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REVIEW: The Wicked West by Victoria Dahl

Dear Ms. Dahl:

big_dahl-wwest-drmAnyone who has read your contemporary Romance, Talk Me Down, knows that its heroine, Molly, writes erotic fiction under the name Holly Summers, including a little work called The Wicked West, an homage to her very own hero, Ben. So what a clever promotion to actually publish this story under the pen name Holly Summers, because for those who have read Talk Me Down the tie ins are fun and illuminating, and for those who have not, they will simply be getting a fun and hot piece of erotic fiction (more on that in the second half of this review, penned by Joan/SarahF) in The Wicked West.

Lily Anders has come to Wyoming from England after inheriting a house from her brother, a young widow looking for a new start in what we now call the Old West. Her next store neighbor, Tom Hale, is the upright, slightly uptight sheriff of their little town, and he’s not at all sure about the tempting Mrs. Anders. Neither is Lily, for that matter, as she is only beginning to learn about herself beyond her unusual desires in the bedroom – her desire, specifically, to be dominated. And in Sheriff Hale, she recognizes a man who would be the perfect rule-enforcer.

But Hale is hardly out of that particular closet; in fact, the very presence of Lily Anders stirs a discontent Hale has worked hard to sublimate, turning his dominant nature to enforcing the law, a safe, socially acceptable alternative. So when Lily begins to show Hale what he could have, illustrating graphically her various charms through her uncurtained window late at night (her bedroom is right across from his), Hale is simultaneously aroused and ashamed:

This was a law-abiding town, and he was the sheriff, for God’s sake. If Mrs. Anders was a whore of some kind, she belonged on the other side of Center Street, where decent folk could ignore the goings on if they chose. She didn’t belong here, two doors down from the schoolmarm’s house and half a block away from the church. She either had to cut out her little show or she had to go. . .

"Fuck," Hale spat impatiently. He was hard as a rock now. He’d end this today, but he couldn’t stomp over there in this state, or he’d likely have her against the wall before he could deliver his lecture on propriety. Always pragmatic, he simply took himself in hand and pictured Mrs. Anders. It took only a few minutes of stroking before he was done. Problem solved.

Problem not solved, of course, not nearly. But the pleasure of The Wicked West is watching these two stubborn people work out a way to express their true selves while in the same room. And even though the story is primarily a sexual exploration of their relationship, it is also a story of self-awareness and self-acceptance. And it mirrors the central conflict between Ben and Molly in Talk Me Down, namely the way in which Police Chief Ben is upright and confident in his work enforcing the law, while Molly represents some unknown wickedness (she refuses to reveal her true occupation), a temptation that Ben cannot resist but one he can’t completely trust, either. And in the same way Molly is working through issues of trust and self-acceptance, Lily moves into her own place of physical, financial, and emotional independence. Like Molly, Lily has anxiety about disappointing and disrupting her family, and it is debatable which gets the true clean slate in that area.

The best thing for me about The Wicked West was its mixture of heat and fun. It’s not rigorous in detail or history (as a small example, at one point Hale calls Lily "baby" during sex, and despite the lack of a specific date, it seemed like late 19th century), and the romance-ey ending was curt, but it’s sensuous without being crass, and nicely consistent in both the internal themes and in its link to it’s alter-existence in Talk Me Down. Like that longer work, the relationship between independence and interdependence takes center stage, and in some ways, both works are reflected in Hale’s entreaty to Lily to make their relationship more formal:

"I’m not looking for a pledge, Mrs. Anders. Just a chance. A chance to be myself with you, and to offer the same to you, independent as you may be."

I don’t know how I would have evaluated this story if I hadn’t read Talk Me Down, but having enjoyed both, I would give The Wicked West a solid B.
~Janet

Dear Ms. Dahl:

I have only skimmed Talk Me Down, although I enjoyed what I did read, so I’m coming at The Wicked West from a very different direction from Janet. I read The Wicked West because you were interested in seeing what I thought about the BDSM specifically. And from that perspective-’and from most others, I’ll admit-’I loved it.

The romance is inextricably tied up (harhar) with what we would recognize today as Lily’s and Sheriff Hale’s sexual identities. Lily happily identifies as a sexual submissive and a masochist, without using those anachronistic words. Hale is a much more unhappy sexual dominant and sadist. Unlike Lily, he is disgusted with and ashamed of his desires. He is convinced that his first marriage broke down because his wife was scared of his sexual drive, even though he never actually acted on it with her or with anyone else. Hale gradually comes to accept himself through his interactions with Lily. Although they both still — very realistically, historically — label what they do “wrong,” they both are content with their innate sexuality by the end.

