Heat Factor: These books go on the Erotica shelf
Character Chemistry: There’s a cosmic connection, but I don’t always buy it
Plot: Princess Shanyin gets a hot young lord sent to her harem. Power plays (and lots of sex) ensue
Overall: If you’re looking for high-brow reverse-harem erotica with bonus disturbing political machinations set in 5th century China, The Obsession is excellent. If you want the HEA, read the full series—but note that The Enslavement and The Fulfillment are less tightly written.
Here’s what we know, from the historical record, about Princess Shanyin. She was the older sister of Emperor Qianfei (reigned 464–466). The story goes that she told her brother it wasn’t fair that he had a harem and she didn’t, so he gathered together 30 beautiful young men for her. However, she also requested that Chu Yuan, a handsome young lord, be given to her; while the emperor agreed, Yuan refused to have sex with Shanyin during the ten days he spent with her. Emperor Qianfei didn’t last long as emperor, and Shanyin was ordered to commit suicide when Qianfei was assassinated.
Lee takes this story and builds on it, adding a lot of depth to Shanyin’s character—and also adding a lot of sex.
The Obsession follows the general arc of the historical record. The main story takes place during the ten days that Yuan spends in Shanyin’s harem, with her tempting him and him refusing to have penetrative sex with her. (That does not mean that penetrative sex doesn’t happen, because Shanyin has a whole harem of virile young men who are only too willing to cater to her desires.) Shanyin and Yuan are in a major power struggle here as they negotiate their relationship in terms of gender, concubinage, and political maneuvering—and this power struggle plays out in the bedroom in a variety of ways.
The political situation acts as a backdrop to the power plays in the bedroom, as Shanyin’s brother beheads people left and right. In the text, Shanyin attempts to be a calming influence on her brother, but I must admit that she’s not particularly successful—nor does she really care, when push comes to shove. Shanyin cares about her own pleasure, not the infighting of terrible men doing terrible things to each other. Perhaps this is short-sighted, but what Lee does really well is bring us close enough to Shanyin that we understand why she acts the way she does.
The Obsession is sexy and disturbing as hell. If you’re interested in erotica, it’s a great read.
In The Enslavement and The Fulfillment, Lee moves beyond the historical record to imagine a life for Shanyin after her brother was deposed. Shanyin kind of bounces around, spending time with two of her former concubines, in a brothel, and sold to a wealthy lord. She continues to have lots of sex with different men (and one woman), and does eventually get her non-traditional happily ever after with Yuan. The second and third books in the series are not as tightly plotted as the first, as Shanyin moves with the current from one place to the next, and there’s not the overarching sense of impending disaster that, paired with her battle of seduction of Yuan, really shapes the first book.
A note on the sex writing. On the excellent side, Lee plays around with power and sex in really interesting ways. On the perhaps less excellent side, Shanyin says things like “he parted the outer lips of my sex and stroked in between my petals until my eyes rolled back.” Flower metaphors and discussions of wetness and sexes flooding and phrases like “nether lips” abound.
I absolutely would not recommend these books to everybody, but they’ll definitely stick with me.
Looking for something similar?