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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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Guest Opinion: The Ideal Reader: Is She Really Ideal? by Nadia Lee

Guest Opinion: The Ideal Reader: Is She Really Ideal? by Nadia...

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(Note:   I’m a writer, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’m wearing my “reader” hat.)

Given the seeming hatred toward ebooks and library lending and so on and so forth, the profile of an ideal reader for the Big Six appears to be something like this:

1.   Buys print (to prevent piracy)
2.   Buys new
3.   Does not use libraries, used book stores (UBS), or torrent sites
4.   Has sufficient disposable income for entertainment, such as movies, books, music, etc. that does not compete with grocery money
5.   Loves to read

Guess what?   I’ve been the Big Six’s ideal reader for the last six years.   I meet all their requirements.

So the publishers and the few authors who hate libraries, UBS and ebooks (because of piracy) should love the fact that I’m doing exactly what they want, right?   After all, I’m a REAL paying reader (one of the ones that REALLY count), not one of those “cheapos” who lend or buy used, thereby depriving them of the income they’re entitled to.

But is this really the ideal situation for them?

My total entertainment budget hasn’t decreased in the last six years.   As a matter of fact, it has gone up.   But I spend far less on books than I ever did when I had easy access to good libraries and UBS.

When it comes to titles published by the Big Six, I almost always buy mass market paperbacks (MMPBs).   They are currently priced at $6.99 – 7.99 on average.   I have an “auto-buy” list and a “good-enough-to-buy” list. Authors on those two lists always get bought, no matter what, because I’m fortunate enough to have sufficient funds for it. All new-to-me authors are bought using whatever funds are left over.   So I have to think very carefully before spending any of my “new-to-me author” budget.   Since I buy everything new, if I want to try 10 new-to-me authors, I need to spend somewhere between $70-80.   Unfortunately I really can’t spend that much on unknowns.   So I usually pick about 2-3 authors from the list every month.   (Sometimes none if all my auto-buy and good-enough-to-buy authors have books coming out back-to-back or something and deplete my budget.)

I can’t begin to count the number of DNFs and mediocre books by new-to-me authors that I’ve paid full price for.   There are times I’ve wished I could strip the covers (since they’re brand new MMPBs) and mail them back to the publishers for a refund.   I know I could get at least $1,000 that way.   If I had a library, it wouldn’t matter as much because I could still try other new-to-me authors on my list for free.   Maybe I’d discover somebody awesome that way.   But since I don’t have access to a library or UBS, once I spend my “new-to-me author” budget, I’m done.

Furthermore, new-to-me authors, no matter how great the buzz is, get one shot with me.   If they’re very lucky, two.   There’s this romance writer (who shall remain nameless) whose debut was “meh” for me.   Her next book was DNF.   (I only bought the next one because so many readers said I should give her another shot.)   Her latest is out in trade, and everyone says it’s the best thing since sliced bread.   I’m not going to risk my money on that author again though.   I’ve already forked over $16, and I think I’ve given her more than enough chances.

Now if I had a library where I could check out her latest for free, I might try her again, just to see.   And if I liked it, I might go ahead and put her on my good-enough-to-buy or auto-buy list.   But since I can’t, oh well.   There are other entertainment options.

This is somewhat true of my auto-buys and good-enough-to-buys.   If they disappoint me twice back-to-back, I demote them to my “buy-only-if-everyone-says-it’s-the-best-thing-evah” list.   Or worse, to my “no-longer-buy” list.   I can’t think of a single author who got demoted and then was later promoted again in the last six years.   If I had access to a library or UBS, I might have given them more opportunities to win me over.   But I’m not risking my money on an iffy prospect again.   I’ve given them sixteen dollars’ worth of chance.

Some may think, “What a cheapo!   It’s only $16!”

To put things in perspective, for $16 I can get any of the following:

  • 8 TV episodes from iTunes (at $1.99/each)
  • 5 TV episodes from iTunes plus some change left over (at $2.99/each)
  • 16 mp3 files from my favorite singers / bands
  • 3-7 movie rentals
  • my favorite pizza, which I can split with my husband, plus ice cream
  • a visit with my primary care physician
  • my favorite pasta plus dessert
  • 2 physical therapy sessions (plus some change left over)
  • 3-5 ebooks from publishers and indie authors who do not engage in agency pricing

(An interesting side observation:   I’ve noticed that I watch far more TV shows and movies than I did before I was forced into buying print and new all the time.)

Do I think I’m missing out?   Yup.   I know I’m not discovering many fabulous writers out there.   But unless and until I make millions like the CEOs of the Big Six, I’m not changing my buying habits.   After all, I am doing exactly what they want me to do:   Buy print, buy new, 100% of the time.

P.S.   In case anybody’s wondering, I do buy e-books if they’re DRM-free and not agency-priced.   This post is directed at the publishers who are doing everything they can to force readers into buying new print books all the time.   Like the old Chinese proverb says: be careful what you wish for…because you might actually get it.

About Nadia Lee:

Bilingual former management consultant Nadia Lee ( http://www.nadialee.net ) has lived in four different countries and enjoyed many adventures and excellent food around the globe. In the last eight years, she has kissed stingrays, got bitten by a shark, ridden an elephant and petted tigers.

She shares an apartment overlooking a river and palm trees in Japan with her husband, winter white hamsters and an ever-widening pile of books. When she’s not writing, she can be found digging through old Asian historical texts or planning another trip.

Carnal Secrets is her latest work.   You can find the blurb and excerpt on her website ( http://www.nadialee.net/bookshelf/carnal-secrets/ ).