REVIEW: The Dark Garden by Eden Bradley
Dear Ms. Bradley,
Rowan Cassidy, the heroine of your book, The Dark Garden, has a preference for “extreme sex.” Years ago, when she was in college, Rowan suggested that she and her college boyfriend Danny give BDSM a try. Danny agreed, but then took advantage of his dominant position and turned abusive. After that Rowan became afraid of taking on the submissive role in a sexual relationship, but since she was still drawn to BDSM, she became a dominant. Now a mistress at an exclusive Los Angeles BDSM club, Rowan has been a dominant for years, but lately, she feels disenchanted and not engaged while dominating her lovers. The erotica she is writing from a submissive character’s viewpoint holds her interest better.
One night, a gorgeous man walks into the club. Rowan is instantly attracted to him, and she finds out he is Christian Thorne, a sculptor and a dominant recently returned from a long sojourn in Europe. Christian too is immediately drawn to Rowan. He suspects that her true nature is to enjoy submission, and that she can discover that in the hands of the right man. So Christian suggests that Rowan and he enter into a 30 day contract. During these 30 days, he will take the dominant role, and prove to Rowan that he is correct about her. If he’s wrong, he says, Rowan will still gain insight into what it’s like to submit, and that will make her a better dom. If he’s right, she’ll discover more pleasure than she’s experienced before. What does she have to lose?
Of course, Rowan feels that she has a lot to lose, but she also can’t resist the combination of Christian’s allure and the challenge of proving him wrong. So she agrees to be his lover for thirty days, with the provision that there be no intercourse. The first time Christian binds Rowan, she feels so afraid that she bursts into tears and runs away, but Christian, who is worried by her strong reaction and curious about it, convinces her to return. Rowan begins to feel safe with Christian, but then she becomes afraid that she might be falling in love with him.
There is also a subplot involving two other members of the club, Rowan’s friend April, and Decker, who is something of a playboy in the BDSM world. April and Decker begin to sleep together and discover they have the chemistry of propane and lit matches. But April is also losing her heart to her lover, even though Rowan and others warn her that Decker isn’t a man to commit to any one woman, no matter how good the sex is. April knows it’s just a matter of time before her heart is broken, but she plans to enjoy every minute with Decker while she can.
I found The Dark Garden somewhat frustrating to read. The dialogue seemed to me to sit on the characters’ lips stiffly or awkwardly, and sometimes they spoke in cliches like “You have nothing to lose and everything to gain” or “Flattery will get you nowhere.”
I also thought the beginning of the book was weak. Rowan and Christian barely knew each other when they agreed to a thirty day contract. A one night stand or even a week together I could understand, but a month is a long time to agree to spend with someone you’ve only talked to once or twice. The book approached being a DNF for me during this early stage.
Once the contracted period began the book got more interesting and I felt more involved, but I would have liked for the psychological issues that were hinted at with both characters to be explored with greater depth and realism. I felt that a trauma such as the one Rowan had was bad enough that it should have brought up fear for her physical safety during BDSM play, but for the most part, Rowan’s fear seemed to be more focused on that of falling in love.
It was also stated briefly in the book that Rowan’s mother had been abusive and domineering to Rowan when Rowan was a child. I wanted to see how this affected Rowan as an adult beyond just her fear of getting close to people and of falling in love. Rowan never, for example, questioned whether her preference for extreme sex stemmed from this childhood, and I found that curious.
I wanted more psychological exploration of Christian as well. There was a mention of the fact that Christian’s father deserted the family when Christian was only twelve, but again, not enough was made of this beyond the fact that Christian had felt responsible for his mother and sister and now felt responsible for Rowan. Did Christian have any anger at his father? Any other abandonment or commitment issues resulting from his past? If they were there I didn’t see them.
Christian keeps telling his friend Sterling that Rowan is special and unlike any other woman he’s been with before, but try as I did, I couldn’t see what, beyond her physical exterior, made Rowan so unique to Christian and why he became obsessed with her. I did appreciate the fact that Christian and Rowan shared an interest in art and had some conversations about that; it made me feel that they did have some things in common.
