No, since you ask, I don’t have a single solitary clue about how one reviews erotic novels. I mean what do I talk about? Three-act structure? The Hero’s Journey? Characterisation?
And that’s not the point anyway; the point is that I’m a grown-ass man and I am getting embarrassed at even thinking about publishing my opinion on a book, purely on the basis of that book being basically 190 A4 pages of graphically articulated, meticulously kinky sex. This alone disqualifies me from saying anything about The Boss; obviously I have yet to gain the emotional maturity required for such an undertaking.
But okay, here’s something I can say: since I’m actually planning on writing a high fantasy half-parody that is also erotica, the premise being that the word “fantasy” has two major connotations in the literary world and that it is somebody’s job to put them together in a fun, not-entirely-serious kind of way, I kinda had to do some research. I made this decision about 5 years ago. About 2 years ago I read Succubus Shadows by Richelle Mead, and since then I have read nothing of the sort since – not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I did.
I am 27 years old. I turn 28 in a couple of months. This is pathetic.
Oh god FINE spoilers ahead and I suppose this definitely counts as NSFW so here’s a “read more” cut … deep breaths, Jason …
So The Boss was kind of a test for me: I wanted to see if there was any conceivable way that I could read erotica, let alone write it, without giggling hysterically and falling on the floor in a smut-induced fit. The answer is a resounding “no”.
But – that’s a good thing. If you can’t laugh about this kinda stuff, then what’s the point? And I mean … it’s hot. There, I said it. The billion or so sex scenes that constitute the majority of this book were pretty awesome. And yes, since you ask, being a straight dude reading a book about a woman discovers she really, really likes being dominated in the bedroom, I do feel like a walking cliche for saying that it was awesome, but there it is.
Also: that’s not why the sex scenes were awesome, though it is awesome that the writer actually knows what she’s talking about with regards to BDSM, as she practices it herself with her husband (that’s on her blog; I’m not trying to out her or anything!). It’s all about context. Sophie, our protagonist, finds that she likes being submissive – to this one particular guy. And only in the bedroom. In fact throughout the story, Sophie’s character arc all deals with the things in her life that she accepts without question, the demands that she submits to in her work for instance – super-demanding boss of the fashion magazine she works for, specifically; yes the book opens with that boss getting replaced by the new one, but the dynamic between them remains fairly central all the way through – and learning to discriminate, pick and choose what she does and does not agree to. The story does end on a cliffhanger – I actually don’t think I’ve eve read a more ridiculously over-the-top cliffhanger, but it worked really well – but just because Sophie’s character development is on-going doesn’t mean it’s unsatisfying. She grows throughout the story, and given that most of the story is about her getting off, the fact that her personal growth felt really solid all the way through made for a very gratifying read.
Yes, there is actual character-development in this book. This was actually a very compelling story; it’s not porn, it’s just a story where sex makes up the majority of the action, the way that social politics make up most of the action in Pride and Prejudice, or romanticising abuse takes up most of the action in Twilight, or filler takes up most of the action in Transformers. [Edit from the future: wow I didn’t talk at all about the plot … thankfully it’s very simple: Sophie slept with a hot guy 6 years ago and now works for a fashion magazine, thinking about that night all the time, none of her boyfriends have ever matched up, etc. Her Devil-Wears-Prada boss gets fired and the new boss is the unreasonably sexy manthing she slept with. Turns out he also still thinks about that night all the time, so the two of them decide to try having casual sex without letting it get in the way of their professional lives. Can they do it? Find out, but mostly find out how much they like fucking each other. That’s pretty much it. And now you know.] The characters are all relatable and human, with some of the side-characters actually seeming more fleshed-out than some of the more central ones. Sophie is just a really solid, well-realised character; like a lot of 24-year-olds she has a lot of post-adolescent baggage still working its way out of her system – not melodramatic angst, but a sense of identity and purpose, knowing who to trust, learning how to trust herself and stand her ground. It’s very universal, but written with full verve and commitment – again, just really solid. I am a fan. And for a book where at least 50% of the prose is devoted to articulating sex positions, hormonal urges and the word “cunt”, I have to take off my hat to Abigail Barnette for using the remaining word-count to keep an actual plot moving, making it feel like it’s actually important even though we all know what we’re here for, and making the characters as engaging, vibrant and well-rounded as they are. Or at least a fucking good imitation of it. Consider me jealous as hell.
