Dear Ms. Hart,
Two of the many things I enjoyed about your erotic novella collection, Pleasure and Purpose, are the setting and the heroines’ background. All three novellas take place in a fantasy setting which resembles mid nineteenth century Europe in terms of its technological development. As far as I can tell, this world does not seem to contain magic, but underlying all the stories is a fascinating mythology that plays an important role in the characters’ lives.
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.
If that sounds sexist, it sounded that way to me too, but the stories derive a lot of impact and depth from the heroines’ religious commitment to these principles, and the heroines themselves are far from wilting flowers.
“Stillness,” the first novella, begins when a handmaiden named Stillness Faine arrives at the home of Edward Delaw. Stillness has traveled far to bring Edward solace. What she does not know is that Edward doesn’t expect to be able to attain perfect solace. He has signed a contract with the order partly because his house is in chaos and he knows a handmaiden will make it a more peaceful place.
Peacefulness is something Edward craves in his soul. When they were young, Edward and his friend Cillian, the Prince of Firth, had sexual escapades with prostitutes. But one of these went terribly awry, and Cillian was sent to an asylum. Cillian returned half-mad, and it is now Edward’s job to watch him. Their friendship is a thing of the past. Cillian is intelligent enough to discern that Edward has rejected his own sexual need to dominate, and he taunts Edward with that need.
Edward and Stillness’ first sexual encounter is a bit rough, something Stillness enjoys very much, but Edward has trouble with. Gradually, though, he comes to see that pain play can bring Stillness not only pleasure but solace, and as he comes to care for her, he begins to accept his own sexual needs.
I enjoyed “Stillness” tremendously. Beneath her outer calm and submissiveness, Stillness is a wonderful heroine, clever, astute, yet also vulnerable. Although she was focused on bringing Edward solace and putting him first, she still had needs of her own, which gave her character dimension.
Edward, meanwhile, started out a bit less likable, but he grew on me more and more as the novella progressed. Despite being tormented by the past, and despite the fact that Stillness was there to serve his well-being, he quickly focused on satisfying her needs. Cillian, though not always as appealing, was intriguing, as was Edward’s friend Alaric.
Since I am not that knowledgeable about BDSM, I can’t say whether its depiction in this story was accurate, but I can say that I found this novella very hot. The sex was quite erotic to me, despite the fact that I am not usually a huge fan of pain play and am not always into male domination. If I had to guess at why, I think it was because I was rooting for Stillness so much that whatever gave her pleasure was sexy to me, and because Edward was so obviously concerned for her needs more than for his own.
Another thing I loved was the language, which was suitable to the historical feel of the fantasy setting. Here’s an example:
She returned her attention to the house. Spring green ivy climbed redbrick walls, and the gabled roof spoke of cozy, tucked-away garret rooms. Smoke from the chimney wisped its gray tail against the background of blue sky.
If I have a couple of minor criticisms it’s that I wanted to understand Edward’s reasons for engaging Stillness’ services a little better, and that the ending was a bit rushed. On the whole, though, this is an excellent story. A-/A for “Stillness.”
“Honesty,” the second novella in the collection, is about Prince Cillian. Having seen Edward attain solace, Cillian craves it for himself. He contacts the Order of Solace to request a handmaiden. Honesty, the handmaiden who is sent to him, arrives late due to a train accident, as well as hungry and fatigued.
Cillian, who is sullen and petulant most of the time, is in a worse mood than usual because of her late arrival, and his temper doesn’t improve much when Honesty is brought to his “playroom,” the place where he flogs willing women for sexual pleasure, and faints of hunger and exhaustion. After nursing her until she awakens, Cillian expects her to begin catering to his needs, and is chagrined when Honesty requests something to eat instead.
Honesty isn’t at all what Cillian expected. Instead of a submissive and gentle handmaiden who anticipates his every need, he gets a woman who isn’t impressed by his title and bluntly shares her opinions of him.
