Phoenix and Dragon by Suz deMello
Sting factor (kink): 3 out of 5
In order to find a missing woman, Detective Liz Bowman hands herself over to notorious gangster and whore master James Li. She makes a bargain with him: she gives herself to him until the end of the week, he tells her what she knows. Li is ravenously sexual with some . . . interesting needs. He also employs some unorthodox methods of keeping his new sex slave in line.
It’s a simple, solid plot with opportunities for lots of smoldering, kinky sex that ought to have been rocket fuel. It just didn’t ignite anything but the fires of smoldering rage. We’ll get to that, but first, I really want to talk about what it did well.
First, kudos for Ms. de Mello for writing a book with a biracial lead and an Asian love interest. There isn’t enough variety in the genre, so this made me really happy. There were, in fact, very few white characters in the book at all. Refreshing.
There’s a lot of kinky sex here – lots of anal, some mild breast and clit torture, a little fun with a riding crop, a little spanking,some group fucking, a little bondage, some blindfolding, and a lot of being controlled and treated like a sex object. She also works in a little figging, which, despite its non-euphonious name, is always a nice surprise. (Figging, in case you have never looked into it, is applying raw, peeled ginger root to some of the more . . . sensitive parts of the anatomy, and it’s great stuff.) As far as the BDSM stuff goes, de Mello is really quite creative, and the kinky bits are never repetitive. I liked what was happening, even if the writing wasn’t great line by line.
My major problem is that the main character, Liz Bowman, doesn’t act like a cop. She doesn’t think things through at all, she’s far too easily cowed, and she is entirely too sanguine about Li’s possessive and increasingly creepy behavior.
She’s a lady cop in San Francisco. Someone like Bowman would not have made it out of the academy. Her interesting back story is not enough to convince us that she’s a tough woman, because we never actually see her acting tough, physically or emotionally. Even at the end, where the action happens, she’s not the one laying the smack down. It’s Li.
Second, James Li is hot and he’s compelling, but man, his behavior was creepy, and the fact that she totally accepted it, as though it didn’t even occur to her that it was wrong and damaging, was disturbing. Seeing this behavior rewarded with the genuine affection of a very sexy woman was even more disturbing.
And then there’s the social issues.
A lot of it is little bits in the internal monologue that are judgy or slut-shaming. At first, I blamed the character. “What is her problem?” But it kept going, and I started to wonder if it was the author.
Maybe in another context I’d have said “Hey, maybe the writer didn’t know that ‘she-male’ is an offensive term for a transgendered person, so I’ll bring it up but won’t get too angry,” but I got the feeling that it was there not to be colorful or inclusive, it was just there to be freak show set-dressing. If it was there to be colorful and inclusive, it failed. There were also pervasive, subtle, fucked-up ideas about sex workers here, too, which I found unwelcome and unfair. If the reader cannot tell whether it’s the character who has the attitude problem or the writer, that’s not good. And either way, sympathy evaporates rapidly. I ended this book angry, and required rum and cherries to console me.
And, finally, SPOILER ALERT:
The woman she’s looking for was abducted, and from her witness statement, she woke up being raped – this word is explicitly used. She was then, under threat of death, told she had to work as a prostitute for the guy who abducted her.
Good thing the police show up to get her out of that mess,right?
No, she apparently is totally okay with this. And the cops just let this go. She’s happy there, we’ll leave her with her captors. We don’t even see her explain this personally, which might have made me believe it, it’s just relayed to us as an afterthought.
I realize that in the real world travesties of justice happen every day and that what should be an honorable profession is peopled with utter assholes, just like any other profession, but this is not the sort of thing that should be allowed to happen without remark in fiction. Especially not erotic, romantic fiction, which is primarily marketed to women and which, in this case, was written by a woman and from a woman’s point of view. I say that as someone who doesn’t actually object to rape scenes in principle. Even if it had been done as part of an effort to depict the unfair, gritty ugliness of the city’s seamy underbelly, a la Sin City, well, I still would have been grossed out, but this didn’t even have the virtue of acknowledging its own ickiness.
I hate being hard on a book that was so good in places, I really do, but the issues it raised were just too much for me, and I can’t in good conscience recommend it. This author can do better, and so can you.
Reviewed by Naamah