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REVIEW: Pleasure and Purpose by Megan Hart

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-.

Sincerely,

Janine

This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format from Sony or other etailers.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

23 Comments

  1. Jennie
    Sep 01, 2009 @ 18:03:58

    Wow, Janine – excellent review. I had pretty much given up on Hart; her last book didn’t interest me enough to read, and I’ve gotten tired of the downbeat feel of her books. Hearing that this book involved BDSM would seem to pretty much be the capper for me. But your review managed to pull me back in, and I’m really intrigued. I think I will have to check this anthology out. Hearing that these stories are more uplifting than Hart’s Harlequin Spice books is encouraging. Thanks for the great review!

  2. Tae
    Sep 01, 2009 @ 18:10:57

    This sounds quite fascinating and it’s in ebook format, hurray! It’s sometimes difficult to find non-conventional romance books overseas.

  3. Janine
    Sep 01, 2009 @ 19:46:22

    @Jennie: I think the reason I found it more uplifting was the focus on giving someone else solace, and the fact that solace was attained in each story. Also, the heroines’ having dedicated part of their lives to helping others made them sympathetic. Plus I really enjoyed the historical fantasy aspect of the setting. I hope you like this anthology!

    @Tae: Yes, hurray for e-book formats! I think ebook readers must be a real boon to some overseas readers.

  4. daisy
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 00:09:48

    I haven’t read the review yet – I am too busy staring at the cover and trying to decide if I actually see a nipple there.

    Must quit looking.

  5. Helen Burgess
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 02:30:30

    I read this review last night, went to BooksonBoard and bought it and have now finished one story and am well into the next, insomnia has some uses. I am really enjoying the book so far, it is more romantic than her full length novels.

  6. joanne
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 06:35:33

    I was borderline about buying this book but ‘uplifting’ & the guarantee of HEAs pulled me into the buy-it-now line.

    There is another book from Hart, in what I’m guessing is this series(?), coming in October titled No Greater Pleasure. I just wondered if you know if there were previous stories from about the Order of Solace?

    Thanks so much for the comprehensive review.

  7. Janine
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 10:15:54

    @Helen Burgess: So glad you are enjoying the book. I agree that it is more romantic than most of her novels.

    @joanne: I don’t want to mislead you — although all the novellas end happily, not all of them end with a traditional HEA. I did find this anthology more upbeat than her novels for Spice, though.

    And yes, No Greater Pleasure which comes out in early October is in the same series.

    As far as I know there aren’t any earlier stories about the Order of Solace, but I haven’t read Hart’s entire backlist. If I’m wrong I hope someone will correct me!

  8. joanne
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 15:10:21

    @joanne: I don't want to mislead you -‘ although all the novellas end happily, not all of them end with a traditional HEA.

    @Janine: Thank you. I figured that with Ms Hart as the author there weren’t going to be any rainbows and dancing teddy bears. As long as the endings are satisfactory to the story then I’ll be a happy reader. Thanks again for the review of an interesting antho. The book is in the mail *grin*

  9. Janine
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 17:26:38

    I hope you enjoy the stories, Joanne! I would love to hear what you (and everyone else) thinks.

  10. Roselyn
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 22:12:53

    I have this book on order!! It concerns me when I read a negative comment about MH’s writing because I’m a big fan of her Spice books and hope this doesn’t change her style and she continues to write more ! I’m giving ‘Pleasure and Purpose’ a go since it’s not one of MH spice novels but it’s written by her. Hopefully it should arrive within the next 2 weeks making its way from the UK to Australia.

  11. catie james
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 23:17:29

    I’d actually “given up” on Ms. Hart’s work recently. Though I think she’s an incredibly talented author, most of her work just doesn’t “speak” to me. Your review has convinced me to give this group of stories a shot. Thanks. :)

  12. Janine
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 23:42:42

    I have this book on order!! It concerns me when I read a negative comment about MH's writing because I'm a big fan of her Spice books and hope this doesn't change her style and she continues to write more !

    @Roselyn: I understand how you feel — when I love an author’s books I really want to see them do well. If you search our reviews database for reviews of Ms. Hart’s books, you will see that I loved Dirty and Broken, and enjoyed Tempted, Reason Enough and Deeper to a lesser extent (on the other hand, I didn’t finish Stranger ).

