Negotiation can be sexy. That’s one of the main messages I took away from Candace Blevin’s novel Safeword: Arabesque. In some BDSM erotica, dominants and submissives engage in spontaneous scenes without any prior consultation, but Ms. Blevins’ characters invest considerable time and energy discussing their desires, fears, fantasies and limits. Given that the book revolves around a four-person polyamorous relationship, such discussions are clearly necessary. Luckily, they don’t slow down or preempt the action.
To admit one’s interests in kinky practices can be as deliciously scary as actually indulging in the transgressive acts themselves. Even the most matter-of-fact discussion of a planned scene can trigger anticipatory arousal. In Safeword: Arabesque, negotiations cover not only what the submissives are willing and able to accept, but also what the dominants crave. There’s erotic tension in the frequent distance between those two positions. The sub wants to satisfy his or her master. How far is he or she willing to go to accomplish that? The Dom itches to inflict real pain and evoke real tears, but he’s also concerned about the sub’s well-being.
Safeword: Arabesqe does an excellent job articulating these complexities. However, it’s not all talk. The book features numerous and varied sex scenes that range from mild to extreme. Either the author is herself involved in BDSM or else she has really done her research. I encountered several techniques of which I’d previously been unaware.
As noted above, the novel tracks the developing ties among four individuals. Cassie is a psychiatric nurse with no exposure to or prior interest in BDSM. Still, she experiences a queasy sense of arousal when she sees Frisco (whom she knows from her martial arts classes) leading the sexy ballet dancer Cameron on a leash. At the request of their mutual friend Samantha, Frisco gives Cassie a light introduction to the pleasures of submission. Cassie wants more intensity and pain, but Frisco refuses, claiming he only dominates men. Frustrated and hurt, she turns to another dominant, Isaac, for what she needs, only to discover that he has been Frisco’s friend from childhood. Despite his strong attraction to and affection for Cassie, Isaac refuses to top her until Frisco has had the chance to reclaim her.
Meanwhile, Cam’s education as a slave is nearly complete. Frisco plans to find a suitable Master for the accomplished young man, as he has for the other slaves he has trained. Cam confesses his love for his sadistic Master, begging Frisco for the privilege of staying and serving him. Instead, Frisco throws him out, claiming that Cam has violated his training contract. The traumatized Cam moves in with Cassie, who has participated in some of his scenes with Frisco.
As the book progresses, these four characters resolve their internal and external conflicts and explore their true desires. By the end, they’ve become an unconventional family, each member dedicated to caring for, and satisfying the others. Given the differences in their personalities, needs and sexual roles, it’s quite a complicated dance, but the author makes their mutual accommodations believable.
I liked many aspects of this novel. I found the realistic approach to kink a huge relief after the fanciful and inaccurate portrayals one finds in a lot of erotic fiction. I love stories that feature polyamory, which matches my own interests (if not my practice). Some of the sex scenes definitely pushed my buttons, especially those between Frisco and Isaac.
Nevertheless, after more than four hundred and fifty pages, the book left me somewhat unsatisfied. Ms. Blevin’s characters are distinct individuals, not stereotypes, but still the characterization felt superficial. I didn’t feel I really knew any of the four principals. This may partially be a consequence of the frequent shifts in point of view. I’m not talking about “head-hopping”. Each scene is firmly anchored in the view of one character. However, Safeword: Arabeque does not have a focal character. Although we spend more time in Cassie’s and Cam’s head than Frisco’s or Isaac’s, the narrative shifts freely back and forth among the four protagonists. Perhaps the novel was intended to be Cassie’s story; however, it doesn’t really feel that way. Certainly, I did not strongly identify with her.
Furthermore, the novel lacks a well-defined plot progression. As the foursome gradually bonds, it faces various challenges, but there’s no overarching conflict to be resolved, no continuous rise of narrative tension. By half way through the book, the reader understands that Cassie, Cam, Frisco and Isaac will become an emotional and sexual unit. The remaining two hundred pages are episodic, charting the incremental progress toward that ultimate state. Dramatic events like Cassie’s rape do not seem to receive any more emotional emphasis than mundane activities like group dinners. I suspect the short chapters – typically only a few pages long – exacerbate this impression. Rarely if ever does the author create a sustained ramp of emotional intensity.
These criticisms might be literary quibbles. Safeword: Arabesque is competently written and edited, which is more than one can say about many erotic titles in the market today. Readers who choose their erotica based primarily on the sex rather than the language and style will have no complaints about this novel.