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REVIEW: Remastering Jerna by Ann Somerville

Dear Ms. Somerville:

Remastering Jerna is a remarkable book that harkens back to the beginnings of the novel in the eighteenth century. It is a spiritual autobiography, a travel narrative, a psychological exploration of extreme stress, a prison story, the memoirs of a whore — all the stuff of the novel’s infancy and growth. Although Remastering Jerna is brilliantly constructed and a stunning tour de force, it is only a romance in its last third, perhaps its last half, which is going to make my review slightly schizophrenic.

Set in…an alternate world (?) that is very much like our own but with a different political system, different money, and a matriarchal religion, Remastering Jerna is the first-person narrative of Jerna Setiq, teacher, husband, father…and repressed masochist. He agrees to tutor Davim Korei, the apprentice of his former master, Kimis, the master he broke with when he fell in love with and married his beloved wife Tyrme, mother of his two young children. Davim is almost 17, underage in this society where the age of consent is 18 for everything, and when Jerna finds out that Davim is Kimis’s current sexual submissive, he forces Kimis to stop the relationship until Davim reaches his eighteenth birthday. Davim is furious and as punishment, comes on to Jerna then lies when they are discovered in a compromising embrace. Jerna is arrested for, charged with, and in very short order convicted of the very “child perversion” he is trying to prevent.

This set-up all happens within 28 pages. Another 40 pages follows Jerna as he narrates us through the awful abuse, dehumanization, and hopelessness of the penal system. He is then “hired” in his capacity as a prisoner at a brothel, where we follow him for another 80 pages as he describes his life and duties at the brothel. As first-person narratives sometimes do, the story feels strangely conflictless. This is a direct effect of the book not truly being a romance until more than halfway through. Because the story as a whole follows the ancient conflicts of Man Against Society and Man Against Himself, rather than a romance trajectory, there is no progress in a relationship to track to provide the story with the form we’re familiar with. Jerna doesn’t even meet his future love interest until after he’s well-established at the brothel and it says something about the narrative that I can’t reveal who Jerna’s love interest IS without huge spoilers. The result of this format is that the reader is left following Jerna’s own blind endurance of his extreme suffering without much surcease or hope. Which is kinda depressing, most of the time.

Which is not to say that this book isn’t a brilliant psychological portrait of the effects of the extreme stress of torture and imprisonment and a devoted, almost loving exploration of the unbelievable limits of the human mind and body to endure without hope:

Lady, what do you want from me now?

I sank to my knees, ignoring the freezing wind against my bare arms. I wanted to be cold, to suffer. Maybe, when I’d suffered enough for the Goddess, she’d end this. Or maybe that was what she was waiting for me to do — not to force other people to do my dirty work for me.

I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know what anyone wanted any more. I’d tried so hard to do the right thing, and all that had happened was that I’d make them angry, been punished, imprisoned, shouted at.

“What do you all want?” I whispered, bending low over my knees, crouching around the pain inside me. “Please, tell me what you want and I’ll do it, whatever it takes.”

It is indeed brilliantly done and completely compelling. I read until 4:30am the day I received the book, completely unable to put it down or even to read ahead as I usually do because the picture of Jerna was so perfectly constructed. But it’s not the happiest of books, let’s say.

As for the BDSM—it’s as brilliantly, beautifully done as the psychological portrait. Jerna is a sexual submissive and a masochist. He has been suppressing this side of himself for seven years, all through his very happy marriage to Tyrme, because he does not believe she will understand or approve of his sexual predilections. The brothel’s female owner, however, recognizes the masochist in him and uses him in her BDSM show, re-awakening his need for masochism. The scenes of BDSM done right and BDSM done very wrong are both perfectly enacted, showing the “synergy” (your word) between the emotion and the acts that is so necessary to — the point, in fact, of — BDSM.

When the romantic interest finally shows up, it’s the last person in the world I would have guessed would or could be a successful partner for Jerna. I have never been surprised like that before in a romance. The plot twist — more a wide turn, really, than a sharp twist — to reveal Jerna’s partner is perfectly executed. Although I could never have imagined Jerna’s partner to be who it was, you make me fully believe that he is the perfect person for Jerna by the end of the book. The only niggle I have here is that there doesn’t seem to be quite enough interaction for the depth of Jerna’s emotions at the dark moment when the two men are parted. Jerna’s emotions are so exquisitely laid out and dissected throughout the novel, that to have the depth of Jerna’s romantic attachment be slightly underdeveloped only makes it that much more glaring a concern.