I love how you overturn so many stereotypes in this story. Lily’s first husband was old enough to be her father and a sadist-and Lily loved what he did to her. Lily, the sexual submissive and 19th century lady, knows what she wants and goes after it without shame or question, whether that’s Sheriff Hale or her own independence. I love how you show the power inherent in her position as a submissive -’ in fact, it’s one of the first things we are shown about her:

When her green eyes rose, they didn’t look the least bit timid despite her soft voice. In fact, they flashed with strength before she lowered them again.

You also do a wonderful job of showing clear consent, while keeping the story historical enough to be believable. There are no long negotiations and agreement on safe words and hard limits, as there should be in modern BDSM relationships, but you show how each partner consents to and enjoys, even needs, what they do together.

And when it comes to the actual BDSM sex -’ this is, after all, an erotic short -’ you get it so right:

I shouldn’t be doing this, he thought calmly, as he lifted his hand and arced it hard toward her bottom. The first hard snap of sound cracked a dam inside him. Lily’s loud gasp pushed the floodwaters free. Pleasure roared through his veins, unlike anything he’d ever felt. Not just physical pleasure, but hot, red joy as well.

That "hot, red joy" is such a perfect description of BDSM sex. It’s a joy, even as it’s scary.

You show how these characters need each other, need the other half of themselves, not just in romantic, emotional entanglements, but in sexual compatability. At one point Hale says to Lily:

"I can’t believe this," he murmured. "I can’t believe there’s someone like you."

And therein lies the romance. A hot, sweet, perfect little read. Thank you for respecting your characters so much. Grade: B+

Regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased ONLY in ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

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.

23 Comments

  1. Keri M
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 11:41:51

    Thanks for the reviews ladies, I loved Talk Me Down and can’t wait to get my hands on Start Me Up. I will have to pick this one up as well. :-)

    ReplyReply

  2. Portia Da Costa
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 12:03:36

    Totally agree with this review! I adored the way Lily was both submissive yet strong, and the way she allowed Hale to accept and rejoice in his sexual preferences, turning the urges he’d felt negative about into something positive and joyous.

    Awesome writing!

    ReplyReply

  3. Louisa Edwards
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 12:11:43

    Gah! Now I’m torn. TALK ME DOWN is (perpetually, until I finish writing) on the top of my TBR list–so should I read it before THE WICKED WEST? Because I’m not sure I can wait. : )

    ReplyReply

  4. ASable
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 12:14:51

    Okay, darn. I was hungry for something different to read today and you convinced me. Just clicked the check out button on fictionwise . . . :)

    ReplyReply

  5. joanne
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 12:43:49

    Is there a reason this title isn’t available at Harlequin ebooks?

    Great review, thank you!

    ReplyReply

  6. Danielle
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 13:18:43

    Thanks for reviewing this book, I just brought it from Sony.

    ReplyReply

  7. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 13:25:52

    Ok, I’m off to buy this (I love Vicki and her wicked heroines!).

    ReplyReply

  8. SonomaLass
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 16:20:19

    LOVED IT!! The tie-in with Talk Me Down is pretty cool, but I would have loved it anyway.

    I love how e-publishing makes shorter works possible as stand-alone purchases, too!

    ReplyReply

  9. Mariana
    Jun 02, 2009 @ 17:14:46

    Nora Roberts did this as well with Lawless (and can’t remember the other book). The heroine in the other book “wrote” Lawless; cool concept.

    I’ll have to pick this up as I enjoyed Talk Me Down.

    ETA: Loving Jack was the other book.

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  10. Kaetrin
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 00:23:41

    What a cool idea! I’ll definitely be picking this one up.

    ReplyReply

  11. Keri M
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 06:32:36

    I picked it up on BOB and read it last night. It was pretty hot! The BDSM aspect wasn’t my cup o tea, but I wasn’t completely turned off by it either. I just wish we would have had less of him going after the bad guy and more of a complete ending for Lily. Cannot wait for Start Me Up!