Despite all this, the book held my attention very strongly once Rowan and Christian’s thirty days began, for three reasons.
The first is that the sex was very hot. I’m probably not the typical reader of BDSM erotic romances because while I do love power games, I also have to get over a certain squeamishness about physical pain. Nonetheless, I thought The Dark Garden was a very erotic book; steam practically rose from its sex scene pages.
Second, the April and Decker storyline was easier for me to take at face value because neither character had a complicated past. I had a lot of fun reading about the sex they had, even if I did wonder how they knew they were in love when they were barely acquainted outside of sex.
Finally, you have a gift for creating mood and atmosphere. Christian and Rowan’s artistic homes, their BDSM club, the gallery where Christian’s sculptures are displayed, felt like unique, individual places. The richness of sensory detail with which they were depicted affected me deeply. I truly felt that I was whisked away to a mysterious and spellbinding world. For the hours that I read The Dark Garden, I was content to let this luxurious world surround me, and that was almost enough to make up for the aspects that frustrated me. Almost, but not quite. C+ for this one.
I wonder if some authors avoid this because they don’t want to give rise to the idea that BDSM is the sexual choice for formerly abused children. But then, if you don’t want to go down that road, why make the mother abusive in the first place? Abusive parents are such a Romance stereotype, though, and it seems I’ve read several contemporaries lately that used the unloving and abusive mother, that I wonder if it’s just become the new hot character device. In two books right off the bat I can think of — Karin Tabke’s Good Girl Gone Bad and Lind Howard’s Raintree: Inferno — the hero is super super dominant, too. Hmm, that’s sort of interesting now that I think about it, especially since I personally found both “heroes” abusive.
Evangeline Anderson had an interesting BDSM book but her character also had had issues as child. Have you read the Joey Hill book, Natural Law? It’s an amazing BDSM book. You’ll have to get The Vampire Queen’s Servant. I’ve suggested that Janine read it too because of the evocative nature of the writing and the compelling sexuality. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.
Robin, my speculation is that Ms. Bradley made the mother abusive to explain why Rowan ended up in an abusive relationship when she first left home to go to college.
I can see, too, that authors might not want to imply that BDSM stems from abusive childhood or that it’s a dysfunctional choice. But still, I felt that once the abusive mother (and in Christian’s case, the father who abandoned the family) were brought up, the implications of these upbringings should have been investigated more thoroughly.
As it was, I felt these were mostly devices to explain Rowan’s past and to make the characters look strong (and in Christian’s case, protective, since he took over his father’s role in his family).
I didn’t feel that Christian was abusive or even super dominant. Obviously he was dominant in BDSM play, but outside of it he wasn’t a caveman type. I just want to clarify that point for readers.
Thank you for taking the time to read and review my book, THE DARK GARDEN.
Normally, I would not comment on a review, as it is simply your opinion, which is not something that can reasonably be refuted-nor should it be. But I feel I must clarify that Rowan was not abused. Her mother was cold and disapproving, however, there was never any abuse.
I’m glad you were able to enjoy aspects of the story despite your aversion to pain play, and your unfamiliarity with the BDSM lifestyle.
Hi Ms. Bradley. I suppose it’s a matter of semantics, or of how we each conceptualize abuse. Coldness and disapproval can be a kind of emotional abuse to a child if they are strong enough.
I drew the conclusion that Rowan’s mother was emotionally abusive from the way she was described. For example on p.98, in reference to Rowan’s experience with her college boyfriend, it says: “What little sense of self she’d managed to build up after leaving her mother’s house had crumbled beneath the strain.” The fact that Rowan could not build much sense of self while living with her mother is to me indicative of emotional abusive.
Rowan also says of her mother, “My mother is the kind of woman who has utter control over everything around her, and of course that included me.” To me that sounds abusive, but someone else’s mileage might be different.
The guy’s name was Christian Throne? Like, for real? Wow.
