Heat Factor: Torture porn
Character Chemistry: Troubled
Plot: A textured look at a dystopia built on an extreme form of slavery
Overall: There is definitely an audience for this book, but it is not me. If you’re a superfan of Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy, you might like it?
In the interest of full disclosure, I did not finish this book. I gave the good ole college try, I really did, but I just couldn’t take the sex torture, so I gave up about a third of the way into it. I therefore cannot comment on whether Gold successfully pulled off the romance between Gabriel and Mariah. I also cannot comment on when or whether the plot gains forward momentum – at the point where I left off, we had met the main players and were getting a feel for the place, but I wasn’t sure where we were going with it yet.
What I want to do in this review, therefore, is give a bit more info than is given in the blurb, so you can decide if this book might work for you. I also want to talk about a few things that Gold did really well.
From the blurb, we know that this story follows Gabriel, a healer, who arrives in Riviera and is horrified by the slavery he find there. Gabriel is drawn to a slave, Mariah. He tries to tell her that things can be different, but Mariah cannot believe him – she knows that this is just another mindgame (aka, psychological torture). The blurb also clearly states that this is an erotic romance.
What the blurb doesn’t clearly state is that most of the sex, at least in the first third of the book, is torture sex. Slaves in Riviera are naked, always. That’s how you know someone is a slave. Furthermore, the slaves are kept in line through a combination of psychological conditioning, regular torture (beatings, etc), and sexual control. The sexual control is the most pronounced; slave food has some sort of super aphrodisiac in it so that slaves are horny all the time. So rape is a double power play. It’s not just that a master has control over a slave’s body and can rape him/her whenever. It’s also the case where slaves are made to need sexual release at all times (masturbation, being, of course, a punishable offense), so rape can become a tool whereby slaves are simultaneously punished and rewarded. The reader is given all this information in a series of flashbacks. Sections called “Mariah remembers” are interspersed with the action in the present, and provide a detailed account of her conditioning and life as a slave, starting around adolescence. Many of the more explicit scenes of torture porn occur during these sections, which don’t necessarily advance the plot, but rather provide texture and explanation for the conditions of Riviera.
Even though this wasn’t for me, I do want to acknowledge some of the things that Gold did really well, particularly in terms of the psychology of the characters.
First, Gold showed how easy it is to become complicit in a terrible system. We all like to think that we would have stood up to the Nazis, but it’s easy to be a warrior for justice from afar. When Gabriel first arrives in Riviera, he tries to intervene to help a slave who is being punished – and makes it worse. He is one man, an outsider, who does not have the power to remove slaves from the community. As a result, Gabriel shuts down. He notes to himself how quickly he stops noticing people being beaten, because he feels that there’s nothing he can do about it. Furthermore, he redirects the care he would normally give the people he meets to his horse – going so far as to threaten the stable slaves with punishment if his horse is mistreated. Gabriel is still a good person; as a healer, he treats slaves and masters alike, and does his best to steer the masters away from corporeal punishment of healing slaves. But he is also just one person, who cannot see how to get out of the system in which he finds himself.
The other thing that Gold does really well is show that a loving relationship between a master and a slave is inherently fucked up. Some secondary characters, Animal (master) and Rose (slave), have a sort of loving relationship. Rose certainly loves Animal. But Mariah and Rose also have an explicit conversation where they note that Rose’s feelings toward Animal are unnatural, and that, furthermore, she may just feel kindly towards him because he treats her way better than her last master did. I suspect that this dynamic is where the crux of the conflict will come into play as the book progresses, so Gold may eventually fall into a more simplistic dynamic where the power between the characters is less fully fleshed out.
If anyone reads this book and gets through the whole thing, please let me know what happens. Does Mariah achieve a HEA, and how does Gold make this work with Mariah’s deep-seated trauma? Does the HEA involve Gabriel and Mariah leaving Riviera, or are we looking at full on slave uprising? I am curious, but I couldn’t take any more rape to get to that point.
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