Warning: The book reviewed in this post contains X-rated content. Please proceed only if you are 18 years of age or older and if you do not object to controversial/explicit writing. Thank you.
I’m taking a new path for this review and turning to a self-published author, Anna James Watson, and her book Blackmail. Be advised that Blackmail is erotica, so there are many “steamy” scenes. I trust that people reading this post beyond the warning are adults, so please conduct yourselves as such in the comments. Sex isn’t always the most comfortable topic but it’s a prominent part of the human experience. As such, we can’t avoid it and we should assess erotica as literature, as we would any other genre.
That being said, I’m not a regular reader of erotica. I do, however, try to read widely and this novel caught my eye. I’m happy it did; the book is much better than I had expected.
Blackmail is the first novel in Watson’s The Skeleton Key series. It illustrates the affair among three Yale students: undergraduate students Mia and Tristan and their TA, a philosophy graduate student named Julian. As the title implies, Mia is pulled into Tristan and Julian’s unconventional relationship due to Tristan’s need to blackmail her. As they try to continue life as though nothing has happened, their social circles become more thoroughly intertwined through mutual acquaintances, the philosophy club Y.U.P.S., and a society called The Skeleton Key. What follows is a whirlwind of secrets, internal struggles, emotional upheaval, and, of course, sex.
When I read erotica, I’m looking for more than just smut. I want characters that feel like real people, evolve and change throughout the narrative, and have real emotions and real social dynamics. I want the book to say more than “these attractive people had a lot of sex, often unconventional sex in unconventional places.”
The first several pages of this book are, admittedly, smut-heavy. Mia, Tristan, and Julian also start as rather stereotypical characters: the smart girl who normally doesn’t do this sort of thing, the rich pretty-boy who can’t afford people finding out about his “extracurricular activities,” and the mysterious romantic. I would’ve preferred to see more character development before the erotic side of the novel began, but I suppose in this genre it’s best to start those scenes early. Nevertheless, you see glimmers of real people with desires, limits, goals, and concerns right from the beginning.
The initial “steamy” scene is very well-written and sets the bar high for the rest of the novel. That aspect is consistently engaging and enthralling throughout the narrative, something best read behind closed doors and which I’m embarrassed to admit I really enjoyed. From the sweetly romantic love-making between Mia and Julian to the battle for dominance Mia has with Tristan, these scenes provide the perfect balance between sensuality and tension.
I’m most intrigued by the kind of relationship explored, i.e. MMF. When we encounter books, movies, or TV shows about polysexual/polyamorous/polygamous relationships, they’re most often one man and multiple women. So long as everyone involved is of age and consents, I have no issues with this sort of relationship. Still, the prevalence of MFF over MMF–I can’t even think of another example of MMF without more detailed research–suggests a disproportionate representation of unconventional relationships. It’s refreshing to see the exploration of more types of nontraditional relationships.
Mia may be the main character but, for me, Tristan and Julian’s relationship steals the show. Watson shows the issues of them privately accepting their identities–Julian is pansexual and Tristan is bisexual–while still trying to keep the wrong people from discovering them. Watson heightens the tension by investigating the strengths and struggles Mia adds to their love life and the strains that Tristan’s obsession with The Skeleton Key puts on them. I despise rich pretty-boys and yet I worried for Tristan and his relationship with Julian, as well as felt annoyed by how Tristan approached their joint relationship with Mia. Tristan and Julian put me through an emotional roller coaster, something I didn’t necessarily expect from erotica.
With the introduction of Y.U.P.S. this book becomes erotica for the intellectual. The philosophical debate may not be accessible to everyone. I had to re-read it a couple times to get a good grasp on it. Regardless, I find it exhilarating, as much as (if not more than) the sex scenes. The back-and-forth and Watson’s mastery of altering pace adds tension and excitement to a topic in which some readers might not have interest.
This book is intelligent on multiple levels. One of these levels involves Tristan’s and Julian’s names. The name “Tristan” is most famous for the Arthurian romance Tristan and Isolde. “Julian” derives from “Julius”, as does the name of a very famous character in romance fiction: Juliet. I could write an entire essay analyzing the use of those names alone. Of course, not all of the names in this book are that creative. Mia’s last name, Winters, is rather plain. Tristan’s surname, Masters, is almost too much considering his need for dominance and his social station. Still, these names do not detract from the brilliance behind the naming of the two leading males.
Image retrieved from GoodreadsThe intelligence of the novel seeps into the subtext. I could go on and on about how this book plays with Sedgwick’s homoerotic triangle and the utilization of a secret society to complement the main characters’ secret relationships. However, such analysis would take too long and is best left to future posts. My main point is that this book is an intelligent erotica, a niche which is often left unfulfilled. As an intellectual, I’m very pleased to see someone address the hyper-sexual potential hiding beneath every smart person, even if that person is unaware of it or isn’t sexually active.
I could say so much more but I’d rather give you a chance to read the book yourself and start a discussion in the comments section. You can get an electronic copy of the book for free on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited or for $2.99 through Amazon’s regular Kindle store. Also remember to check out Watson’s website for information on The Skeleton Key series and to access her blog.
Do you know of a little-known, up-and-coming, and/or indie writer you think deserves more attention? Let me know in the comments below or drop me a line at email@example.com.