Saturday, May 13, 2017

Queer Smut Reviews - Show Yourself To Me by Xan West

Welcome to the first ever Queer Smut Reviews! Way back in April of 2016 I sort of joked about moving the site to cover solely queer smut. I say sort of joked because this isn't something where I'm like "Queer smut, isn't that ridiculous, haha!" I write queer smut. I read queer smut. I think that it is both important and artful, no less so than the stories that we would call "just" SFF. Which is another reason that I've wanted to look at it, because I do believe that the divide we put up between SFF smut and SFF is largely artificial and harmful.

I'm not going to stand here, though, and defend queer smut's many problems, or be an asshole to ace/aro people for whom the emphasis on relationships and sex is not at all what they want to read. I will say simply that SFF smut has no more or less issues than the rest of SFF but receives a disproportionate amount of derision from all quarters. These complaints are not all without merit, as queer smut is dominated not by concerns about presenting queer relationships accurately or to be affirming for queer readers but rather to cater to the tastes of the readership, which is largely (but certainly not exclusively) white straight ciswomen. Still, there are stories that are being told in SFF smut that are being told no where else, and for people looking for representation not just of sexualities but of sex, smut is one of the very few places to find that.

For me, writing and reading about queer sex has helped me come to terms and make sense of my own identity. First through fanfiction, but more and more through published original works. Again, this is not to knock fanfiction, as it provides a largely anonymous place for people to write all kinds of stories, but I do think that writers should be paid for their work, and I think that part of that means telling and paying for original stories, and seeking out where these stories are being told and sold. Which, in turn, has pushed me to want to start this project, where I will be looking at published SFF romance and erotic romance and erotica short fiction.

My first entry into this feature is looking at three stories from the (oh glod incredibly hot) short fiction collection Show Yourself To Me by Xan West. (and I must say that Corey Alexander aka Xan West, who is a tremendous resource and advocate for writers and queer people in general, is currently in danger of becoming homeless and I hope you will consider helping out here and/or going out and buying this collection). I actually came across the collection from a recommendation from Bogi Tak√°cs (and/or Rose Lemberg) and thought it looked interesting. And, of course, I started reading it in an airport. Now, I'm pretty used to reading sexy-times so doing so in public isn't usually an issue, but wow, let me just say that this collection is steamy! I mean, very much so, and yet the stories also show an awareness and emphasis on consent and care. Let us just say that I had to take numerous breaks to cool down because I CANNOT OVERSTATE THE STEAM!

But anyway, the collection as a whole is not incredibly speculative, but there are three stories that I want to look at that definitely fit the bill. The collection is still very much worth getting, as it is intense and complex and yeah, just really hot, though there are a number of trigger warnings (there is a handy guide in the beginning of the book that goes into that) that readers should be sure not to skip. Anyway, without further ado, the reviews!

"My Will"

This is quite a place to start these reviews, because this is a very intense story and one that doesn't avoid discussing trauma and healing. The main character is a man who has been a submissive before but renounced it because of abuse, because he was manipulated and made a participant in his own annihilation. And in that the story does get into some of the politics of BDSM and why so many depictions of it just...aren't very good. The story recognizes that abuse can dress up like BDSM, and that no community can really be free of the threat of abuse, especially when dealing with people with such intense and socially shunned practices. After meeting a guy at a talk, though, the main character feels that part of himself that wants to submit awaken again, bolstered by the clear ethical lines that both characters draw. That they are able to talk about their philosophies concerning BDSM for a long time and build up a trust is what begins to allow the main character to work through his trauma and allows him to explore himself. Here, that exploration takes the form of a journey of sorts, a transportation through time and space to somewhere else, where he is able to face the specters of his past, where he is able to feel the threat of losing the ability to bottom, to submit fully, and have to accept it, have to drop the armor that he's been wearing since his trauma. There's a vein of chivalry and knighthood in the story that works with the time travel, that shows how his code of conduct draws from this older tradition of service. The sex here is intense and hot and deals with some very heavy themes of non-consent and abuse, while still centering what the main character wants, while allowing him to explore what is his will. At its core I read the story about overcoming abuse and finding the ability to trust, not just another person but yourself. The main character must find a way to be comfortable with himself, to accept this part of himself and move forward with it, or risk always being removed from the world by a thick coat of armor. It's a complex and sensual character deconstruction and reconstruction and an excellent read!