The cliffhanger ending doesn’t bother me, but I think that may be because I’ve already committed to finishing the trilogy, whether I’m able to admit that to myself yet or not. Neil, Sophie’s old-enough-to-be-her-dad billionaire Dom boyfriend, is probably the character I found the least realistic, but not because he’s necessarily unreaslitic. I think it’s because we only ever see him – or anybody – from Sophie’s perspective, and she’s smitten with him. Therefore when he does slip up, it works really well; this isn’t a story of two toxic people romanticising each other, but rather two adults with various insecurities trying to make an exciting, impulsive relationship work healthily, as well as either of them are able, and that is where the drama comes from, because both of them are flawed in particular ways. Sophie is very much an I-can-take-care-of-myself kind of person, to the point where she can avoid making important decisions for the sake of avoiding conflict or because it would mean having to rely on somebody else. Neil, on the other hand, is very impulsive underneath his suave exterior, and while he’s compassionate and considerate he is also pretty fucking stupid in a few places, not just because he’s impulsive but because he’s presumptuous. And it all feels real, rather than drama for the sake of drama, and I really dig that.
If I have one complaint … well, I have a couple. The first one probably isn’t very fair, but this is all my opinion: while I did very much get a clear general of what goes into a BDSM relationship – communication, trust and enthusiastic consent, the same thing as any other relationship, on top of which go the safe words and kinky stuff – I knew a bit about it before going into this book anyway, and I don’t think that The Boss necessarily gives non-BDSM folks who might be interested a solid enough grounding to start doing things – but, on the other hand, this isn’t an instruction manual; it’s erotica. I’m willing to let a few things slide a bit – and I do mean a bit – for the sake of titillation, not necessarily because I agree with it but because it’s probably unavoidable in this genre, seeing as it’s all about fantasy to begin with. But having said that …
There is one scene where Neil calls Sophie into his office, tells her to lock the door, and then before she has any clue what’s going on tells her that red means stop, yellow means ease up a bit, and then bends her over his desk and fingers her. (To be fair I don’t think it’s quite that abrupt, but it’s pretty fucking abrupt). Later on – not much later – he concedes that this was very stupid, impulsive and irresponsible of him and he apologises, which was great, but being the moralistic prude that I am I can’t help but worry about some poor soul reading this and finding this whole scenario, the “I just couldn’t help myself” dynamic that the apology doesn’t quite make up for, not just hot, but taking away from it the idea that this is in some way acceptable. Again, this isn’t an instruction manual, and it makes it very clear that his mistake was just that. But given how very good the rest of the book is with framing consent and mutual respect as vitally important, it was disappointing and worrying.
On to the next issue: right at the end, when Sophie is doing a pregnancy test – she and Neil have unprotected sex when he comes over to her apartment, while he’s drunk and she’s high and neither of them are in the right state of mind to be having sex to begin with – her roommate Holli’s girlfriend Deja just kinda casually mentions that she also had a pregnancy scare once, and … well, just read it:
“I had an abortion.” Deja shrugged, her wide eyes bouncing between me and Holli. “What? It’s no big deal. I was at a party, I’m pretty sure someone put shit in my drink, and then next morning I’d woken up and I’d had sex with this guy.”
“That’s not sex,” Holli said gently. “That sounds more like you got roofied and raped.”
“I know,” she said, looking slightly embarrassed. “And I’ll talk to you about it later. This isn’t the rape conversation, it’s the Sophie is pregnant conversation. I’m trying not to steal her thunder.”
And then the rest of the book goes on as though she’d never said anything, in the way the things side-characters say are quite often treated in books, because they’re not the main focus. But that is a hell of a thing to put in a book only to pretty much completely ignore it. And that’s the problem; it’s just ignored. Not even brushed off by Sophie, something along the lines of her thinking “well that’s horrible, but right now I cannot focus on anything other than the fact that I might be pregnant and I don’t know whether my boyfriend/the father will want it or if I have to consult him or” etc.; that would make total sense. I totally understand why it’s not the focus – this is Sophie’s story, and as such her experiences take centre-stage. But it wasn’t brushed past. It was ignored.