And, Jane, you got the Joey Hill ARC? I hate you. I got Jenny Crusie’s Agnes, but what I wouldn’t give for Joey Hill!!! ;)
And I just have to comment on Bradley’s comment: I don’t think Janine expressed an “aversion” to pain play. She said “squeamishness.” “Aversion” means getting out the pitchforks and torches, which is a common reaction to BDSM, and NOT what Janine did here. “Squeamishness” means “Well, I guess that could be hot, but it’s not my kink.” That’s a big difference and I think implying that the less than brilliant review (although still good) comes from Janine’s “unfamiliarity” with the lifestyle is slightly–no, I’m going to amend that to say completely–disingenuous. Many reviewers adored Joey Hill’s Natural Law because it’s brilliantly written and psychologically rich, even though they were incredibly squicked by the BDSM play. It’s possible to separate an appreciation of craft from “not my thing,” and I think Janine did a really good job.
The dictionary defines ‘aversion’ as “a strong dislike” or “distate”-*shrug*. That seems to me to be the meaning of ‘squeamish’. No pitchforks necessary. :) I never implied that Janine made an unfair assessment of my book. In fact, I was trying to say I appreciated that, while BDSM might not be her thing, she was still able to enjoy certain aspects of the book and/or my writing. Honestly, I have no desire to instigate one of those unpleasant flame wars too many people on the Internet seem to be so fond of. My entire intention was to correct her misconception about my heroine’s past: that she was not, in fact, abused by her mother.
Yes, people have different ideas about what constitutes abuse. My intention in writing the story was not to insinuate that Rowan was abused. As someone who has spent a number of years in the lifestyle myself, I try to educate my readers about the realities involved. Far too many authors use a history of abuse or trauma as the reason why their characters become involved in the BDSM lifestyle, which is one of many commonly generalized misconceptions.
And BTW-his name is Christian Thorne, not Throne. )
Thanks. Sounds like an intriguing book, FWIW, even though I’m on a strict “No more books, dammit!” regime at the moment. Sorry about misreading — guess I was being prickly.
And I’m not sure that Christian Thorne is any better than Christian Throne! Very symbolic! ;)
Oh shoot, I’m so sorry for the misspelling! I knew it was Thorne, but I failed to catch the typo in the editing stage. I’ve fixed it now. I’m also sorry if I’ve misrepresented the book; it just sounded like an abusive situation to me.
Sarah, thanks for the ardent defense. I too thought that “aversion” was a bit strong, but I appreciated very much that Ms. Bradley thanked me for reviewing the book and was glad that I enjoyed some aspects of it.
To clarify my feelings on pain play, it doesn’t horrify, shock or disgust me. I would not read BDSM books if it did. It would be more accurate to say that it sometimes makes go “ouch” and that therefore I’m somewhat puzzled by it. For example there was a line in the book where one character was pleased at the sight of welts on another. That was puzzling to me, because I don’t particularly think of welts as sexy. On the other hand I do think that bondage and bossiness can be quite sexy to read about.
I’m not bringing this up as a criticism of the book, but rather, so that readers can judge whether they are likely to enjoy the book based on the review. Since I found the love scenes steamy, I expect that readers who enjoy reading about pain play might find it even more so.
Wow! How original. Yet another story about a domme who turns out to be a true, natural submissive. I wish more writers who’ve spent “years in the lifestyle” wrote from the dominant perspective rather than the submissive. This trope of a domme who turns out to be a sub seems sexually regressive to me. It almost seems to be saying that the natural order is male dominant, female submissive. I’ve yet to see a story where a dom turns submissive for a domme. Then again I’ve been told by editors and writers that female dominant/male submissive is not a marketable erotic romance fantasy.
I like BDSM romances, but it’s rare indeed to find a domme, and rarer still to find one who’s still a domme by the end of the story.
Thank you very much for making the correction to the hero’s name, Janine. :)
Barbara-I would LOVE to write a femdomme book, if only a publisher would buy it! I do have some femdomme scenes in my next Bantam book, but she is a secondary character, which is all I can get away with. Perhaps down the road, once I’ve been able to (hopefully) prove myself as an author, my publisher will feel confident enough to allow me to write riskier material for them. Although, as someone who has played from both sides, I don’t feel being submissive is regressive in any way-it truly takes as much internal strength as topping.