However, that aside, the writing and emotions expressed were strong enough that I was crying at the end of the book, both for the lovers’ parting and for their reunion. Whatever the rest of the book, the ending is pure, exquisite romance, beautifully portrayed. My grade is slightly lower than it would be if this weren’t a romance review site, because most of the book is NOT actually a romance. If this were a general lit review site, I’d give it an A- (notice, for example, how many times I use “brilliantly” in this review). As a romance review site, though:

Grade: B

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook version.

EDITED TO ADD: I do have to add, for the record, and because it needs to be said even though I keep forgetting to say it, that Jerna is a sanctimonious prig. In the nicest possible way, of course, and I was rooting for him the whole way through. But if he’d been able to bend some of his morals just a leetle now and then….well, there wouldn’t have been a book, but it does make me want to slap him around a little and, like Cher in Moonstruck, yell “Snap out of it!” But that in no way detracts from the novel — in fact, it adds to the reader’s involvement with the book. But still. It had to be said. :)

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.

18 Comments

  1. Aoife
    Aug 24, 2009 @ 17:32:21

    Thank you for this very intriguing review. However, I’m not sure I agree with lowering the grade just because DA primarily reviews Romance. DA has reviews occasionally in other genres, and for me you made perfectly clear in the body of the review that RJ doesn’t fit the standard Romance expectations, no need to lower the grade because of that. JMHO.

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  2. Estara
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 01:23:50

    The fact that as an expert you are impressed by Ann Somerville’s treatment of the subject here makes me value her work all the more, especially since on her website the free stories (which she has a LOT of) can have a completely different type of m/m romance and still work incredibly well.

    I’m not into BDSM, so my favourite free short story of hers so far is this: A fluffy tale.

    Oh, and if you give her feedback she answers very promptly ^^.

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  3. Lolita Lopez
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 03:14:53

    Intriguing. I’m putting this on my buy list.

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  4. Sparky
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 08:57:25

    definitely on my “read until my eyes ache” list

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  5. anon
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 09:47:19

    I agree you shouldn’t really take off points because a book doesn’t fit a narrower definition of romance and you’re reviewing it for a romance blog. The grade should be only for the book, itself, especially because I think when most people glance at the review and see the grade, that makes an immediate impression that is solely about the book. People apply that grade ever after, even if later in the review you say you took points off because DA is about romance. It also deprives the author of the opportunity to go elsewhere on the ‘net and proudly brag her book got an A at Dear Author. =)

    If this book deserves an A (and it sounds like it does), that’s the grade you should give. I think DA has a broad enough base of fans to incorporate all varieties of romantic fiction, no matter how unusual the romance.

    (And really, your excellent review makes it sound like more of a romance than some other novels I’ve seen reviewed at DA.)

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  6. AQ
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 11:02:30

    Damn, Sarah, you’ve opened a kettle of fish in my mind with the downgrading of the grade for this book simply because most of it is not a romance. I’ve tried to write something up to articulate why I don’t like the downgrading and keep ending up with a circular argument. I mean I understand that grading is difficult but DA doesn’t just review romances so I’m really struggling with your decision to give this book a B instead of an A-. I think the grade needs to reflect the DA grading guidelines:

    A: I loved it and would cry if someone took it from my library. I would need lots of chocolate to get over its loss.
    B: It's good and I would buy it again, given the chance.
    C: Eh. Not bad but I probably would never read it again.
    D: I want my money back.
    F: I want my money back and repayment for the time wasted reading it.
    DNF: does this really need an explanation?

    And the review needs to reflect what the book is actually about. (BTW: I thought the review was excellent.) Otherwise there needs to be some cavaet about DA’s official definition of romance for grading purposes and how non-romance grades will be downgraded because they aren’t romances.

    —–

    Ya’ know, I’ve written 4 messages and deleted them and then I wrote the above and rewrote it and I’m still not sure I’ve nailed down my dismay. Does this mean that you’ve upgraded books because they are romances?

    Can someone help me out here? I’m really having trouble with the argument in my own head so I’d love to have someone help me clarify.

