The cover of His Slave, His Princess. I wanted you to see it in all it's diamond-encrusted glory. You can buy the book here, at Amazon.com, at least until they start banning the books that made the kindle a success. And believe me, they and other online publishers are working on it.
Ever since the success of Fifty Shades of Grey I've read many comments to the effect that there are many erotic romances that are better than Fifty Shades of Grey. I figured it was mostly bullshit and sour grapes. But after reading “His Slave, His Princess: Collared by the Billionaire Prince” by Tanya Korval, I have had to change my mind.
Writers who deal with bondagelicious sexual fantasies in their stories have a tough line to follow. The fantasies work on a variety of levels, and staying on a level that will entertain and turn on readers is not an easy task.
“His Slave, His Princess” is a book that does a pretty good job of handling the divide, though Korbel sets the story up in slippery lands indeed. Despite the title, the story is set in modern Earth, however, in her modern Earth is the fictional land of Asteria. (Those who have read my review of “The Punishing of Jendri” will recall that it is set in the fictional land of Asperia. I thought I had fucked up, too, but I checked. Interesting coincidence, considering that pseudonyms and concealed identities are common among erotic romance writers. If the next book I review is set in the fictional land of Asleria, I'm gonna call shenanigans!)
Asleria, er, Asperia, er ASTERIA, is small kingdom in central Europe somewhere around France. Asteria is a different sort of European country … all the women in the country are enslaved when they reach 21. They are allowed to pick the man they are enslaved by, but if they can't find a man they like they get enslaved pretty quick, as any woman over the age of 21 without a slave collar on her neck can be claimed by any man just by grabbing her and saying, “You are mine.”
Lucy Snow is a UN translator who has a chance meeting with the crown prince of Asteria at a UN-related party that goes from “hello” to passionate kisses and groping in seconds. The animal magnetism was so intense that it wiped out hard drives for a three block radius of them. Shortly thereafter, Prince Jagor requests that Lucy be assigned as his translator. Although Lucy has been translating French at the UN, she is also prolific in Asterian, as she has a geeky feel for language and was intrigued by Asterian even though it's a very little-used language outside Asteria due to Asteria's extreme insularity.
The US state department is thrilled with the chance to get Lucy installed as Jagor's translator, because Asteria has rich deposits of palladium and they'd like to be a favored customer of Asteria's. Lucy's encouraged to take the job, and a few hours after she accepts, she steps into the Prince's limo, and scant minutes after she steps into the limo, the Prince has her panties off. He's just that dominating, and she's just that submissive.
Jagor and Lucy are soon engaged in a passionate romance, which they must conceal from the public as he is the Prince and People Will Talk. Oh, there are many hindrances to Jagor and Lucy's romance, including plotters intent on overthrowing the Asterian monarchy, a nobelwoman whom everyone had pegged to be the Jagor's princess/slave, and Lucy's misgiving about being a real life slave. The plotting is really well done here. Lots of thrills, action and intrigue mixed in with the romance.
The characterization was strong, but did have a few weaknesses which weren't enough to be a problem for me, just noticeable. At each erotic interlude, Lucy is not sure she can do the kinky and erotic things Jagor wants her to do, at the same time, she is overwhelmed with lustful desire to do it, and does it, much to her pleasure. After the fifth erotic interlude, it feels kinda formulaic. And Prince Jagor is a little too much The Hunky Guy. He's handsome, he's caring (even after he's gotten a collar around Lucy's neck) and he's smart and brave and of course, rich as hell. His character is very much female Sex Fantasy Fuel, even down to having a character flaw that he eventually overcomes (with Lucy's help of course).
That said, one thing I really liked about the book was that Lucy was neither a formulaic damsel in distress nor a formulaic Action Girl. When things get tough and dangerous, Lucy gets going. Furthermore, her bravery isn't manifested unrealistically in an ability to outfight guys twice her size who are trained and experienced fighters, or in developing a sudden ability as a dead shot with a gun, but in ways more suited to her abilities, which nevertheless demand great courage. Lucy is a very well-realized character.
Now let's get back to that tough line that His Slave, His Princess must follow with regard to sexual bondage themes. When you write an erotic romance, you want people to enjoy the sexual elements of your story. Now there are several ways to present these elements in any erotic romance:
1) You can tell a straight-up story of two people engaging in a consensual bondage. That's the route Fifty Shades takes, and I'd call it the safe route, and I'm not saying that disparagingly, you can definitely tell a great story that way. But there's no danger people won't enjoy the sexual scenes, if they are at all well written, since they are clearly consensual.
2) You can have real nonconsensual bondage/slavery as a story element but set it in a distant milieu (in time, like ancient Roman slavegirls, or set on another planet or another world, or a straight up fantasy setting) so that you can have nonconsensual bondage but with an element that reinforces the fictional nature of the sexual bondage. Since the nonconsensual bondage is set in a framework that is clearly fictional, it is sufficiently a product of fantasy that the nonconsensual elements are not so much a problem.