Janine-regarding the welts, (in case you’re interested in the topic), many submissives are fascinated by and proud of their welts. Not even really sure how to explain the psychology behind it. It’s a badge of honor, of sorts, even a type of decoration on the body.
This is one of the best things, IMO, about Joey Hill’s Natural Law — watching Mac understand his true submissive nature was absolutely fascinating to me. As someone who is not personally into the BDSM lifestyle, I depend on a psychological understanding of the characters and their pain play to connect me with that element of the story, and what I liked about Hill’s book was that IMO she really drew me into the dynamics between these two people who had a different sexual “orientation” than I do (if I can use that term without the same sex connotations) but were not simply objects of curiosity, tokens for titillation, or psycho-sexual symbols. As the story proceeded, they became a couple who simply had their own issues to work out and their own language of emotional and physical connection to develop — in other words, they were “normal,” “real,” people regardless of what seems to me like a pretty extreme sexual lifestyle. As central as the BDSM was to Natural Law, it also seemed secondary, IMO, to the larger emotional and psychological issues that drive any romantic relationship. I don’t know if I’m explaining what I mean clearly, but I do know I liked the book.
Yes, I’ll be reading that one, definitely.
I haven’t read your book, but I appreciate your intention here in not wanting to turn BDSM into an emotionally masochistic expression for Rowan. And I certainly agree with you that everyone has different ideas of what constitutes abuse.
One thing I have noticed across Romance and erotica is a tendency to portray very troubled and unhappy relationships between mothers and daughters, with more often than not the daughter-heroine feeling judged, unloved, and un-nurtured by her mother. I don’t see that as having anything to do with BDSM or not, but the dynamic interests me, because of the woman on woman dynamics. On the one hand, the neglected daughter has the opportunity to develop her independence, her own sense of self, and a healthy intimate relationship with her romantic partner. On the other hand, though, what does it mean when so much women’s fiction pits these heroines against the primary female figure in their life? Why do these relationships have to be so emotionally whacked, so unfulfilling? Is it simply a reflection of the authentically complex real-life mother-daughter relationships, or is something else going on, something that is particularly linked to the way women see and imaginatively portray other women? It’s really an interesting trend in both Romance and erotica, IMO, regardless of the particular sexual lifestyle of the heroine.
The passages you quoted, Janine, especially the first, read to me like Rowan really suffered emotionally under her mother. Whether or not that’s abusive is up to the individual to decide, I guess, but I assumed you were referring in your review to an emotional situation, not a physical one, if that makes any difference to Ms. Bradley’s objection to your characterization of the mother – daughter relationship.
Robin, there’s a fascinating book by Ivo Dominguez called Beneath the Skins. It’s a book about Leather/Kink politics, but in a beginning chapter, he talks about how the Kinsey Homo/Hetero continuum should not be the only sexual orientation. There’s gay/straight, sure, but there’s top/bottom, sadist/masochist, dominant/submissive, butch/femme, and maybe one more. And everyone hits somewhere on each of those continuums (pl?), whether they know it or not. And they might hit differently for different partners. As in, I’m almost 100% dominant, but I’d bottom (although never sub) for needles and cutting — in fact I do when I get tattoos. I have a dominant friend who has said that she’d switch or sub for one particular man. And I’m much more femme when I’m doing BDSM than in my vanilla life, where I come off very butch. It’s just the gay/straight continuum is the one that gets the most recognition. So, yes, for those deeply into BDSM, sexual orientation is more than just about gay/straight. For some, gay/straight doesn’t really enter into it because dominant/submissive is a much more powerful continuum and they’d be dominant or submissive to anyone in a sexual situation, male or female. Like, say, me. I don’t care about the fiddly bits of those I’m domming, as long as I get to be dominant. A hundred years from now, this’ll be our new “sexual orientation.”
