Friday, 7 December 2012

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty: A Review

The book is described as retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. ‘Retelling’ is a loose description, since the events of the story in fact take place after Sleeping Beauty has been awoken.

My use of the word ‘story’ is also necessarily loose. Does the book have a story? I can’t say I actually noticed one in amongst the gratuitous sex, violence and depravity, and I was, in fact, looking very hard! The main character has no goal I could discern, unless it is to please her new masters, and that is not an especially hard goal to achieve. A goal of escaping would be readily understood and easy to relate, but the thought does not even cross the idiotic girl’s mind. There is no real conflict. 

The story, such as it is, is that Sleeping Beauty is awakened not by a kiss, but by rape. I’ll say it, although the book avoids use of the word until page 84 or something like, but I call a spade a spade, and it’s rape. The Prince who awakens her comes from a kingdom that appears to be feared, for the newly awakened parents of Sleeping Beauty readily accede to the Prince taking away their only daughter – after he parades her naked and gropes her in front of them. I have difficulty conceiving the father who would have tolerated this in front of his very eyes, no matter how much he felt he owed the man who’d broken his enchantment. 

Taken from her home, Beauty is introduced to a society where many Princes and Princesses are sent as ‘tribute’. These Princes and Princesses are kept naked, abused, humiliated, and mistreated in the grossest way imaginable. 

The book is touted as BDSM, but I call foul – this is a grossly misleading statement. BDSM is a consensual sexual activity between adults, at least one of whom is usually submissive and takes pleasure in being so, and at least one who is usually dominant and takes pleasure in being so. True BDSM relationships are characterised by a surprising amount of power resting in the hands of the submissive, who possesses the power to stop proceedings by use of the ‘safety’ word. 

What occurs in the Court of the Prince is not consensual, and we have another word for activities that would have been BDSM if only they were consensual, and that word is torture. The activities are imposed by the will of the captors on the helpless captives, and comprise torture of the most humiliating and debilitating kind, designed to break the spirit and turn a human being into some kind of malleable dough that can be reshaped as the torturer desires, into a willing slave, desperate to please, with no thought or concern for themselves. If you were to transpose any member of the Court of this Kingdom into the TV show, Criminal Minds, they would be the most despicable kind of psychopath, kidnapping women and torturing them into compliance – most definitely the unsub!

I’ve read Kushiel’s Dart, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty only infuriated and sickened me. I distinguish the two books on this basis – Phedre, the protagonist of Kushiel’s Dart, is touched by the gods, and derives genuine pleasure from her own pain, and enters into liaisons consensually of her own free will and possesses the ability to cease proceedings by use of her signalle. The activities embodied in Kushiel’s Dart are in fact BDSM. On the odd occasion that Phedre endured actual torture, rather than consensual BDSM, and despised her body’s own response, it was a sacrifice she voluntarily made for the lives of others. 

The perverted relationship between Mord-Sith and 'pet'
of which this book reminds me
By contrast, the slaves of the Court do not consent to proceedings, have no power to stop the abuse by use of a safety word, and do not naturally derive pleasure from their pain – rather, they are conditioned to never feel pleasure without pain, thus forcing the brain to form associations between the two (much the same way Valerian House in Kushiel’s Dart trains its initiatives, except Valerian does not humiliate and break its adepts). Eventually the pain-pleasure sensations become so closely entwined, the captives experience a sexual response to the infliction of pain. 

It is difficult for me to say where the story goes after Beauty is brought to Court – it doesn’t really go anywhere. The book becomes nothing but a long progression of physical and sexual abuse, rape, and deliberately degrading and humiliating activities. Beauty is kept naked, raped, forced to unclothe her master and perform other tasks with her teeth, to perform sexual acts on her master and other people, kept on hands and knees, spanked and physically abused in other ways, tied up as an adornment, and driven like a horse. Although a multitude of ways are invented to punish her, they vary little in substance, and most consisted of some kind of spanking. I am now heartily bored of spanking, to the point where the production of another paddle produced an eye roll and a stifled yawn. 

I didn’t relate to, or like, any of the characters in the book. So far as Beauty goes, I have no idea what her character was before her enslavement by the Prince, and she breaks to his will so quickly I almost despise her weakness. She scurries to obey after only being paraded naked and spanked a few times, and never once does the thought of escape cross her mind. I concede escape may not have been feasible, nor an attempt wise, but she doesn’t even think about the matter enough to draw any such conclusions! She says only nothing can save her, even though she’s not tried to save herself. 

Other characters describe Beauty as rebellious, or graceful and dignified under pressure, yet all I see is a frightened girl desperate for approval, scurrying to escape a spanking with tears down her face. There is nothing of dignity about the character that I can discern, and certainly nothing rebellious! Whatever it is these other characters see, it has not been adequately communicated to us, as indeed the case with many of Beauty’s emotions – she says she feels certain things, but I am not feeling them with her. This may be due to significant use of passive language and ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’. 

