Story Rating: 4 out of 5 paddles
Sting Factor (kink) 3 out of 5
This was a pleasant surprise of a book.
It’s a romantic and somewhat dark tale set in near-future post-plague Atlanta where the government has decreed that only humans with superior genetics shall be allowed to reproduce. There are differing grades of “quality”, and the lowest of these, “Ambers”, are exiled outside the better part of the city and allowed to have only one child. The Ambers have formed their own culture, its customs created out of the need to support one another. Touching is as common as breathing, sex is freely enjoyed, and cuddle-piles are a way of life. In the midst of their dystopian exile, they’ve made an interpersonal web of beautiful connections. One of the tools they use sometimes is the mingling of pleasure and pain.
Jaci is genetically evaluated and found to have one of the automatic disqualifier genes – one that would potentially lead to a lethal disability for her children. Born a Sapphire, one of the higher grades of human, she’s summarily sterilized and sent to live in the Amber zone as a non-reproducing “fallow.” Culture shock ensues. She’s assigned a roomate, hunky cop Xander, and both of them find their lives complicated when they start to fall for one another. Making things worse, there’s a serial killer murdering fallows, and Xander is the one on the case.
Xander tries to alleviate Jaci’s sorrow with sympathy, cuddling, and pleasure, while also not burdening her with his feelings for her during a difficult time. Jaci struggles to understand Xander’s behavior, and what her place is in the relationship as well as the culture.
When she needs to be taken away from herself, he administers recreational pain, and when she needs to be corrected for doing some incredibly ill-advised things, he punishes her. That’s very hot, even if I do strongly object to the idea that men apparently just. have the right to punish women.
The writing is pretty darn good, far better than average, and my interest never flagged. Both main characters are well-drawn, I think, and are sympathetic, even if they both do boneheadedly stupid things from time to time. The author makes us believe that Xander feels protective of Jaci right away by making us feel for her as well. We believe that Jaci falls for Xander because he really does come across as a great guy. Gentle, kind, comforting, very emotionally strong and also stubborn as hell. I really, really, really liked Xander.
Most of the conflict arises from lack of communication. Jaci and Xander are constantly feeling and thinking things that they do not discuss, or if they do, it’s after it’s caused some sort of unpleasant mishap or misunderstanding. While I actually do think this is pretty realistic under the circumstances (people do really, really stupid things when confronted with sudden feelings, and also when they’ve just been cut off from everything they’ve ever known and have nobody to trust) it happened a lot, and it was rather frustrating after a while. It drove most of the plot, not just parts of it, which bothered me.
And, last of all, it ended abruptly, and there’s at least another book’s worth of story left untold. There is an epilogue on the author’s website, but it mostly had me squealing “NO! NOOOOOOO!”, and did not resolve any of the questions I had. However, there’s another book planned for the series, Being Sapphire. It will follow a different character, but it may at least give us a look at the political situation that is obviously about to freaking explode. (And boy, wouldn’t I love to see the whole corrupt and disgusting system dragged into the light and shredded like a rat’s nest.)
As far as kink goes, this is not harsh. I do want to throw one magnificent thing out there, though. The sex is all wonderfully happy and enthusiastic. It’s rare to see happy, cuddly BDSM, and this is fairly snugglesome. There’s bondage, blindfolding (a bit), toys, flogging, and domination.
The sex is hot. The very first scene with Xander acting as an anonymous birthday present for his best friend’s girlfriend was especially great. The scene where Xander and Jaci finally get it on was extremely hot. I love that there was some play with toys, I always like to see that. And dear freaking god, I didn’t know I had a thing for this, but the scene where he’s got her tied up and tells her she’ll have to learn how to please him, and then plants himself right in front of her and makes her watch him jerk off? That was brief, but so, so hot!
The world building was pretty darn good. Good idea, made chilling by the absolute plausibility of parts of it, and by the obvious parallels to how many people live today. There are some pretty glaring holes, though, and those troubled me. Gay sex is outlawed, which doesn’t make sense to me. (Although we see woman-on-woman sex onscreen . . . so . . . does that count, and if not, why?) Non-potentially-reproducing relationships would be favored in a society discouraging further propagation of undesired elements. If it was the result of asshole moral standards taking firmer root in a time of political turmoil, that would have made sense, that actually happens, but it was never explicitly stated. I find the lack, the erasure, disturbing. It’s briefly addressed but not tackled as a major issue and I feel like it should have been given more stage time, or written out, because it genuinely gives me the creeps. (I’m bisexual, my family of choice is more rainbow than plainbow, so please don’t write us out of the future? It makes us sad pandas.) The same goes for race. Atlanta has a high percentage of nonwhite residents, but this isn’t reflected in the population of the Amber Zone. We’ll come back to that.
People are paired up with roommates so they will always have someone around to help them out and be there for them. These relationships can be platonic cuddly friendships, or extremely sex-heavy relationships. These are always strictly male/female pairings, though, and the idea that a man needs a woman to care for and a woman needs a man to care for her is stressed. It’s depicted as a reciprocal need, it’s handled way, way less grossly than it usually is, but it still rubs me the wrong way. Combined with the no gay sex thing, there’s gender issues here. They aren’t super-objectionable, and they’re smoothly integrated with the world building enough that I didn’t want to stop reading, but I actually find the uniformity upsetting; this is how it works for everyone. This is what people are expected to do.
But given that the Ambers have broken out of the negative myths about hetero sex, and women are shown doing all kinds of jobs, the fact that gender roles in interpersonal relationships are still stuck kind of stands out. Possibly accurate, given that society retreated into itself pretty close to the present day, and people are still complete dicks about it right now, but the insistence on it bugged me. And, last complaint, if they are backwards enough to insist on MAN/woman, and if the government is discriminating against people with actual or potential disabilities, or who are gay, I’d think they’d be discriminating on the basis of race as well, because they’re all on about the same ethical level: very, very stupid and wrong.
I don’t want it to come across as me hating the book. I didn’t. I actually think it was very good, and I want to see more genre-based speculative erotica, whether that’s fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopian. (At least erotica and romance have the vampires and werewolves covered, thankfully.) Part of speculative fiction, though, is exploring the ramifications of your ideas thoroughly, and turning those things back into the story, addressing them, using them. The whole things served as a kind of metaphor for not having a place. For not belonging. For alienation. For the way the established network abandons us, and what supports us in the end is always the people we know and love – friends, sometimes family. And given that, the absence of other outsider groups in a book that is very much social commentary on our own times seems like a missed opportunity.
I recommend it. I think it demonstrates the flexibility of erotica as a genre and its value as a tool for social commentary. On a less dry note, it’s a moving story, it’s entertaining, and the sex is hot.
Reviewed by Naamah