And, heaven’s above, I hope Joey Hill doesn’t turn her Vampire Queen into a sub. Somebody please tell me she stays as a dom. Please? Hill seems to be the one who can get away with a femdom, although she switched the woman in Ice Queen and Mirror of My Soul which is why I still haven’t been able to read them, despite buying them the day it came out. It’s a shame that femdom isn’t deemed marketable, because I know a lot of people who would buy it. (Can’t WAIT for Hill’s gay male D/s book!)
As for welts, doms are fascinated by them too. Trust me. If you’re into giving or receiving pain, then the marks of those pain should be beautiful, if you think about it. Welts, redness, and if that’s your thing, blood and cuts, are stunning and are viewed with pride, honor, and awe by doms and subs, tops and bottoms alike. They’re physical representations of the trust and beauty of a BDSM relationship, even if it’s just playing for an hour or a full 24/7 “lifestyle” (and how I hate that word — for some of us, BDSM is no more a “lifestyle choice” than homosexuality is for gay people).
Roseread, I don’t think Joey Hill is going to turn the Vampire Queen into a sub. It feels as if I’ve been waiting for that book for a year. Maybe I have. I’ve been a big fan of Hill’s since I read Holding The Cards, the beginning of the Nature Of Desire series. It was so wonderful to finally read a femdomme story that was also a romance. Joey Hill never fails to deliver for me as a reader so I took a chance on Ice Queen and Mirror Of My Soul. I actually enjoyed both stories. I didn’t think I would, but I did. I’m not part of the BDSM community, but I have an affinity for dommes and female tops. Generally I can think of few things that bore me more than female subs. Joey Hill is such a fabulous writer that I quickly overcame my distaste and just enjoyed the story. Besides Marguerite wasn’t a fake domme, just a switch. I wasn’t crazy about that, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me. From any other author it probably would have been, though.
I wish femdomme romances were more marketable, too. I have a strong preference for them but I very RARELY find any. Believe me I’m constantly searching, too. I’m fairly sure that I’ve read all the ones published so far.
Thanks for explaining about the welts. I had the sense that it was something like that, but in terms of relating to that feeling about them, that’s not an easy leap for me to make.
Perhaps the reason femdom romances (I would enjoy reading them, too) aren’t considered marketable is because the heterosexual ones at least require a submisssive hero. I could enjoy that but I think many readers might not because alpha heroes are so popular. Not that a man can’t be alpha and submissive both, but I think that misconception exists.
Janine, I think you’re absolutely right, but I also think that Joey Hill proved that it could be done brilliantly. And the best subs are the alphas. Think about all the female sub romances out there — they’re mostly about alpha females submitting, but they don’t stop being alpha in the vanilla world. Submissive doesn’t mean incompetent or wimpy, by any means. But you know this already! Tell it to the publishers and editors!
Roseread, thank you for your clarification; my only familiarity with BDSM comes from the few novels I’ve read that include it and from discussions like this one, so I’m a real novice. Your comments have made me think a little more, though, about Eva Gale’s thesis a while back that rape fantasies in Romance are similar to BDSM, and I’m feeling less persuaded about that. Because what you say about BDSM being a true sexual orientation strikes me as essentially different than fantasy role playing, especially because the fictional representation of BDSM is (ideally, of course), the translation of something that occurs in real life as a consensual activity between two competent adults into fictional form. OTOH, the rape fantasy is something that has, in real life, an incarnation as both a sexual fantasy and as a horribly violent criminal act and sexual violation. So while BDSM relies on roles and on symbols (e.g. the welts and cuts, etc.), it sounds as if you’re saying that the role playing isn’t so much an expression of fantasy but rather as an expression of an inherent orientation to one’s sexuality (I don’t know if I’m explaining that correctly) and that the key is to pair up with another who complements your particular orientation. Not that fantasy can’t or doesn’t play a part, but that there’s still a distinction between whatever those fantasies might be and the orientation of submissive or domme. It seems, then, like it would be a really tricky thing for people who don’t practice BDSM or aren’t VERY familiar with it to write about it erotically without turning it into some kind of game or titillating fantasy play.
