Cecilia Tan has changed the direction of erotica with her stewardship of Circlet Press, her leadership with events like the Fetish Flea, and her own writing. She has raised the bar of erotic literacy through her editing, and as a publisher opened the door to erotica that is highly sensual and sexual but still more than a platform to talk about sex. In addition she has brought about a genuine interest in the execution and advancement of literary style. No other current publisher can make those claims, and few authors have been able to write as well as undertake such achievements.
It’s challenging then to review her work as an author in The Tower and the Tears. To begin with, this novel is a work of erotic play bedded in an array of manufactured magical lore and practice. It is utterly impossible to read The Tower and the Tears without saying, “Wait a minute! This is Harry Potter goes to college…in America…and gets laid a lot more often that he did when he was English, right?”
Such questions are fair given that brooms are raced with rakish élan, spells are cast and the hero tends to ignore the theoretical side of his studies drawing his higher magical understanding from experience itself. He, like Harry, is a chosen one of the gods.
Tan’s hero, Kyle, attends a sort of alternate/clone/wizardry school called Veritas that is the doppelganger of the more pedestrian Harvard. In fact, Harvard gets quite a lot of play in this novel in its two forms as a bastion of crypto-self-importance. One gets the impression that the elect who are admitted to either school can choose which to attend. The Tower and the Tears is the second volume in The Magic University series by Ms. Tan.
For those who don’t know -- if there is anyone who doesn’t -- “veritas” (the Latin word for “truth,”) is the unpretentious motto of Harvard University. So it all fits together…sort of…or as least as much as Harry Potter fits into semi-detached suburban Britain when not playing with his broom at Hogwarts. Tan’s hero is not the Henry V figure that Harry is, which is something of a relief. Kyle does have to deal with a fairly standard apocalypse, which I shall leave to your attentions as a reader.
Tan’s hero occupies a romance novel set at Veritas/Harvard where freshmen are given totems of their magical futures and the careerism starts early. Presumably the muggles at Harvard just get a large wallet, which they are to imagine stuffing.
Ms. Tan’s story is bouncy, sexy and fun. Her commentary is dry, deeply submerged and totally ignorable if you don’t care to get it. In this novel, her characters are a trifle wispy, if not to say papery, not unlike Ms. Kagan who wants a place on the High Court based on never having had a public thought about the law. Who are these people? Who cares?
There are moments in the book where the reader is tempted to snort with disdain:
"They're all virgins, though," Kyle said, not wanting to sound too whiny about it. But part of him didn't want a repeat of the year with Jess; he didn't want to pressure anyone whose virginity might need to be preserved for magical reasons.
Oh please. He’s a guy, right? But it is all a tease. Penetration is not thwarted by the confabulation of prestidigitation as they might say around the Quad at Veritas. Once the fucking gets underway, it is very creatively described giving one an extremely detailed, tasty account of how an orgasm actually gets accomplished. Plus there is all sorts of fucking between and among genders which spices things up. Ms. Tan has thought a great deal and very intensely about the anatomy of sex.
There are moments when we cringe if one more undergraduate expostulates, “By Circe’s tit!” as a measure of their wonder and frustration. Why can’t they have another epithet, or even an oath or two? I guess there are only so many magical goddesses with great boobs. “By Ishtar’s slit!” has some appeal, but nothing works with Astarte I have to admit. A faculty member does say, “Baudelaire’s blood,” which in my view is reaching.
This is very definitely a novel with something for everyone. There is even a faculty member named Professor Hart from the Esoteric Studies Department. He doesn’t say much, and that’s perhaps as it should be.
In the not too distant past, erotica editors bluntly stated that they didn't want to see science fiction or fantasy in submissions to erotica anthologies. Circlet Press was the only publisher supplying it to grateful readers. After a brief - but still too long - silent period, owner Cecilia Tan embraced ebooks, and suddenly Circlet was stronger than ever. (They have some books in print too) Thank goodness. The offerings from Circlet are unique in quality, style, and there's still no better place to get your fix of science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy erotica.