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  7. Susan/DC
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 11:48:11

    The feminist in me asks: but what about Tyrme? Are her emotions at losing her husband, first to prison and then to another, handled as sensitively and completely? Enquiring minds (at least those old enough to remember Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine) want to know.

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  8. Sarah Frantz
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 11:53:17

    Hmm. You’re all making me do a double-take, and I can’t figure out if my reaction of “the B stands” is a knee-jerk response or something more considered. As I re-re-re-think this, I’m still coming up with the B, maybe tipping slightly to a B+, but still not sticking with the A- without caveat.

    For one, although I know how little an author sometimes has to do with their own cover copy and marketing, the end tagline for Jerna on PD Publishing’s page is, “Remastering Jerna is a complex, erotic story of redemption, love, and the contract of trust in a relationship of control and submission.” Which does sort of sound romance-y, if you ask me. And only describes the last third of the book.

    Second, if this book were the second half of the book (which would be silly, because Jerna wouldn’t be the character he is if it weren’t for the first half of the book, but if), it would conform to A grade expectations for me: No one steal it, I will keel you! But it’s not only the last half. There’s the first half too, and it could get…wearing, even though it was brilliantly done. Reading a suicidal depressive get more suicidal is not my idea of a good time (don’t get me started on Crime and Punishment, please), even if it’s brilliantly done. I’ll reread maybe the last 1/4 of Jerna again and again and again. Already have. But I don’t want to go near the first half again. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s too vivid a portrait of extreme stress and hopeless despair.

    If forced to put the two parts of my reading experience together, I’d give it a B+. So maybe that’s what I should have done. And I have been gently schooled by y’all (and the rest of the wonderful DA reviewers on back channel) that reviewing non-romance is fine and good and should be graded on its merits. But for me, on its merits, Jerna gets….oh, lord, now I really don’t know. My original response here (having rewritten this many times as well, AQ!) was B+. But then why say A- in the review?

    I think maybe that my review was slightly schizophrenic because the book is too. I think. It wants to be a romance, but you’ve got to get there first. And the romance if more powerful because of the despair that comes before it. But it starts out definitely not a romance. It’s not–it’s all the things I say at the beginning of the review, but it’s not a romance. But it’s ending? Yes, a romance. The denouement and tension and conflict–at the end–are all mixed up in the romance, but that’s not how it starts and it takes a long time to get there. Jerna doesn’t WANT a romance at the beginning. He’s (as I say in my Edit above) a sanctimonious prig who refuses romance, and it takes stripping everything–and I mean everything–from him to make him accept romance. So…hmm.

    @AQ: I don’t know if that helps at all or just makes it more confusing. This is not my first split grade (and I stand by that one much more firmly), but I’ll try really really hard not to do it again, I promise. So sorry.

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  9. Sarah Frantz
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 11:54:38

    @Susan/DC: I tell you too much without giving away too much, but…yes? We’re definitely shown what she feels. The first person narrative gets in the way here. Jerna doesn’t see much of Tyrme, so we don’t see much of her. But she’s definitely involved in the ending in a very positive way.

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  10. anon
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 13:09:13

    If this novel couldn’t reach its full romance potential without the first half of the story, then the whole thing would be a romance, in my mind. If terrible things have to happen to Jerna to bring him to the point where he’s in a certain frame of mind and thus the romance is more powerful (or works at all), then I would say go with your original gut feeling and give the book the A-.

    DA has definitely reviewed books that are, at least to me, not really romances at all or the romance is a very tiny portion of the entire story. And I think it’s a fantastic thing that DA is so open to all kinds of stories.

    (And I’ve read many a romance novel where the main character is “a sanctimonious prig who refuses romance, and it takes stripping everything-and I mean everything-from him to make him accept romance.” =) I still call it a romance. There’s still the character learning to love, no matter how long it takes him to get there.)

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  11. Luisa Prieto
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 13:25:46

    Having finished the book last night, I agree that it’s an awesome and engaging book. I didn’t find Jerna suicidally depressive but I did feel terrible for him. I cried a couple times during the book and was really happy to see him get his happy ending.

    I respect that Sarah’s reading experience led to a B grade (though I would give the book an A. Very few authors can make me feel so deeply for a character).

    I don’t know if the next counts as a spoiler, but just in case . . .

    S
    P
    O
    I
    L
    E
    R

    I did think there were elements of romance in the beginning. Jerna’s relationship with Tyrme was very sweet and Jerna wants to get back to her and their children. He wants to survive for them.When he begins to lose hope–ugh. Very moving.

