Wild Licks by Cecilia Tan
Forever (Hachette), 2016
Everyone knows that rock star Mal Kenneally never has sex with the same woman twice. Adoring fans of his band The Rough assume this is just part of his brooding, dangerous image, but the true reasons lie far deeper. A confirmed sadist who delights in inflicting pain, Mal is afraid he’ll cause serious damage—physical and psychological—if he allows any woman to get close. Disastrous past relationships have taught him to keep sex superficial and to dismiss his partners after a single encounter, before his insatiable Need takes over.
Gwen Hamilton dreams of becoming an actress. With her wealth and media connections, she could buy her way into show business, but she wants to succeed based on her own talent. Disguised and using an assumed name, she auditions for the part of a punk-inspired wild child, only to be dismissed before the director even listens to her read. On the rebound, she mingles with the groupies at a concert by The Rough and is chosen as Mal’s girl for the evening. She stays in character as Mal takes her, uses her, and gives her the sort of painful pleasure she’d almost given up on ever feeling again.
Mal finds he can’t forget the cheeky but profoundly submissive groupie he calls Excrutia, who sports a “Love Pain” tattoo on the inside of her thigh. As Mal tries to locate her, his publicist insists that the rock star shepherd the beautiful, cultured Gwen to various events, making a foursome with band front man Axel Hawke and his lover, Gwen’s sister Ricki. Gwen’s a good girl, an innocent, or so Mal believes. In her presence, he tries to remain distant and act the part of the gentleman escort, but he’s nearly as fascinated by Gwen as by the mysterious red-headed fan girl.
Eventually, of course, Gwen’s masquerade becomes apparent. By that time, Mal and Gwen have become entangled emotionally and sexually. Mal’s instincts are to leave, to protect the woman he loves from his inner darkness. Gwen, however, is determined to keep him if she possibly can.
I absolutely loved this novel—even more than Taking the Lead, the first book in this series, which I reviewed very favorably earlier this year. It’s intelligent, lively, subtle, deeply romantic and unabashedly kinky. Mal’s an extreme character, but Ms. Tan makes his doubts and his demons mostly plausible. Meanwhile, Gwen is simultaneously an outrageous pain slut and a practical, confident young woman who’s not afraid to fight for what she wants. She demolishes the stereotype of the doormat sub, illustrating that courage, self-love and self-respect lie at the core of true surrender.
Wild Licks is marketed as erotic romance, and it fits all the qualifications of the genre. Still, I’d label it as romantic erotica—not because it’s chock full of deliciously varied, lusciously detailed sex scenes (although it is), but because of its themes. At its heart, Wild Licks revolves around Gwen and Mal coming to terms with their sexual identities. Mal, in particular, struggles to accept his kinky desires. He has difficulty believing that any relationship that satisfies his sadistic urges could possibly be healthy and enduring. Gwen is more pragmatic. She recognizes that she needs what Mal provides. Despite having less experience with kink than Mal, she sees far more clearly that they cannot pretend to be vanilla. The exchanges of power and pain in which they indulge nurture and sustain them both.
Erotica concerns itself with the experience of desire and the way it changes us. Over the course of this novel, Mal and Gwen evolve toward greater understanding of their sexual selves, as well as toward the deeper love and commitment expected of a romance.
Readers who just want a hot story with a HEA about a sexy rock star and his girl will be thoroughly satisfied by Wild Licks. Those who care to look deeper will discover a thoughtful exploration of how kink shapes and challenges those of us who are wired that way.
(Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.)