part of the section I read. Although this wasn’t always the case, she often took things in stride to such a degree that I found her difficult to relate to. Since she did not seem to feel things that deeply, it was hard for me to feel deeply for her.
As for Gabriel, in the first half of the book, at least, he was sullen much of the time and therefore not very appealing to me. Although the book was written in third person, in its first half we never got Gabriel’s viewpoint (or anyone else’s other than Quilla’s), so even though Gabriel’s position wasn’t enviable, and I was willing to sympathize with him, I never truly experienced deep sympathy.
The situation Gabriel and Quilla found themselves in wasn’t particularly romantic to me. Understand, I’m not categorically opposed to adultery in books. For me, it all depends on the circumstances. But with Saradin, Gabriel’s shrewish wife, under the same roof with Quilla and Gabriel, it was hard to get into a romantic mood.
Perhaps that shouldn’t matter, since I’m not certain if the book is a romance. I have to admit that I often read for the romantic elements even in books outside the genre, and that may be a factor in my response.
Speaking of genre, I’m also not certain whether the erotic novel label would be appropriate in this case, because in the section I read, over half the book, there was no sex to speak of, unless you count the time Quilla was briefly subjected to overhearing Gabriel and Saradin going at it. I expect this changes eventually, but I didn’t get that far.
Quilla did not even kiss anyone in the book’s first half, though a few people tugged on her braid. I was frustrated enough by this state of affairs (or should I say, non-affairs) that I almost wished she would forget about solace and tumble into bed with Jericho, who, though probably untrustworthy, at least showed interest in her.
There are some good things about No Greater Pleasure which are worth mentioning. The gaslight fantasy setting is unusual, the Order of Solace premise truly inspired, and the prose is generally solid and at times evocative.
I had the feeling that this novel was heading for some kind of major development, but in the end, it pace of getting there was too slow for me. My interest kept wavering, I kept putting the book down, and finally I concluded that this book was not for me.
Just as I have enjoyed your other books, I’m sure there are other readers who will enjoy the unusual setting and premise in this one enough to overlook the things that bothered me, readers to whom the plot and characters will appeal more than they did to me. I wish I were one of them, but for me, No Greater Pleasure is a DNF.
This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format from Sony or other etailers on October 6, 2009.