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REVIEW: Petals and Thorns by Jennifer Paris

REVIEW: Petals and Thorns by Jennifer Paris

Dear Ms. Paris,

Around the time we were having the discussion of rape fantasies here at DA, Jane asked for recommendations of books similar to Cara McKenna’s Willing Victim, and your novella, Petals and Thorns, came up on Twitter. Reader MaryK, who hadn’t read it, thought it might fit the bill of what Jane was looking for, and author Megan Crane recommended it. Having enjoyed Willing Victim, I was curious and so I purchased Petals and Thorns.

 Jennifer Paris's Petals and ThornsI hasten to add, for readers of Willing Victim, that I found little similarity between the two. In Willing Victim, willing is the operative word. All the sex that takes place is consensual, though the hero and heroine playact rape fantasies. In my view, the sex that takes place in Petal and Thorns is less than fully consensual.

Petals and Thorns, classified by the publisher as “BDSM Fantasy” is an erotic retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The story begins with a wedding ceremony. Amarantha has agreed to marry a creature known only as “Sir Beast”. The terms of their marriage are such that if the marriage is annulled within a week due to the Sir Beast’s inability to consummate it, Amarantha can leave the marriage with half of Sir Beast’s considerable wealth, which, as she thinks “will restore her father’s fortunes and more.”

Two things are in Amarantha’s favor – the cowl-wearing Sir Beast cannot take her virginity without her consent, and he has promised not to harm her physically. The promise does not extend to other sexual acts though: Short of penetrating her with his penis, Sir Beast can do anything he wishes to Amarantha, and if she wants to win half his fortune, she has to comply.

On arriving at Sir Beast’s castle, Amarantha is stunned by the profusion of red roses that decorate it, and by the invisible servants who cater to her husband’s whims. Sir Beast requires Amarantha to strip for him, though she cries and pleads with him not to ask this of her. When he tells her that her resistance has won her a punishment to be administered later, she goes along with his wishes and displays herself for his viewing.

For dinner, Amarantha has no choice but to wear a gown that displays her breasts. Sir Beast feeds her with his gloved hands and a dreamy feeling overtakes Amarantha, only to be dispelled when Sir Beast asks her the following question: “Amarantha, my bride, will you beg me to collar you, chain you to my bed, and fuck you?” A horrified Amarantha refuses.

Sir Beast then administers the punishment he promised her for her earlier resistance to disrobing by chaining her hands and tormenting her breasts. Amarantha is unsettled by her own arousal, and then further disturbed to learn that under his gloves, Sir Beast has claws and golden fur.

Thus begins the pattern of Amarantha’s days with Sir Beast. Her new husband orders her to dress in provocative outfits and if she resists his orders, he administers erotic punishments. Every night, he pauses to ask the same question, worded in exactly the same crude way. And every night, Amarantha refuses him.

But as the days progress, Amarantha finds herself anticipating her nightly encounters with Sir Beast more and more, developing a taste for his games and punishments. Sir Beast shows Amarantha tenderness after their sexual encounters, and Amarantha begins to understand that he feels trapped in his beast’s body, which he despises. Will Amarantha be able to forget Sir Beast when their brief marriage is over? Or will she betray her father and sisters by giving in to the temptation to answer his question with yes?

As I mentioned before, Petals and Thorns is classified by Loose-Id as “BDSM fantasy.” It’s not a genre classification I have encountered before and so I have decided to try to evaluate it as erotica and erotic romance.

On the erotic level, this novella worked for me. The writing was solid and the sex was quite steamy IMO. Most of the erotic scenarios were creative, too. Although there are definitely overtones of dominance, submission, bondage and pain play, I want to make it clear to readers that Amarantha doesn’t have the self-knowledge to classify herself as a sub, nor is a safe word used. Initially Amarantha is so inexperienced with sex that she does not even recognize her arousal for what it is. She cries and pleads with Sir Beast more than once, so there is a big power imbalance between them, especially in the beginning.