A great example of this is Cecilia Tan's own The Prince's Boy. For you lovers of high fantasy sword and sorcery with an epic battle over the hero's soul (I almost said hole), this is the story for you. Tan knows fantasy fiction. She knows what we love about it, and she knows how to write the genre without ever resorting to anything that reads like standard issue plot line. Sadly, because this is a real bang-for-your-buck offering at around 500 pages, I only had time to read the first volume and four chapters of the second volume (because I couldn't resist), for this review. But I plan to finish it when I have time. That's the power of some damn fine story telling.
Originally published as a serial on Circlet's livejournal (or website), you can now get all the episodes of this story in one (or two) convenient files. Serialized fiction, as Cecilia notes in her preface, is different from reading a standard novel. This isn't like the old time short reel movies, but more like fanfic (fan fiction). And like fanfic, it's slashy (M/M, or male on male), but you know, sometimes, that's exactly what you want to read. (If these terms are confusing you, I'm sorry, but it will take much more space than I have here to explain slash and fanfic. Unfortunately, if you look it up, what you're going to see is a lot of patronizing male prats explaining how women think and feel, and getting it all so horribly, laughably wrong that you'll be left thinking that fanfic or slash are bad things. They aren't. Send me a private email if you want to discuss this further.)
But what's the plot? you may be asking. I feel as if anything I say might give away too much, and part of the joy of fantasy fiction is the story unfolding before you. There's a prince and he has a whipping boy he's grown to love. Unfortunately, a very bad person wants to break them apart and control the prince. There's heartbreak, there's dark sorcery, there's a lot of man on man sex, and there are soldiers. And that's just in the first half! Don't make me tell you more and ruin it.Some readers might be a bit squeamish about the BDSM elements, the torture, and the non-consensual sex. Consider yourself warned, although I didn't think it was too much. The only downside I saw was that because this was a serial, Tan tried to have sex in almost every scene, and after three hundred pages, I was getting a bit milk-fatigued. That may just be me. And that's the tiniest of crits, because overall, I thought this was an excellent high fantasy adventure. As I mentioned before, I still want to read the second half. So thumbs up.
Squee of absolute delight! The Siren and the Sword was such a pleasure to read. I set aside a few hours to read it each day, but devoured it in one sitting.
Kyle arrives at Harvard for an interview but there seem to be more buildings than the campus map shows. He enters the third building, and finds he’s stumbled into a magically cloaked building for Veritas University, which coexists on the Harvard campus unbeknownst to non-magical students, faculty, and staff. The people he first meets are just as astonished at his arrival as he is by their odd behavior. As soon as he signs the guest register though, it’s clear he was meant to attend the school. He makes friends, he meets unpleasant people—you know, like real life. Then a friend is hurt and he tries to figure out why and how while being hampered by his ignorance of the world in which he now lives.
Clearly, this story was written by someone who loves the world of Hogwarts and other magical schools and universities existing in a broad array of fiction. But don’t think this is fan fiction or a ripoff. Like the Harry Potter books, this is about a person raised in the non-magical world having to negotiate the strangeness of a complete universe he never realized existed along with real life challenges such as school, relationships, and finding his own place in the universe, but this university is unique and the characters are no dim reflections of the Hogwarts gang.
One big difference is that these are stories for adults, so there’s honest sexuality. These are college kids, so of course they’re getting it on, and having messy break ups, and not handling jealousy well, and all the other attendant real life sorts of things one experiences as a young adult. What I enjoyed so much about the sex scenes is that they flowed organically in the story. It never felt as if the author said ‘gosh, it’s been two chapters since the last sex scene, so I’ll plug one here.’ And boy, are they are ever hot, made more so in my opinion by the quirk that Kyle’s girlfriend wanted to retain her virginity to increase her magical abilities. They got quite inventive, and the sensuality of the scenes was enhanced by it.
This was such a fun story to read. I didn’t figure out the culprit until they were unmasked, although looking back, it made sense. The writing is crisp and moves along. Not your usual erotica fair, and all that much more enjoyable for it. I strongly recommend this book.