    But even though there are a lot of things I enjoy about Hart’s Spice books, I enjoyed Pleasure and Purpose more, and I felt that mentioning the differences between her Spice books and Pleasure and Purpose would be help readers get a sense of whether or not this book is for them.

    Jennie and Catie James have both commented here that they had given up on Hart but this review convinced them to try her again, and I think that if I hadn’t mentioned the ways this book differs from her Spice books, that would not have been the case. So ultimately I think that mentioning both the things I love about her writing and the things that haven’t always worked for me is helpful to readers.

    I'm giving ‘Pleasure and Purpose' a go since it's not one of MH spice novels but it's written by her. Hopefully it should arrive within the next 2 weeks making its way from the UK to Australia.

    I hope you enjoy it; please feel welcome to post your thoughts on it.

    @catie james: You’re welcome. I hope you like these stories. If you want to, let me know.

  13. joanne
    Sep 07, 2009 @ 06:49:14

    It’s a little embarrassing to admit but this was the first erotic romance where I read every single word. Even the scenes that I generally skip that make me say ‘ouch’ or wonder why ‘that’ would be sexy to someone were blended and balanced with the emotions of the characters and done so carefully that I didn’t want to miss a word.

    The novellas are beautifully written — although not stand alone stories — with complex characters and sex scenes that show exactly who and what the characters are rather than what they can ‘do’.

    A total win for Ms Hart and for erotic romance books with a HUGE emphasis on Romance. Thank you Janine, a total win for your review, too.

  14. Janine
    Sep 07, 2009 @ 10:24:13

    @joanne:

    Yes! I’m so glad that you enjoyed these and I so agree about not wanting to skip a word (although I don’t skip, I sometimes feel like skipping. But not here!). That’s one thing I love about novellas when they are well-executed, as they are here. I also found the sex perfectly blended and balanced with the characters’ emotions — thank you for pointing that out.

  15. kith
    Sep 09, 2009 @ 00:36:41

    This is really a good post. I like reading novellas too. And it is good to know that you have made this post.

  16. Roselyn
    Sep 20, 2009 @ 00:48:31

    Thanks Janine for your reply. I finally received the book on Friday and finished it today. I’m not fond of novella’s as much as full length novels but this book kept me interested as the stories linked. I enjoyed this book but maybe because I’m a big fan of MH and therefore biased but she is such a great writer. I’m also not fond of stories set in the olden days but the non traditional sex scenes made me enjoy it. I also found it interesting that MH explores the novella’s from the males point of view as well which is different from her spice novels (although I still really love her spice novels). My favourite character was Alaric and secondly Edward. The scene when Edward visited Alaric and they were by the window sill touched me, not sure what it is about m/m love but boy does it add spice to books. I think each male and female characters were unique brought on by MHs well written descriptions of them. I expected each Handmaiden to be the same but there difference explained why the order selected them to the patron. All in all I loved the novella and look forward to her next book.

  17. REVIEW: No Greater Pleasure by Megan Hart | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    Oct 01, 2009 @ 09:01:11

    […] 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 […]

  18. Janine
    Oct 01, 2009 @ 09:05:10

    Roselyn — Sorry I somehow missed your post! I’m glad you enjoyed this book and agree that the characters were unique.

  19. TM Allen
    Nov 17, 2009 @ 16:25:26

    I will try and get the book. but truly do you really think pleasure and purpose can go hand in hand? Thoughone thing I believe in is that pleasure is found when one fulfills his purpose. not erotic but real fulfillment.

  20. Top Ten Romances of 2009 by Janine | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    Dec 29, 2009 @ 02:09:03

    […] Stillness by Megan Hart, in the anthology Pleasure and Purpose […]

  21. Wanda
    Jun 18, 2010 @ 20:25:30

    Hi Janine!
    I’m so happy I read your review…because I was having my debate whether to read the book or not…I read “Switch” and I really enjoyed it…but I was finding it difficult to get into this one because of its location, time and the whole BDSM…I’m not into that at all…but your review helped me to decide to give it a chance and read it…TY for a great review, very well written.

  22. Janine
    Jun 19, 2010 @ 02:12:38

    You’re welcome, Wanda. I hope you enjoy the book!

  23. REVIEW: Selfish is the Heart by Megan Hart | Dear Author
    Oct 27, 2010 @ 14:01:31

    […] widely my responses to your two earlier works in this series differed. I gave Pleasure and Purpose an A- review, and No Greater Pleasure a DNF […]

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