Saturday, November 7, 2015

Beauty's Kingdom, a review

Become Your BodyThis review originally appeared on Amazon.  If you find it useful, please vote Yes on Amazon.  Thanks!)

The book is a work of beauty. Rich cobalt blue with flourishing Rococo design (probably the Bellavalten coat-of-arms), accented by gold lettering. It is a sight to behold. Newly outed erotica fans may not recognize Beauty's Kingdom as an adult novel written for pure sexual pleasure. This is probably because they, as in the case of my co-workers, got into the genre by downloading a surreptitious pdf copy of Shades, with its cold and drab cover design, which they clandestinely read during office hours. Grey fans would be delighted to read The Beauty Series I believe, with its delicious master-slave roles played out by both women and men. The ruler of Bellavalten was a powerful female, Queen Eleanor. Not to say only men become slaves. There are female slaves, too.

I am grateful to receive this hardbound copy of Beauty's Kingdom in exchange for this honest review. Thankful because when the book became available in local bookstores here in the Philippines, there only was the softcover trade paperback editions. I am glad to be an owner of the hardbound edition.

Each Beauty book is not a rehash of its predecessor. In fact it outdoes the last in pushing the limits of sexual exploration and pleasure. Unlike other popular titles of the genre, you won't just find the same old formulaic story told in the other character's point-of-view, as is EL James's reportedly next project, or a gender-switch as in Twilight, which is Meyers's rehashing her own work. I comfort myself with the thought that as long as there'll be newer Roquelaure or Rampling books, Erotica will not lose its potency. I wonder if the book's plot, where Queen Eleanor loses interest in the games and traditions of the kingdom, alludes to the decline of the quality of erotica currently out in the market, albeit the great hype and interest generated by Fifty Shades. Now I can't comment about Shades because I've never read it, only heard about it from friends who did (they don't recommend it, though).

I have not read Punishment and Release yet (books 2 and 3 in this series), and I am glad that back stories are woven ever so smoothly into Beauty's Kingdom for crucial plot points I've missed. Sure, it may come as a spoiler, but these backstories were seamlessly told that it almost felt like my mind was simply trailing back to a memory of a favorite sexual adventure with an ex-lover. Besides, nothing can keep me from reading the previous stories when I get the time for them.

my personal hardcover collection
I wasn't born yet when the first Beauty books were written. Beauty's Kingdom I feel is warmer and more inviting in atmosphere than The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. I think it comes at a very ripe time for readers to accept its ideas. Everywhere there is a sexual awakening. Gay marriage has been legalized in the US, and other South American and European countries. Hate crimes against the LGBT are increasingly condemned. There is a growing acceptance of people coming out and embracing the full spectrum of their sexuality. Labels such as straight, bisexual, homosexual, transgender are just that: labels (none of which are used at all in the Kingdom), and people are beginning to recognize each other as human beings born with dignity in their sexuality, stripped of this sexual categorizing as if to be straight is holier than other orientations. Stigma, although not yet completely eradicated, is losing ground. Even the Westboro Baptist Church is seen for what it is, hypocritical and unloving.

Not that the book advocates slavery. The setting is unmistakably Medieval, with high castles, and references to Oriental rugs, Russian boots, Indian and Ottoman riches. These bring to mind the hustle and bustle of the Silk Road and the thriving trade that is now part of the history of humankind. Beauty's Kingdom is a fantasy world, and obviously fiction. What it does advocate is a growing acceptance of one's physicality and sexuality.

Now, I don't approach the book wanting a philosophy or another view of the world. I go to other books of Anne Rice for that. I come to Beauty's Kingdom seeking pure reading pleasure. And Beauty provides it, not just with the erotic scenes, but with the luscious, voluptuous prose, and its array of delectable characters. Strong-willed, spirited, beautiful characters.Comparing it real quick with Anne Rice's previous novel, Prince Lestat: PL is a thriller, and a page-turner. Beauty's Kingdom gives a thrill of a different sort, and it asks to be read slowly, as if to savor a romantic foreplay—the salt on a lover's neck—or studying the anatomy of a Pony or favorite Slave.

And yet Beauty's Kingdom shows me that at this stage of humanity's sexual evolution there may be no more need for the harsh and rough and grating sexual awakening (such as that Beauty had by way of the Crown Prince's rape of her). Today's society needs less shock tactics and more gentle nudging, a prodding encouragement towards complete sexual awareness and accountability. In this again, A.N. Roquelaure proves herself ahead of our times, speaking about exactly where we are as human beings and pointing us to a realm we can collectively evolve towards, all the while entertaining us sublimely in a rich and robust fantasy world. If you allow it for yourself, it can be an experience of "silent submission—submission to the moment, submission to Beauty, submission to the kingdom, but, more significant, submission to [your] own nature, [your] own soul" (page 228).