Which is so interesting when you think about all the ways Romance, for example, domesticates the alpha male through True Love. But perhaps it’s the sexual submission that is objectionable? Also, I think there is a real resistance to heroines who are perceived as too dominant or aggressive, sexually or otherwise. I read a historical Romance recently and one of the things readers complained about was the unlikeability of the heroine — she was shrewish, she was ungrateful, she was cold to the hero. While I ended up finding myriad problems with the book, my take on the heroine was completely different; I completely understood her resentment and thought she was more than due such feelings. So maybe it’s a double whammy — sexually submissive male and any kind of dominant female.
Joey Hill once used the visual that an alpha male submissive was like the palace guard of a Queen. They are strong, dominant males who choose to submit.
Submission is like a dirty word, a powerless word. Doesn’t the submissive have the real power? Aren’t they the ones who control, ultimately, how far the sexual acts go? By choice, they submit. By choice, they allow themselves the emotional and physical release of being controlled and directed.
In the VQS, as in Natural Law, there was simply no doubt as to the masculinity of the hero. He was strong and capable but choose the submissive route for a purpose.
To equate submission with emasculation would be mean that everytime one submits, they lose control or power, in whatever situation they are in. If you think about it, a male submissive should be every woman’s dream because he truly is the embodiment of the concept of the alpha male.
The alpha male concept is that, for that one woman, the male would do anything. He desires no one else. He loves no one else. He puts her above all others and is hers, to the exclusion of all else.
Isn’t that really the submissive role? To be that other partner’s love, sexual partner, to the exclusion of all others?
That’s the message that was sent to me in reading The Vampire Queen’s Servant. The hero had wanted nothing else but to serve the Vampire Queen. To see that her desires were satiated. To stand guard for her. To be the one to provide her surcease. He is secure in himself to understand that allowing him to be directed in sexual manner does not, in any way, lessen his will power (remember the initial floor scene with Mac? – tremendous will power) or his status as a male with a capital M. In the way that he is sure of his sexuality and his masculinity, we, the reader, are assured as well.
Although I don’t think it’s logical, I think there’s a sort of inconsistent appreciation of Romance alphas (I use that term since they so rarely bear any resemblance to rl alpha animals). I have this theory about Lori Foster’s heroes, for example, that they’re basically women with a package and a high testosterone level. They cook for the heroine, they bathe her, they massage her, they want commitment first and often say “I love you” first, but in the bedroom they’re completely dominant and expert. I think that model — to greater or lesser degree — is the Romance alpha “type” (not that authors don’t diverge from it). So while I totally agree with your analysis, Jane, I don’t think it’s an automatic sell, at least to the Romance crowd. Just like heroines who have slept with more than one man aren’t acceptable to some Romance readers who equate a heroine’s value with her virginity. Some things aren’t necessarily logically explained but are powerful in the genre, nonetheless (and I think there’s perhaps some crossover with erotica).
The submission argument is fascinating, too, because IMO the fact that men have so much social dominance makes their *empowered submission* all the more possible. I have sometimes heard the submission argument applied to women, too, although not strictly in the BDSM sense (where the rules of the relationship are insulated to some degree, IMO, from outside authority issues), and I wonder if the dynamic is the same. In other words, when a woman chooses to submit sexually, is it the same sense of empowerment as when a man does? Or is there something in a man’s submission, his willingness to take on a position of vulnerability, that is safely empowering because of the dominant psychology of patriarchy?
It’s an interesting psychological examination and one with which I am not very familiar. I would have to defer to people within the lifestyle. Dr. Sarah referred earlier to how Joey Hill’s Natural Law was acceptable for those who ordinarily find the BDSM idea a bit outre, or even worse. I know that I was one of those and that her rendering of that lifestyle made it seem so normal. This was the lifestyle of that couple and to be part of it was simply their way of life, no apologies. I liked that. It seemed very freeing, kind of the opposite of what bondage/domination/submission appears to be by the very names the lifestyle uses.