    What I loved most about Tyrme was that while some women in m/m’s are shrill and unpleasant, she was loving and strong willed. The ending was especially tense for me because I wanted Jerna to both be reunited with Tyrme and still get the guy. I loved this book :)

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  12. joanne
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 13:27:10

    @Sarah Frantz
    I’m not going to buy this book, not my cuppa, and Ann Somerville is not my BFF so I don’t care what review she gets here (although I’ve liked what writing of hers I have read) but I think you’ve been over-thinking this one. I just want to hand you two aspirin and a good bottle of wine.

    It’s a great review of what sounds like a great book and no one is going to (okay, there’s always someone) have a hissy fit if you leave it as is or change it. Frankly, I’ve read many, many books that I would rate an A for one part and a B or even C-for other parts.

    It’s the caveat that you threw in at the end about this being a romance book review site that I think is confusing some of us.

    If Jane gave an A to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, which she labeled a ‘fairy tale, middle grade’, than why can’t you give an A to a book that is not completely or solely romance? Other grade A reviews have been given here to not-romance YA books, so why the extra line you’ve drawn in the sand for yourself?

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  13. cs
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 15:47:42

    The only thing that ever stops me from buying this authors work, is the science-fiction labels. I can deal with watching it from time to time, but reading it really annoys me. However, the review is splendid and I have been looking at this book ever since the author mentioned it on her website, so it’s definitely goes into my to be bought list.

    The body of your review screams A+, I’m not too hung up about ratings. I don’t know, but I always figured the rating of a book was more for an authors benefit? That’s how I see it anyway, the text means more than how many stars/letter/penises a book gets ;)

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  14. AQ
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 16:35:46

    Sarah

    “Remastering Jerna is a complex, erotic story of redemption, love, and the contract of trust in a relationship of control and submission.”

    Tagline plus cover art: To me that says erotica, not romance.

    —-

    Didn’t have a problem with your other split grade or any split grade as long as the reviewer explains why.

    This is the part of your review that triggered my reaction:

    My grade is slightly lower than it would be if this weren't a romance review site, because most of the book is NOT actually a romance. If this were a general lit review site, I'd give it an A- (notice, for example, how many times I use “brilliantly” in this review). As a romance review site, though:

    Grade: B

    To me this sounds like the grade was changed based on your intepretation of DA reader expectations and that’s the part that’s not sitting very well with me. If it had gone from an A- to a B+…well, okay, not so bad. But to drop 2 grades levels (A- to a B) seemed huge in my mind. Probably made larger by that fact that the phrasing hit a trigger for me.

    Taking my head’s arguments out of the equation, my gut reaction to the above quote is:

    (Stealing from your edit) I’m Cher from Moonstruck and I want to smack you around and say, “Trust us!” We’re intelligent readers, DA reviews are top-notch in explaining what did and didn’t work so we’ll figure out whether or not a book might work for us.


    BTW: Your commented response was excellent. I’ve read books that wring the emotion from me and, oh my gosh, they were excellent. I’d rate them highly but there are some that I never, ever, want to read it again.

    Thanks for the clarification.

    AQ

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  15. orannia
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 18:31:54

    I’m going to use the ‘B’ word and say thank you Sarah for a brilliant review! I’m going to hunt this book down ASAP…once my computer is fixed :)

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  16. Paul G. Bens, Jr.
    Aug 25, 2009 @ 20:41:27

    You had almost the same reaction as I did to this book, Sarah. BDSM is not preferred material to read (it usually squicks me), but everything about this worked for me.

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  17. Original Homoerotic fiction by Ann Somerville » Reviews for Remastering Jerna
    Aug 27, 2009 @ 16:24:37

    [...] 2009 – Remastering Jerna has received some very nice reviews and comments: Dr Sarah Frantz at Dear Author; Book Utopia Mom at Uniquely Pleasurable; Elisa Rolle at her Livejournal; and Luisa Prieto posted [...]

  18. Four Ways NOT to Write BDSM Romance | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 15:01:58

    [...] by authors who aren’t BDSM-identified themselves — as far as I know — are Ann Somerville’s Remastering Jerna and Matthew Haldeman-Time’s An Affair in Paradise and Victoria Dahl’s The Wicked West. [...]

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