My personal way to derive the most pleasure from the book is to assign celebrities with whom I have a crush on as the characters in Beauty's Kingdom. Often I looked with longing at photos of these celebrities and didn't know just how to fantasize. I kept using the same old fetish plots in my head. But now I have the scenes written out for me! That may not be how A.N. Roquelaure intended her readers to enjoy the book. It may also mean deviating from characters' descriptions (such as the celebrities' complexion versus the characters' they portray in my head). But as for details of physique and sexual anatomy, I go with how A.N. Roquelaure's writing described them.

Not that that is the only way to enjoy the book. Take it in any direction as it pleases you. If you care for story, and artful storytelling, for plot and character development, you'll find all of that in the book, too. No shoddy, sloppy, carelessness in the prose here. Details are handled with care, so that this is not crass pornography, but rather an elegant and classy offering. It bears a second, third, fourth rereading for its subtleties and nuances. For example, I love this quote from chapter 8: "When you are a naked pleasure slave, it seems to me, you learn not to be vain, but to reside completely in your physical being." I think that's beautiful, and makes me all the more curious about the characters' psychologies, not just their bodies.

I approach this book with a fantastical playfulness. Even the prose is light and easy. It does not beg to be taken too deeply or seriously. Rather it teasingly invites and beckons the reader into a guiltless fantasy (although rebelling towards an internalized and lingering Catholic guilt can be a certain pleasure in itself).

An important but rather tragic event is told in the first chapter of the book, and it is necessary to propel the plot. That is the only bitter episode, and death is just too real and seemingly out-of-place in a fairy-tale world. Death, as in the Tarot, is not just the signal of an end, but also a new beginning. It comes with its own sweet promise: the return of Laurent and Beauty to Bellavalten, now to serve as the new King and Queen. This is just too delicious! Once priced pleasure slaves, they are now to rule the kingdom. This swing in the roles of master and slave titillates with wonderfully wicked possibilities! Notice that in Bellavalten, the Queen is as powerful as the King, and so I am sure my feminist friends would approve.

How best to describe Beauty's Kingdom? It's like a happy reunion of ex-lovers, sans the drama. It is an enviable parallel universe where sexuality is not repressed but celebrated.

Rice, as a mistress of invention, is famous for turning long accepted literary conventions on its head. Under her masterful imagination, vampires become not just monstrous creatures but tormented souls. Werewolves are heroes and not mere slaves to the Moon. Angels are not quaint figurines but powerful emissaries from a heavenly realm. Witches aren't hags, but tragically beautiful women, powerful and yet helpless to their own fates or appetites.

Now with Beauty and Laurent ruling, Roquelaure shakes up the 'rules' of Bellavalten's world and expands it to limitless possibilities. Throughout the book, these changes are called "improvements," and such they are. If only Anastasia or Grey would sign up for slavery under Beauty and Laurent, they might learn a thing or two about classy erotica. Anne Rice seems to get better and better with each new book she sends out, and this could very well be her best yet.

Oh, had I been born beautiful I would have loved to serve in King Laurent and Queen Beauty's Court! At least, within the pages of this fantasy, I can. Suffice to say it gives motivation to work out daily.

Part I: Twilight of an Old Kingdom, tells of how dominion of Bellavalten is passed on to King Laurent and Queen Beauty. These lead characters make a willful decision, and hold fast to it with iron conviction.

Part II: Welcome to Beauty's Kingdom, where we are given a tour by characters distinctly drawn and nuanced. Some long chapters are divided into sections marked by Roman numerals. Each episode can be read on its own day (or night), as it climaxes and leaves you with a sigh.

There is great intrigue and anticipation at the coming of a key character. All the new characters, lords or slaves, mirror in their own way the strength of conviction and decision that their Monarchs have.

Part III: The Destiny of Queens, wherein through mounting intrigue the many mysteries coursing through the novel are solved. Yet, the explosive last two chapters are real game changers, in a book that has already changed the game for the genre, as they race to a thundering and climactic ending that left me breathless.

Anne Rice often advised aspiring writers to "Go where the pain is; go where the pleasure is." In this book, she shows that Pain and Pleasure are one thing, and that can be the grace that saves you.

Here's my favorite quote from Queen Beauty herself: "One cannot command oneself to love. How blessed we are those of us who do not have to try to do this. And we cannot command ourselves to love one form of loving over another."

When you finish the book you get a sense of what only pleasure slaves know: "The sanctuary of the bedroom, no matter how opulent and protected, was not the great engulfing world of the kingdom. The great world had a way of working itself into any bedchamber outside this kingdom" (page 241).

Beauty's Kingdom as a title is apt, because throughout the pages of this book you'll find nothing but beauty in all shapes, sizes, colors and forms—and startling new meanings and symbolisms. This is erotica excellently executed, and I hope there will be more stories from A.N. Roquelaure (or even from Anne Rampling). A book about the Secret City of Khaharanka, perhaps?

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