But at least Mord-Sith
acknowledge what they do is torture...
The Prince, his mother the Queen, and the Court are cruel and cold-hearted. They describe the slavery as ‘providing perspective’ and ‘understanding’ to the slaves, and yet none of them are subjected to such treatment, or would even consider it necessary, and the hypocrisy revolts me. This is not an improvement process, but a justification for deriving their own pleasure. 

Twice the book put me in mind of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, and not in a good way. The Court’s philosophies on slaves remind me of Jagang’s theories within the Old Kingdom – people should have no personal pride, and should serve the good of the people with no sense of self, a principle which of course did not apply to Jagang and similarly does not apply to the people of the Court. This was a revolting philosophy in that book, but no one pretended otherwise – the quest was to destroy Jagang and his way of life. Here it is accepted, lauded, embraced by all members of the kingdom, right down to the common people. Everyone seems to be depraved, and I have yet to meet a character who had much in the way of common decency, because even the slaves are recruited into degrading and mistreating each other.   

The second instance is that the members of the Court remind me of the Mord-Sith, pushing, and poking, and prodding, humiliating, and degrading, and hurting their slaves until they break, and once broken, become malleable and compliant. The Mord-Sith at least have the excuse of having been taken and tortured and trained as girls in exactly the same way they now train their pets. The members of the Court have no excuse, and commit the same gross injustices in nothing but the name of their own pleasure and amusement.   

My main issue with the book is that it appears to be nothing but a recounting of the grossest forms of abuse against humanity for gratuitous purposes, and the book attempts to pass this off as legitimate BDSM when it is anything but, and an exploration of the human psychology of seduction and desire, when I’m not seeing a lot of seduction, only a lot of cruelty. I support the consensual ideology of BDSM, but when you take away a person’s free will, subjugate them, abuse them, and rape them, it’s nothing but torture.

Other nitpicks with the book included:

  • Excessive use of telling and passive language;
  • Cliches – the spilling of blood on the taking of virginity is such a cliché. It in fact only happens in less than half of all cases. What I wouldn’t give for a book where having sex with a virgin produces no blood!
  • Inaccuracies – early in the book the Prince causes Beauty to ejaculate. I have difficulty accepting this. Female ejaculation is little understood even in this modern age, but it’s generally accepted it requires a comfortable, relaxed woman for the process to take place. Rape and abuse are hardly conducive to creating that outcome. I also struggle to believe so many tasks can be performed with only the teeth. Ever tried to carry a boot any distance in your teeth?
  • Internal thoughts are written identically to dialogue, sometimes creating confusion as to whether something is spoken aloud or only thought;
  • Infodumping – one character, Prince Alexi, tells his tale of abuse and humiliation over what seemed liked three long chapters. Yawn. Also, I suspect any man who was forcibly sodomised so many times by so many men and so many improvised implements in such a short period of time would almost certainly have sustained internal injuries resulting in death!

In short, the book sickened me, made me furiously angry, and otherwise largely bored me. The erotic scenes were repetitive and lacking in imagination, and the books lacks relateable characters, conflict, tension, or basically anything interesting beyond the abuse of fellow humans.

It ended with Beauty about to be shipped off to some even worse torture than had already been inflicted upon her (this time at her own instigation) and I honestly can’t say I’m inclined to read the sequel. 

No, wait – there is one scenario in which I would read the sequel. If every member of the Court (and possibly the castle) was stripped naked, covered in honey, and staked out over an anthill! Failing that, maybe if Richard Rahl came along and lopped off all their heads. 

Yeah, Richard, off with all their heads!

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Dionne Lister said...

You are so detailed in your derision. Well done! My review was so short but that's fine because you said everything that needed to be said. What a thorough review! lol.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Yes, it clearly doesn't pay to piss me off LOL. This is maybe a little too long to post on Goodreads though!

Anja Rebekka Schultze said...

Thank you for this very detailed review. I agree with the criticism about the technical quality of he book, however when it comes to BDSM, actually allot of us kinksters like these books, now off course this is not a realistic depiction of BDSM, nor something we see as right, moral or desirable, however for many it is a good fantasy. You see while our real lives are based around consensual activities, that do not mean many of us do not like to fantasize about something else now and again, without that meaning we want to experience it in real life. I like to read the Gor books and fantasize about being kidnapped and raped and abused by tall, handsome aliens, I like to read the Wheel of Time books and fantasize about being captured by a Sul'Dam, hell I even read Sword of Truth and fantasize about being taken as a Mord-Sith pet. That however do not mean that I really want to have a non consensual relationship and be tortured and abused, I want to be in a mutually benefit, consensual, warm and loving BDSM relationship and I am, however that do not mean I do not at time fantasize about being just manhandled and used and the Beauty books speaks to those fantasies, I do not think Rice tries to present the books as a real representation of the BDSM community, and as such the rape and abuse in the books do not bother me, they are meant as bedside reading for kinksters and nothing more.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thanks for your comment, that's interesting to know!

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