3) You can set it in modern times and have it be nonconsensual bondage. I don't know of a lot of erotic romances that do that, because nonconsensual bondage is not the stuff of romance and is threatening and unhappy-making when set in our current world. For example, imagine writing an erotic romance about Nazi sex slaves circa 1943. Think anyone at that time would have found it romantic – well, anytime, but particularly that time? Of course not, Nazi Germany in those days was straight-up horror. (I know, very few Americans knew of Nazi concentration camps in 1943, but pretend everyone did know all about them.) In a similar faction, a sexual bondage erotic romance set in a South American prison for political prisoners might work for uninformed Americans, but it might not work so well for readers in the South American country the story is set in.
His Slave His Princess takes the fictional milieu route, even though it is set in modern times. The land of Asteria does not exist, we all know that, putting it firmly in a fantasy milieu. If Korval had set the story in a modern country that practices female slavery, or something close to it, like Taliban-era Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, it would rouse all sorts of unpleasant associations from the real world and make the sexual bondage much harder to accept as purely pleasurable.
But the fact that it's set in fictional Asteria makes the semi-nonconsensual bondage easier to accept. And semi-consensual is the right word. It's clear that in Asteria nonconsensual bondage exists – every woman is subject to collaring once she turns 21. But since the women get to pick who collars them prior to coming of age it's more like a peculiar form of dating. (Though it's hard to see how all the women find their true loves, or even a guy who APPROXIMATES a true love, prior to reaching 21.)
What's more, if the relationship goes sour after the woman is collared, she is not divorced but sold at a slave auction, which would result in some nonconsensual bondage. In fact, there are a couple of characters who are in nonconsensual bondage in the story. One is a palace slave that winds up as Lucy's personal maid. The other is a public relations specialist. In both cases the slavery does not seem too onerous, but there ARE differences between being a slave and an employee.
The maid, for example, can be sexually used by any of the palace officers. She does not do the picking, if they want her, they can take her. She is in fact seeing a young palace staffer, and sneaks out of the palace regularly to do so, to her great risk. I don't remember specifically what the punishment might have been, but it was enough to make her sneak out of the palace at night in a laundry cart and risk being smothered.
However, none of the nonconsensual sex was shown, in fact, all of it was Lucy and Jagor steaming up the chains, as the story is told strictly from Lucy's POV. And there are several slaves who were shown who were clearly deeply in love with their masters, or in some cases, master/husbands. So there's that.
The PR specialist seemed no different from a PR specialist on Earth who is dedicated to her job. So as far as the story FEELS, it's very much a consensual BDSM story, even though there is a certain amount of putative nonconsensual slavery present in the story. The nonconsensual stuff just gives an edge to the kink, much as the fact that the sex slavery in John Norman's Gor novels was nonconsensual, but was almost competely offset by the fact that all the slavegirls just LURVED whatever was done to them.
Of course, all works of fiction are fiction, and you can make that defense for enjoying bondage imagery in any fictional work, consensual or not. But I personally find the nonconsensual stuff only a turn on when it's part of a story line that leads to a consensual relationship of some kind. Like the pirate and kidnapped wench that is the basis of so many romance novels, except you know, with more and better kinky sex. Or the Gorean master and his slavegirl he bought at auction just to use, but they develop feelings for one another.
I think most people who read erotic romances are like me in this respect.
Now as to this book being better than Fifty Shades, it's better written. It moves along smoothly and has an engaging plot. You never feel the story lag, as happened quite few times in the first book of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Ana and Lucy are both well-developed and engaging characters whom you enjoy reading about. However Prince Jagor has it WAY over Christian Grey, who's been damaged by childhood mistreatment. Jagor may be too much the Hunky Guy, but his lust for Lucy is simple and straightforward, he wants her as his slavegirl/wife because that's the way he was raised to respond to women, and that's who he is. His direct, natural lust for Lucy is just a lot cleaner and more fun to read about.
His Slave, His Princess is by far the best erotic romance I have read. It isn't the hottest one, however. That honor goes to The Punishment of Jendri, which, while it was not as well written as His Slave, His Princess, was in a fantasy milieu I like better, and had a much stronger feel for the dominance/submission dynamic than His Slave, His Princess. I think this may be a gender thing to a certain extent: I think most female readers would find His Slave His Princess sexier than The Punishment of Jendri, and I think most male readers would fine The Punishment of Jendri the sexier read, and not just because Jendri is pure-D pussy-lickin' lesbianism (though to be fair, that would be an issue too). His Slave His Princess, for all its kinky explicit sex, is very much in the tradition of romance novels, while The Punishment of Jendri is more like porn for guys.
I do think Korval has missed a trick with His Slave, His Princess. I think the Asterian society she has created is fascinating, sort of a mini-Gor on Earth. I think she should set a whole series of books in Asteria, detailing the problems of a small country that has retained government by aristocracy and chattel slavery, to survive in the modern world, and the people in it to find love. There are many more stories to tell in Asteria than the story of Princess Lucy and Prince Jagor, and Korbel is capable of doing a fine job of telling them.
In the meantime, buy this book. It's worth it.
When touring Asteria, the friendly locals will talk to you happily ... if they can! Image source: Public Disgrace.com.