It’s been a minute since I’ve written a review, and I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do it. Let’s pretend I was never gone and this is actually going to be competent, shall we?
So I said right in the title of this review that this is Courtney Milan approved erotica, which is a kind of flippant way of saying she gave it a 5/5 star rating with about a billion caveats. Specifically, I’m referring to this review of The Siren, the first book in the series. Being an author herself and better with words than I’ll ever be, she has composed a point-perfect review of the book and how affecting it is despite being, well, deeply fucked up:
There’s a line that Miranda Darling uses about Smite in Unraveled: “He was all blade, no handle. If she held him close, she’d risk getting cut.” That’s kind of how I feel about this book: all blade, no handle. I wouldn’t want to read a book like this every day, or even every week. But once in a while, I can handle the pain.
I will keep the main body of this review as spoiler and trigger free as I can, but if you decide to read these books, please be forewarned that there is objectionable and upsetting content therein on just about every level. If you are sensitive to pain and/or abuse, you’re advised to tread very carefully, or probably even give these a pass.
The broad view of this series is that it centers on erotica writer Nora Sutherlin as the locus of a very complicated web of sexual and romantic relationships among a group of men and women (mostly men though, to be honest) in a local underground kink community. We are introduced to Nora both as a successful erotica writer and as the Top Domme in said underground. She’s brash, fearless, and uncompromising — a heroine out of the femme fatale mold, every man is a little bit in love with her and a little bit scared of her. In The Siren, she begins work with a new editor, Zach, as she’s trying to pitch her latest book to more crossover appeal, and Zach is typically a literary editor rather than a smutty one. This first book is the most self-contained story and, honestly, while the remaining three are necessary strictly in terms of finishing the complete story, The Siren does a sufficient job of world-building and tone-setting that you don’t need the sequels to get the picture. Sure, the rest of the story has the characters going through some different *plot stuff* together that ultimately changes the structure of their relationships (some cemented, others shifted or dissolved) but the characters themselves are actually already pretty well realized in The Siren. This isn’t a series about characters who are undergo arcs of change; it’s a story of people who find confidence and strength in who they already are.
So, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on rote character descriptions or said *plot stuff* because over the course of four books there’s actually a lot of it, and The Original Sinners has the same issue of a lot of erotic romance of introducing some fairly ludicrous twists because emotional conflict between characters is never enough; someone always needs to get kidnapped. I’d rather talk about themes — I’d always rather talk about themes; they’re nice and broad and it’s easy to speak generally about them — and there is a whole lot in these books to unpack.
I’m not a card-carrying Kink Person, myself. I’ve dabbled in the same way a lot of “vanilla” people dabble, but it is not a lifestyle for me. So I can’t speak from any authority on how authentic and responsible these books are in their portrayals of BDSM and D/s relationships. My impression, from reading a lot of thinkpieces and commentary about that other BDSM book that Shall Not Be Named, as well as just what I’ve absorbed through more general conversation and discussion, is that The Original Sinners is both responsible and irresponsible, and that actually makes them somewhat accurate. And by that I mean, there is such a diverse portrayal of different relationships, encounters, and experiences across the four books that although some of what is described is abusive and/or illegal, full-stop, there are also sex and relationships that are “safe, sane, and consensual.” There isn’t just one (flawed) depiction of an alleged BDSM relationship; it’s a portrayal of a community and lifestyle with systems in place to ensure the safety and pleasure of its participants, with the acknowledgement that every system is only as secure as the people in it and a lot of these people are pretty damn flawed and fallible.
Where the books are good, they’re great: they’re intelligent, sharp, and the writing has a literary flair to it. Some of the characters are downright loveable, and the ones that aren’t quite that are still formidable. No one is weakly defined — even the minor characters have depth and agency. It becomes easy to get drawn into their world, as dark, confusing, and conflicted as that may be. But, and I’m not trying to say this to be dramatic, that immersion comes at a price. It is really, really confusing and just plain hard to look past some of what is in these characters’ pasts. And maybe a few years ago, it would have been easier. But it’s hard to have learned, and to continue learning, so much about the cost of abuse on its survivors as a part of the long overdue public conversations we’ve had recently, and to not be affected by reading about that kind of trauma in kind of a detached, “it’s over now” way. I’d argue that none of the current relationships depicted in the series are abusive, but at least one of them has extremely dubious origins and Reisz doesn’t shy away from, to paraphrase Courtney Milan again, “nuancing things that shouldn’t be nuanced.” And that’s not even getting into the abuse and assault that informs some backstories prior to the main events of the books. It’s just… it’s a lot, and it’s hard to read. It doesn’t seem fair, but I think the fact that these are erotic romances is what makes them so dicey this way, because it’s hard to divorce the overall intent of romance and erotica as genres from the content. In lit fic, the argument that questionable content merely existing in the story isn’t per se romanticizing it seems to hold more water than it does in romance, where any number of transgressions being forgiven on the path to love is part of an epic romantic journey. I don’t know if that’s fair, but I also don’t want to rationalize abuse and sexual misconduct in romance by arguing that everyone has moved past it.
Ultimately, I think these books are thought-provoking (and not to mention, titillating where it’s appropriate) enough to bear recommendation and going in with an open mind. However, what merely “didn’t sit right” with me might be full on NOPEs for others.