On the other hand, Amarantha does not leave. Presumably (though I would have liked more clarification of her motives), this is because she doesn’t want to disappoint her sisters and her father who have asked her to stay with Sir Beast for the entire week so that their family can acquire half Sir Beast’s fortune.

If I were to take this story completely seriously and apply our own era’s values to it, I would have to ask myself whether Amarantha (whose age I was unsure about but whom I pegged as eighteen or so based on her lack of life experience) is a rape victim or a teen prostitute. But is there really a big difference between the two?

The fairy tale trappings of the novella lessened these concerns for me. I’m sure that if it had been set in our world, I would have seen red, but since it wasn’t, I was able to suspend some of my disbelief, view it as an erotic fantasy and enjoy it on that level, and even to appreciate some aspects of the second half of the story, when Amarantha began to understand herself and acknowledge her desires, as a story about self-discovery.

Where the novella failed for me was as a romance. Although it isn’t classified as a romance, I feel the need to evaluate the novella on a romantic rather than just erotic level because it ends in what appears to be a commitment on the part of the characters to their marriage.

As anyone familiar with the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale can guess, the power imbalance does shift to some degree toward the end of the story. But for me, it wasn’t enough because Amarantha and Sir Beast had never gotten to know each other outside their sexual activities, had never shared their pasts with one another in any kind of depth, and most importantly, because the trauma that encounters like their initial ones should have left Amarantha with wasn’t dealt with between them or even acknowledged as more than a source of titillation in the text.

I want to make it clear that I am speaking only for myself when I say that I feel deeply ambivalent when I read a story in this vein – one with a great power imbalance, nonconsensual sex acts, but no acknowledgement of lasting trauma or issues that need to be resolved between the protagonists.

As a teen in the 1980s, I cut my teeth on romances that fit the description in the above paragraph, and they worked for me. Why I found them sexy is a mystery to me, but I know that I did and that I was able to enjoy them without reservations in those days, when rape wasn’t very real to me.

But as an adult, I find it difficult to suspend disbelief in a happily ever after between two characters whose relationship begins with a sexual assault, unless the redemption and recovery process are a significant part of such a story.

I am aware that for some readers, no amount of redemption is sufficient, while for others, redemption isn’t necessary in what is simply a fantasy. I would no more judge readers who enjoy fantasies like this one than I would judge the readers who don’t enjoy them. I, however, fall somewhere in the middle between the two reader groups.

I think for me it boils down to an issue of reader consent. If this story had had a different ending, I might have been able to enjoy it with fewer reservations. But although I typically prefer books that end in a happy marriage or other romantic commitment between the characters, Petals and Thorns is one case where I would have preferred the story to end with the protagonists going their separate ways.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

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REVIEW:  A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl

REVIEW: A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl

Dear Ms. Dahl:

I read this book at the Romantic Times convention because you had brought me an ARC or perhaps the ARC was there for someone else and I appropriated it. I can’t recall. I read this throughout the conference, taking it with me to dinner and not going down to drink in the bar because I wanted to finish the story. Since then I’ve read a few reviews excoriating the heroine for being a slut and having a bizarre predilection toward lustiness. As if that’s a bad thing!

A Little Bit Wild by Victoria DahlThe truth is that Marissa, the heroine, is a wild girl from a wild family. No doubt her brothers have been swiving their way through London and into the countryside so “[a]fter an endless summer of pretending to look for a husband in London, Marissa had thought to treat herself to a night of forbidden pleasure” during a house party at the start of hunting season. Unfortunately for Marissa, her deflowering is not very pleasurable. “She’d found clumsy fumbling, not to mention a bit of discomfort and lots of grunting. Perhaps this was why girls were ordered to keep themselves pure for marriage.”

But the worse part of Marissa’s deflowering is that she is caught by her brother, her cousin, some maids, and is going to be forced to marry a man who “failed to meet even the lowest expectations of performance.” She doesn’t want to marry him, but she has to marry someone because she is totally and irrevocably ruined.