"Willing"

This is a story about blood and hunger, both in the main character and in the boy who is both chosen and chooser. The story begins as focusing on the hunger and needs of the main character, who is definitely dominant and paired in that by being a vampire. Normally able to keep his hunger in check with play from willing participants without actually feeding on their blood, there are times when the hunger won't be mollified and such is the case when he goes to a club to seek out more elusive game. I like how the story brings the idea of the vampire into this BDSM setting without making the vampire any less interested in consent and rules. In many ways that makes sense, too, as vampires are traditionally creatures of rules and order, and to see that reflected in the character is interesting and neat. The story also tackles the idea of the vampire's age and timelessness, and how he's become sure that there isn't really a way around this dance of desire and feeding that he's fallen into. It's a pattern that he's not all that satisfied with, but he also must be careful because if he really lets loose then his secret's out and I'm guessing it's torch and pitchfork time. Of course, he means a transman who's been interested in him for a long time and is willing to journey with the vampire through his need and his fantasies. It's a bit of a dark story, as might be expected for one that deals with knife/blood play but it's also a very sexy piece that never forgets that consent is the sexiest thing of all. For the willing participant, the experience is one about showing strength and the ability to satisfy the vampire completely, and for the vampire the experience is about finding someone who he doesn't have to hold back with. The sex is hot and the ending is sweet and hopeful. The story also does a nice job of showing place and tools as an extension of the user/character. Like the last story, the piece does visit a few different places. Here, though, the places that the vampire brings his boy are all extensions of himself, more powerfully so because he's had them for so long, has spent such time shaping them to himself. His knife, his belt, his room—all of these form an intimate space that he allows his boy not only to enter but to see, an action which shows his trust that goes both ways here. He's taking a risk too, for all that he's not the one at the point of a knife, but the rewards are also great, and it's a fun story that gives a nice update to the vampire story.

"The Tale of Jan and Tam"

This story does wonderful things with the story of Tam Lin. It flits between the perspectives of the two main characters, getting into the thoughts of both Dominant and Submissive. Jan has been a Top because of safety, mostly, but has come to the Bay Area in order to experience something more in keeping with their desires. Tam has a group in the area but is dealing with the prospect of not finding anyone to be with in the way ze wants. Meaning, basically, that Tam wants a Submissive who will help them, who will ground them, who will also reciprocate care and safety. Immediately the two are drawn to each other and the story does a great job showing how negotiations can work, how the focus is so squarely on consent and boundaries and what these people want. The source material is used to great effect because it becomes about transformations and about Jan having to keep Tam tethered to the ground, to the real. There is a danger of both people getting lost, and there is a feeling that for Tam this risk will determine how far they allow hirself to go in the future, that they want to be Dominant but are also looking to be saved. For Jan it's about giving Tam what ze wants while also getting something in return, the pain that they need. And the sex is centered around the crucial moment of the source story, where Tam is transforming and Jan is holding on, helping hir through it all, holding onto hir as ze transforms and finds hir way forward. It's a freeing story for both characters, and a cute piece that explores different needs and different ways to be Dominant and Submissive. There's also a focus on Tam's support network, hir pack and chosen family that help hir through this period. It's a fun piece and a seamless joining of contemporary BDSM and the fairy tale source material. A fantastic read!

And there we are! As I said, the entire collection is very much work checking out for fans of erotica and kink in particular and the stories are incredibly diverse and intense. I mean fuck, yeah. Be sure to check it out and treat yourself! I'll be back in a month or two for more queer smut goodness. If you want to be a part of helping pick what I review next, head over to my Patreon where I'll soon be soliciting suggestions/holding a poll for Patrons. 

Stay Sexy!

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