Penguin Random House, 2016
As I noted in my review last week, fairy tales provide fertile ground for exploring erotic themes. Before She Wakes by Sharon Lynn Fisher collects six original fantasy stories that might fit very well with some of Grimm’s offerings.
In “The Dragonmaid’s Secret”, a young woman born and bred to defend her Provence village along with her Persian dragon Aurora is seduced by a stranger and discovers that, like he, she’s a dragon shifter.
“Raven Takes a Pearl” introduces an enigmatic being, half human and half bird, who occupies a castle overlooking a blasted land. When village woman Pearl confronts him in an attempt to retrieve a stolen keepsake, she finds he wants to possess her, too.
“The Garden Rules” begins in the contemporary world, but the protagonist is soon swept into an alternative reality where carnality reigns supreme. She must abandon the rules by which she has ordered her life as she abandons her body to lust.
“The Kelpie’s Prize” is a steam punk delight in which the wizard Merlin’s nemesis Viviane has been reincarnated as a Victorian folklorist.
“Willa and the Wisp”, my favorite tale in the collection, unfolds in the New Bayou, a vast swamp that covers the flooded ruins of New Orleans. The bayou is haunted by dire and magical creatures. Willa, a human who makes her living ferrying people around the swamp in her boat, must defeat, or at least come to terms, with the bayou’s magic in order to survive.
The final tale, “The Dragonfly Prince”, offers the classic fairy tale scenario of a beautiful, unfortunate woman forced to marry a monster. In Ms. Fisher’s story, the match turns out to be less traumatic than in many versions of this legend.
Overall, I enjoyed Before She Wakes. Ms. Fisher’s stories benefit from both her vivid imagination and her gorgeous prose. Each one has a distinctive atmosphere, though all partake of some fairy tale quality. Her protagonists (all female) tend to be clever and brave, but highly susceptible to the lures of the flesh—especially when that flesh belongs to beings who are not quite human. Many of the stories include moody, intensely erotic scenes with a kinky edge.
Unfortunately, some of the stories suffer from what I can only call gratuitous sex.
You may wonder what I’m talking about. After all, this is a book labeled as erotica. Why should I object to the sex?
I don’t object to sex that fits the story and the mood. Unfortunately, the author tends to throw in sexual activities that seem inconsistent with the characters and which do not advance the plot. “The Dragonmaid’s Secret” is perhaps the worst offender in this regard. Early in the story, the Celtic dragon Roark takes Isabeau as his lover and awakens her to her true identity. The erotic scenes between these two are glorious, ecstatic, overwhelming. Then Roark brings his mate to the court of Louis the Fourteenth. All at once she’s playing sex games with a couple of Louis’ mistresses. The dragonmaid of earlier in the story would never have done this. Nor would she have dallied with the king himself, as she does in a later scene. For me, these extra sex scenes reduced rather than enhanced the eroticism of the tale. I almost felt as though the author had gotten instructions from her editor or publisher, to “sex it up” and “make it kinky”.
“The Dragonfly Prince” has a similar problem. The erotic interactions between Rowan and her transgenic bridegroom Dayne sizzle, but for some reason the author felt impelled to turn the story into a ménage—a threesome involving Rowan’s step-brother, of all people. This didn’t work in the context of the story at all (in my opinion). It felt contrived, even exploitative. “Step-brother stories are hot”, someone might have counseled. “Better include one in the book.”
There’s a non-trivial amount of BDSM-like activity in the book. As with the example above, in some cases it felt artificial rather than integral to the story. “Raven Takes a Pearl” was an exception. Pearl trusts Raven enough to offer him her life. That sort of trust lies at the heart of BDSM.
Perhaps I am being unfair. It may be that the sexual activities I’ve labeled “gratuitous” truly reflect the author’s fantasies rather than being additions calculated to increase the heat quotient of the book. Possibly other readers would not find them so jarring or incongruous. Alas, for me, they somewhat spoiled what would have otherwise been a haunting and beautiful book.
(I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review.)