Marissa has no good excuse for her behavior. She didn’t comport herself as a young lady should. She says she was bored, drunk, and curious. At first the stolen kisses and surreptitious caresses seemed exciting but now that she is ruined and has to marry someone, she feels none of the titillation and all of the panic and awfulness of her actions.   But she also chafes at the unfairness of it.   No one would force her brothers to marry.

Family friend, Jude Bertrand, offers himself as the groom. Jude is the recognized bastard of the Duke of Winthrop and as Marissa’s brother points out, has no need to elevate himself by marrying the ruined sister of a baron. Marissa finds Jude to be a brute. She likes pretty boys, their elegant legs, their delicious curls, their soft hands. Jude is big, hard, and looked rough; nothing like a gentleman should look.

Jude challenges Marissa at every juncture, using his superior experience to woo her in a different kind of way, appealing to her wild side.

“So,” Aidan continued in a doubtful tone, “you may have sat across from her at dinner on occasion. That still doesn’t answer my question. Why would you marry her?”

“I like her.”

“Marissa?” Jude laughed at the doubt in his friend’s voice.

“Yes, Marissa.” “She hardly seems your type.” Yes, he had a known weakness for rather naughty

women. Jude raised an eyebrow. “Apparently she is exactly my type.”

“Right,” Aidan huffed, then rocked back on his heels to stare at the floor.

Actually, Marissa had caught his attention the first time Jude had seen her. There was that brightness in her green eyes. Not merriment, but . . . transgression. It had always been disorienting, being surrounded by people who seemed to consider her the last bastion of calm and propriety in the York family. Yes, she was graceful and tall and lovely, but could no one else see the way her eyebrows twitched any time she overheard a double entendre? Did no one notice the way her eyes traveled over men’s bodies when she watched them dance?

The girl liked wine and dancing and pretty men. She rode her horse too hard and was constantly slipping free of her shoes to stroll barefoot on the grounds. Wildness lurked just beneath her skin, and Jude could feel it every time he passed too near.

But it’s not just a story of a girl gone bad falling in love with the beast or the beast taming the wild girl. There’s a deeper story here and one that is all about how goodness and decency is measured by society. Jude, for example, is good enough to be friends of Marissa’s brothers. And he’s good enough to be the stand in groom for their ruined sister, but the brothers act as if he can’t understand the concept of honor simply because of his birth.

And Marissa, in falling in love, learns there are depths to her that she had never bothered to perceive before. I remember reading a book once about a violinist. The violinist wanted to achieve first chair but her playing of music was mechanical, without heart. Then she had her heart broken and she understood the depth of the music and was able to translate that when she played. Her heartbreak transformed her. Marissa was a child at the beginning of the story, immaturely flitting about chasing after some elusive pleasure. As she begins to fall for Jude, a maelstrom of confusing emotions cause her to strike out and hurt those around her and she, in turn, comes away wounded. These wounds and her eventual realization of love for Jude helps her to mature, to become less selfish, more understanding.

What is problematic is how could a gently bred girl be allowed so much permissive behavior in this time period? Further, would her brothers really be so understanding about her unwillingness to marry the man who deflowered her? The brothers were understanding to an almost unbelievable degree. At times, I felt that Marissa’s shallowness was overplayed for effect as if she was asking the reader how bad could she be and still be liked? There is no doubt that Marissa is hard to like at times, but that is precisely why I appreciated this book. It wasn’t as if Marissa’s selfishness and immaturity were portrayed as a good thing but rather something from which she needed to grow.

And it’s not as if this book is perfect but it is challenging. It challenges the reader to see things from a slightly different perspective. Can a selfish, immature girl grow to be a woman? Does she deserve love? Is a bastard without honor because of the circumstances of his birth? And is Jude’s insecurities of his own making or because of the attitudes around him? I thought that Jude made the story. His appreciation for Marissa; his struggle to regain his own self confidence; and his just general decency made for an enjoyable read. B-

Best regards,

Jane

P.S. Is it just me or does the heroine on the cover look like Tessa Dare?

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