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  12. GrowlyCub
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 06:57:13

    Could somebody email me to let me know what ‘kind’ of BDSM this is, please? Spanking, rough sex, sexual commands? Or humiliating tasks, collars (I figure not in a historical) and licking feet?

    I enjoy reading non-vanilla, forceful sex but some aspects of BDSM push my personal buttons to the point I get physically ill, so I thought I’d better ask before buying. Thanks.

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  13. Alisha Rai
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 08:24:44

    Spanking, rough sex, sexual commands?

    That kind. Personally, I’m not a huge hardcore BDSM fan, but there wasn’t anything in here that turned me off.

    ReplyReply

  14. Robin
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 11:20:16

    @GrowlyCub: I am no expert by any stretch, but to me what went on was pretty mild and in the mainstream of erotic Romance.

    @Keri M: Yes, I agree that there was some difficulty in blending these two parts of the story.

    If I had written a full length review for TWW, I would have commented more about the subplot and its effect on the relationship between Lily and Tom. I am not a big fan of the ‘peril to one person generates emotional closeness in the relationship’ element, and TWW was no exception, but it was such a short piece, I can see the expediency and efficiency of developing things that way. And because this was a text within a text sort of thing, I wasn’t sure how much of it was riffing off the ER genre and how much was straightforward plot development (or both).

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  15. GrowlyCub
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 14:40:49

    Thanks, Alisha and Robin. I’ll hop over to Fictionwise and pick it up. It’s available as a Lit file (a rarity at FW these days) and I can use up some of my microrebate. :)

    ReplyReply

  16. AmyW
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 15:51:24

    @joanne: We (i.e. the Harlequin eBook Store) had a technical issue with some of our eBook exclusives this month. It took a while to figure out just what was going on with The Wicked West but I’m pleased to say it’s now fixed and live on our site: http://tinyurl.com/q2kvef

    Sorry for the inconvenience!
    ~Amy from Harlequin

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  17. SonomaLass
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 15:56:20

    @ Robin: I also wondered how much, if any, of the story was “standard” ER because of it being a text within a text.

    The BDSM worked for me, although I’m normally a little squeamish in that area. What really worked, as Joan/SarahF says, was the joy the characters felt in finding someone who fulfilled their desires.

    ReplyReply

  18. Miki
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 16:28:27

    @GrowlyCub: I’m always glad when someone (else) asks this question. The “BDSM” tag seems to apply to such a wide range of behaviors, and I also have physical reactions to the more “hardcore” BDSM that I tend to pass on all books labeled “BDSM”. There’s just no way to know if all it means is that the hero likes to tie her to the bed…or if she has to sleep on a mat in the corner and call him Master!

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  19. GrowlyCub
    Jun 04, 2009 @ 17:10:07

    Miki,

    I bought it and read it, and liked it a lot. Just the kind of forceful without the humiliating bits I like to read. There was one little thingie I wasn’t that excited about but it wasn’t a squick.

    That said I was very disappointed about how short the story was for the price. I guess I should have read the review better because it says ‘short novel’, although at 19k I’d at most call it a novella and it would have been nice to see some of the issues explored more in depth. Dahl can definitely write. Now, however, I feel like I ate dinner, but there wasn’t enough and I’m still hungry…

    ReplyReply

  20. SonomaLass
    Jun 04, 2009 @ 17:37:41

    Funny, I had the opposite experience with the length. I saw that it said “an erotic short story” on the cover, so I was very pleasantly surprised at how long it was. I paid less for it than for the last short e-book I bought, and it is half again as long as that one. It was much more satisfying than I expected it to be!

    ReplyReply

  21. GrowlyCub
    Jun 04, 2009 @ 17:44:20

    SonomaLass,

    interesting, isn’t it? I turned it into an rtf document and didn’t get to see the cover and the first thing I saw was the word count, so I was already reading with the ‘this is going to be too short for my taste’ assumption and naturally found several places where I wanted to see more in-depth story.

    ReplyReply

  22. Dear Author Recommends for June | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    Jun 05, 2009 @ 15:30:50

    [...] Wild West by Victoria Dahl  This hot historical novella is recommended by Joan F, Janet (aka Robin), and Jane.  It’s a very hot read that is just the right touch [...]

  23. RebeccaJ
    Jan 05, 2010 @ 20:31:05

    I liked Talk Me Down and I thought putting out Wild West was a really clever idea on Ms. Dahl’s part.

    ReplyReply

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