The truth is that Honesty is burned out, having spent a long time attending a dying woman. She feels she is not cut out to serve the order anymore, and hopes to fail in her assignment and be sent home. It’s not until she realizes how badly Cillian needs solace that she begins to want to at least try to help him attain it.
Honesty’s emotional depletion isn’t the only obstacle she and Cillian face. There is also the fact that Honesty isn’t drawn to pain play. In addition, Cillian still has issues to resolve with Edward, and a nobleman plotting against him.
I liked “Honesty” very much. Cillian and Honesty started out a bit less sympathetic than Edward and Stillness, but as they began to fulfill each other’s emotional needs, I grew to like them more and more. Edward and Stillness played a significant role in this story, and it was great to see them again, and through other characters’ eyes.
Although not as erotic as “Stillness,” and a bit less romantic to me, “Honesty” was a very engaging story. In some ways, Edward and Cillian’s relationship with one another was as integral to this story as Cillian’s relationship with Honesty. There was also a nice twist in the way Cillian found his solace. B+/A- for “Honesty.”
“Determinata” is the most unconventional of the three novellas. It is the story of Alaric, Edward and Cillian’s friend, who has been unlucky in love. Alaric’s fiancée, the Lady Larissa, has recently broken off with him, leaving Alaric so devastated that he became addicted to a drug called oblivion.
The story begins when its heroine, a handmaiden named Derterminata, or Mina for short, is given the assignment. The request for Mina’s services is unusual, because it was made not by Alaric himself but by Edward and Cillian. Even though one of Mina’s sisters-in-service expresses doubts about this, Mina herself is eager to travel to Firth and begin her work with Alaric.
Mina has a dominant personality and she is intrigued by Alaric’s profile and his need to submit. She is confident that she can bring him solace. As she leaves the order, a former lover of hers waits with her for the carriage that will bring her to the train station. Mina allows it because she understands that this means something to the man, but to her, their relationship is in the past, and she is unsentimental about such things.
I liked this contrast between Alaric and Mina; whereas Alaric had been devastated by the loss of love, Mina had never truly felt it. When they meet, Alaric is not interested in Mina or her services, and he tells her that he will never love her. Mina replies that she is not there for love, but rather, to give him solace. She makes it clear that that is all she is interested in.
But as Mina helps Alaric through drug withdrawal and gives him assignments that help him get stronger, things begin to change. Mina’s dominance and Alaric’s submission match up so well that they understand each other in ways that are new to both of them.
This was a lovely story. Alaric, with his need to please, was very much out of the usual mold of heroes, and I found him likable and sympathetic. Mina was more compelling, and an unusually strong-minded heroine. I really loved her. Edward and Cillian played a role in this story but the focus remained firmly on Alaric and Mina.
Though a couple of questions remained unanswered, and the story felt a bit too short, the ending was both surprising and touching. I loved how unusual Alaric and Mina’s relationship was, too, so “Determinata” gets an A- from me.
Overall, I think that Pleasure and Purpose may be my favorite of your books thus far, though I have not read your entire backlist. In comparison with your novels for Harlequin Spice, the novellas in Pleasure and Purpose don’t have quite the same degree of depth or emotionalism, but since they are shorter works, that is only to be expected. Also, in my opinion the heroines here are more sympathetic and the novellas are more uplifting, which, combined with the fascinating worldbuilding, made for terrific reading.
Readers may also be interested to know that whereas in the Spice novels the focus is more strongly on the heroines’ emotional journeys, here the heroes’ arcs get at least as much attention as the heroines’. In that sense, these stories may be more traditional, but the setting and the way faith plays a role in the characters’ choices also make these stories feel very fresh.
Perhaps because they are shorter works, the novellas are tight and fast-paced, something else I really liked. Finally, can I say how much I appreciated the happy endings? Although they are labeled as erotic novellas, to me these stories read as romantic too.
In conclusion, all I can say is that I enjoyed Pleasure and Purpose enormously. It is definitely going on my list of favorite books of 2009. My overall grade for the entire collection is an A-.