Aerial by Aurelia T. Evans
Totally Bound, 2015
What a guilty pleasure it is to return to Arcanium! Aerial is the third book in Aurelia T. Evans’ erotic romance/horror series, and possibly the best so far.
What is Arcanium? A demon circus, created and controlled by psychic jinni Bell Maddox, for his own obscure pleasure and for the edification, education and punishment of the creatures he binds to serve it. Some, like incubus Lord Mikhail, succubus Lady Sasha, and the child-devouring clowns Comedy, Tragedy and Murphy, are demons who’ve made bargains with the fortune teller, providing dark and seductive entertainments in return for permission to sate their particular hungers. Some, like Misha the sword swallower or the lion and tiger under the lash of the sinister Ringmaster, are human beings whose unfortunate wishes were overheard and twisted by Bell. Arcanium’s Oddity Row showcases Christina the armless and legless human torso, conjoined twins Jane and Joanne, Kitty the bearded woman, and other freaks. Some, like Kitty, are voluntary members of the peculiar Arcanium family. Others are living the consequences of rash behavior or thoughtlessly voiced desires.
Aerial offers the tale of Seth and Lars, two attractive and muscular young men who perform a stunning aerial act under Arcanium’s shadowy big top. They appear as background characters in the earlier volumes Fortune and Carousel. The latest book, which is set before Fortune, details how they came to be part of Arcanium.
As the story opens, Seth and Lars are strolling the circus grounds, appreciating what they believe to be the well-executed make-up on the oddities and savoring the undercurrent of sexual arousal that suffuses Arcanium. They’re old friends, team mates on a college soccer team, hoping for a future in professional sports. An argument tinged with homophobia and a careless wish from Seth change everything. Maddox, who has been wanting more male performers, chooses to interpret Seth’s metaphor literally. He physically binds the two men together with magic that requires some part of their bodies remain in contact at all times.
Forced to live together, sleep together, shower together, even use the toilet while attached, Seth and Lars discover a mutual carnal attraction made all the more acute by the perpetual aura of lust that pervades the circus. As they try to fight their need while retaining their friendship, the circus draws them deeper into its dark heart.
This book does an incredible job articulating the confused emotions of men who have always seen themselves as straight discovering their homoerotic tendencies. The two heroes react quite differently to their mutual attraction. Ms. Evans portrays the tension between them with subtlety and conviction. Even as they fight their desire, the sex between them is incendiary—more arousing, for me at least, than their interactions with the female members of the circus, which serve to convince Seth and Lars (and I guess the reader) that at least they’re not completely gay.
Meanwhile, the author offers new glimpses into the histories of other Arcanium denizens. Each tale is different, simultaneously horrifying and fascinating. Like the freaks on Oddity Row, the stories make you squirm, but you can’t help wanting more.
At the center of it all sits Bell Maddox, a character of exquisite complexity. Seemingly cruel and kind by turns, he actually follows a sort of inhuman logic outside of human categories. For him, Arcanium is simultaneously a work of art, a delicately crafted machine, a source of perverse pleasure, and a morality play. He loves his creation; he protects it; he nurtures it. He collects souls to serve it.
Bell’s profound ambiguity gives the Arcanium series a depth that’s rare in the world of erotic romance. I applaud the fact that Ms. Evans does not try to explain him. He is what he is, what he has been for millenia, not man, not beast, not quite a god...a force of nature perhaps, or the personification of fate—fickle, unpredictable, generous and vicious.
In general, I don’t enjoy series. I get bored after a book or two. Arcanium is a major exception. I have the fourth book, Ringmaster, on my tablet already. I’ve been resisting the temptation to begin reading until I’d written this review. I wanted to remember and record what impressed me about Aerial before immersing myself in another orgy of sex, blood and magic.
I’ll probably start Ringmaster tonight.