So my problem is Sophie, basically. I was a bit startled with how, for lack of a better word, casually Deja brought up her own experience of rape (not trying to “steal her thunder”? Yeah, that I’m not a fan of), but it is Deja’s experience, and as such she gets to talk about/frame it however she wants. I say that fully aware that she is in fact a fictional character and not an actual person talking about an actual thing that happened; while the “not trying to steal her thunder” line really did bother me in that regard, the credibility of this book and its characters is what I really dig about it, and this conversation is included in that. This is another conversation and situation in this book that I can imagine happening in real life (not that my being able to imagine it happening in real life makes it any more or less credible or valid), and I liked that it wasn’t a huge melodramatic let’s-pile-on-the-angst device. But in saying that, it almost had the opposite problem: it was not treated as seriously as it should have been, should not have been skipped past as though it was the same as any other kind of passing supporting-cast flavour dialogue, because that’s the kind of dismissive, exploitative bullshit that Bitten pulled, and … just … no. No more of that.
The formatting is also a bit annoying – I read this as a PDF and maybe that’s why, but there are some parts where the characters speaking changes within the same paragraph, and it’s quite confusing. There’s a bit right near the end that make me want to pull my hair out, just on principle. It bothers me. Not a deal-breaker or anything, but I really do hope it was just because it was a PDF.
The final, biggest thing I didn’t like was Neil. Gotta be honest. He is a pretty great character, and I really like the specific insecurities that he has – basically he’s a very emotional man wrapped up in suave British (read: William Darcy English) packaging – but I don’t like him. To be fair, the things that I don’t like about him are things that I’m not supposed to like about him. The first time he and Sophie meet, 6 years prior to the start of the book, they end up sleeping together. That’s not the bit that bothers me. The bit that bothers me is that she tells him about how she’s flying to Tokyo in the morning to pursue a journalism job, and the next morning she wakes up to find him gone – along with her plane ticket, with some money left behind and a note, telling her that he hopes she won’t go to Tokyo, even though he left her enough money to do so if she wanted to, because she’s so young and has her whole life ahead of her and is making a bad decision, listen to the grown-up. She ends up staying in New York and getting a job there instead, but the fact that he had the presumption to do such a thing rubbed me the wrong way right from the start (and no, she’s not happy about it either, and it makes the crush she has on him for the following 6 years all the more infuriating for her).
Then at the end of the book he essentially ends up making another huge, life-changing decision on her behalf without consulting her, without trusting her judgment, completely undermining her and treating her like his intellectual inferior – treating her like the impulsive teenager he met 6 years ago (which he didn’t know until later; she lied about her age when they first met, so at least he wasn’t intentionally hooking up with a teenager while in his 40s). To be fair, he is drugged-up in an emergency room at the time, but it’s so similar, and just so fucking infuriating. I felt every bit of Sophie’s indignation and distress, and it was a fantastic way to end the book. And, again, it’s meant to be a bad thing; I’m meant to not like this side of him, and it’s very clear that he’s being an asshole from the way the book is written. So that’s not my problem. My problem is that I’m so put off by Neil being the way he is that I just can’t quite bring myself to root for him and Sophie to get together. This is offset somewhat by liking Sophie enough that I just want her to be happy and oh god I’ve become a fucking fanboy, what have I done, let’s end this review before I lose the rest of my dignity …
But no, seriously, The Boss was a hell of a lot of fun, and I could stand to learn a few things from it when it comes to handling side-characters, making them just interesting and compelling enough that they are fun to be with, but not so fascinating that they distract from the rest of the story – and most of all, how well-rounded all the characters seem, even though we don’t really get to learn very much about most of them. For the most part, when something happens in this story, it actually matters, has consequences and follow-through, and as such everything feels solid, connected, coherent and satisfying. It is a huge shame that it dropped the ball with Deja’s rushed-past rape story, though. I hope the other two books make up for it.
And I’m definitely going to read them. I don’t know when, but it’s going to happen, and I’ll probably write equally self-conscious reviews of them when the time comes. If it wasn’t clear enough already, I definitely recommend this to anybody looking for a bit of smut to kill a few hours with; the smut is great if you’re up for exploring the D/s dynamic (I have no idea how this reads if you’re already part of the scene), and the rest of it is surprisingly, refreshingly compelling. Or maybe only “refreshing” because for the past year or so I have been reading the most inane schlock I could get my hands on. Intentionally. I have nobody to blame but myself on that front.
I guess I find willing submission to mild torture more appealing than I thought. No wonder I like this book.