The Marketplace by Laura Antoniou
Luster Editions, Circlet Press, 2010
Reviewed by Lisabet Sarai
If you had a friend who was interested in BDSM, but who didn't have much experience, what fiction would you advise her to read? What books belong to the BDSM canon? The Story of O, certainly. Maybe A.N. Roquelaure's Beauty trilogy (although if the real author were not Anne Rice, I wonder if those books would get as much attention as they do). Perhaps Molly Weatherfield's Safe Word and definitely a couple of Rachel Kramer Bussel's D/s-themed anthologies such as He's on Top, She's on Top, Yes, Sir or Yes, Ma'am.
One book that would make almost everyone's list, I think, is Laura Antoniou's The Marketplace and its sequels. I've been hearing about these books for years – no, decades – ever since I joined the ranks of BDSM readers and authors. Although I'm a devotee of D/s fiction and to some extent practice, somehow I never got the opportunity to read any of the series. One reason was the fact that despite their acclaim they have received, the books keep going out of print. The Marketplace was originally published by Masquerade Books in 1993. A new edition was released by Mystic Rose Books (also responsible for the wonderful primer Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns) in 2000. Now Circlet Books, renowned for speculative and scifi erotica, has created a new imprint call Luster Editions to bring The Marketplace books back for today's readers. When I was offered the opportunity to review the first volume, I jumped at the chance.
The Marketplace introduces a world where an elite cadre of dominants train, sell and buy willing slaves. The secrets of the Marketplace members are jealously guarded. In the everyday clubs and dungeons, BDSM afficionados trade rumors about the shadowy cabal of slave owners and their human property: the rigors the slaves must undergo, the enormous sums of money exchanged, the contracts, the collars, the decadent resorts, the beauty and the power of the masters and mistresses.
The Marketplace introduces Grendel and Alexandra, traders and trainers of premium slaves. Both are expert dominants. The book is deliberately vague about their relationship. Four would-be slaves apply to undergo the Marketplace training regimen at the hands of Grendel and Alex and their major domo Chris. None is a true amateur. In fact, all four consider themselves to be accomplished submissives. Almost immediately, the dominants strip the four of their illusions and show them how far they are from being Marketplace material.
Brian is a gay bottom who loves to be beaten and “forced” to suck cock. Despite his claims to being submissive, he is manipulative, sarcastic, cynical, rebellious and far too garrulous to be a good slave.
Sharon is used to holding men in thrall as she eagerly offers herself as a sexual object. Like Brian, she believes that being a slave is all about sex.
Robert has been feminized by his former mistress to the point that he has no self-confidence and hates his own penis. Although he is intelligent and well-educated, he becomes helpless and incompetent under pressure.
Finally, shy, virginal Claudia can act the part of the sweet, submissive French maid to absolute perfection, but that is the limits of her repertoire. Her mistress offers her to Alex and Grendel out of frustration and boredom, hoping that they can make her braver and more sensual.
Grendel and Alexandra devise customized lessons and trials for each of the aspirants, seeking to teach them the reality of being a slave in the Marketplace world. Sharon is assigned to muck out the stables and study diction and opera. Brian is made to wear ribbons and bells and deprived of sexual satisfaction. Robert studies martial arts and is forbidden to shave his hated body hair. Shrinking violet Claudia is required to take responsibility for the entire household while the normal housekeeper is on vacation and to severely discipline the other aspirants.
Although many of the stereotypes in BDSM erotica may have started with The Marketplace, the book itself is fresh, original and engrossing. It considers the nature of D/s relationships with rare depth and insight. In the Marketplace world, submission (and in fact, dominance) is about far more than sex. For the first half of the book, few of the lessons imposed on the would-be slaves involve sex at all. They learn to obey without thinking, to take responsibility for their successes and their mistakes, to trust their masters and each other. Over the course of the novel, each one changes, approaching the perfection required of Marketplace slaves – though how that is defined will vary for each one.
I loved this book. For one thing, despite its fantasy premise, it has a realistic, down-to-earth feel. The characters are complex and their interactions nuanced and believable. The Marketplace is the exact opposite of the kinky fairy tale world of the Beauty books – even though they share activities and physical elements.
I also appreciated the recognition of the deep sense in which the slaves' servitude is consensual. The aspirants' most cherished desire is to be accepted as worthy by the Marketplace. The most terrible punishment that can be threatened is for them to be sent away, to be released from the training and set adrift in the shallow world of BDSM “play”.
Finally, I resonate with the view of D/s as something more than just a game, as something that can transform one's soul. To quote one of my favorite passages:
To be thrilled by the touch of leather, aroused by harsh words, or satisfied by the security of rigid bondage is the mark of a lover.
To be thrilled at the opportunity to provide useful service, aroused by a pleased nod, and satisfied by the proverbial job well done, is the mark of a slave.
It may sound severe. Almost anti-erotic. Until you see two people, owner and owned, existing in a complementary relationship where each suits the other like balances on a delicate scale. Until you feel the energy of their rapport, you cannot understand how they fulfill each other, take and give in ways no negotiation could possibly express.
Then you will understand the singular intimacy that drives such people on their search for perfection. It is beyond orgasm. Beyond love. It can almost be called rapture.
If these words speak to you the way they do to me, you must read this book.