Sometimes, reading a book makes you rage and scream. Other times, it is so bafflingly offensive and odd that you keep reading just to make sure you aren’t drawing the wrong conclusion.
This is one of those times. This book rant comes from Cate Marsden, and y’all really need to read this.
Okay, I will straight up admit that I bought Beyond Desire for the cover.
LOOK at that cover.
I needed to know where that was going.
Victorian England? Was not where I thought that was going. Go back and look at that cover again, seriously.
So the story starts with hero, Ryder Culhane, having flashbacks to his Oirish childhood of poverty and abuse. In the present day he has a mysterious “knowing” which allows him to make a living assisting archeologists, because that is a viable career option if you are a psychic Irishman in a romance novel of this kind.
I have to pause to warn you that archeology is presented in this book as part treasure hunt and part Noble Mission to Defeat Evil Cults. I tried sharing bits with people I know who have done actual degrees and fieldwork, and I think at least one of them is still in tears. So there’s that.
Our heroine, Alexandra deLisle, is having trouble with her younger sister, Allegra. Allegra sleepwalks at night, tearing their deceased archeologist father’s study apart in search of a set of stone bracelets that he brought home from the plains of Allekah. Sir Arthur Hadenham, the head of the British Imperial Museum, wants to buy the bracelets, even though when their father was alive Sir Arthur thought they were fake. Allegra, who stomps around pouting and accusing Alexandra of being her jailer, wants to sell them.
Allegra is misinformed about prison, because actual jailers do not let you sneak off all the time to hang out with the sinister next-door neighbour. There’s a bit of a Creepy Race Thing going on with the neighbour, because he’s from the vague-middle-east and is 1) the villain and 2) obsessed with the heroine/her sister’s white asses. I mean that literally, but we’ll get to that part later. For now you just need to know that Alexandra is suspicious of him, but for some reason is powerless to stop Allegra from seeing him even though there was a creepy incident back when Allegra was fourteen and he was taking semi-nude photos of her.
The neighbour, Dzmura, throws the creepiest dinner party ever for Allegra, Alexandra, and Culhane. There’s a lot of blather about good and evil, and how a religion could be based on worshipping evil rather than good, and he leers at Allegra. He’s a treasure hunter/archeologist too, and Culhane has worked for him.
That night Alexandra wakes up to find Allegra has vanished. Culhane, who crashed at Dzmura’s place, wakes up to find him gone as well. So Culhane decides to go after him, only Alexandra makes him take her along too by refusing to give him the bracelets, which he needs for reasons. Reasons that never made sense to me first or last, I’ll admit. They aren’t real artifacts, they’re fake ones Alexandra’s father made up, which eventually lead to the Evil Cult’s Lair. I don’t know.
So since the bracelets are vitally important to his quest to save her sister’s life, Alexandra refuses to give them to him unless he takes her along to the middle east. He agrees, but only on the condition that she becomes his odalisque. I had to Google that. It’s a female slave or concubine. She’s agreeing to be his sex slave, you guys.
If you’re keeping track, so far the Bad Guy has enslaved one sister and the Good Guy has enslaved the other one. The Bad Guy has been grooming the younger sister for sex, and the Good Guy coerces the older sister for sex. The Bad Guy kills people in an effort to prevent the Good Guy from tracking him down and killing him and everyone in his household.
So what exactly, you might wonder, determines which one IS the Bad Guy?
The book provides an easy answer: The Bad Guy likes anal sex.
I’ve seen this before in Old School romances, and it’s never made a whole lot of sense as a shorthand for “this guy is evil,” but it’s taken to glorious new heights (depths?) in this one because he has an Anal Harem.
Let me repeat that: he has an entire harem of women (and at least one manservant) who are there specifically for anal sex.
There’s a whole lot of homophobia embedded there, and the heroine dwells a lot on her sister’s boyish figure, and later tries to throttle some other woman in the harem while insulting her boyish figure. Plus, you know, there’s an actual scene where Dzmura is shown lying next to a guy looking all post-coital. It made me grind my teeth a little. But it was also pretty damned funny.
Also, I spent two whole days thinking “anal harem” was a 60s band before working out that 1) that was actually Procol Harum and 2) Hey, this book should have been called A Whiter Shade of Tail.
Because it is also one of those books where the Bad Guy is, as I’ve said, middle eastern and cannot get enough of the heroine’s tail — or actually her sister’s, but he wants the heroine’s too. Badly enough that he kidnaps her, and installs her in the Anal Harem.
Then when he can’t rape her (because she laughs at his strap-on, causing his actual Spear of Love to wilt) he makes her yell and moan and whatever while he has sex with someone else. This happens at least twice, and once the other woman is her sister, which should have been awful but was just hilarious and stupid because WHO DOES THAT? Who gets a woman to fake sex noises so people outside the room will believe he’s had her?
I feel like I should spend more time on Culhane and Alexandra, since they are the hero and heroine, but mostly all they do is travel across the middle east having confusing sex. I’m not kidding. This book falls smack in the middle between “don’t describe sex” and “describe sex accurately,” so it’s all purple prose and vague explosions. I pity anyone who tried to learn about sex from this book.
“A stream of molten silver slid down her veins to her ripe velvet core, and she levered upwards to meet it.” (p. 146)
Okay then. I can’t even tell for sure whether that’s a sex scene or she’s shooting heroin.
I’m trying to keep this simple, but I can’t express the sheer confusing craziness without mentioning that there are THREE sets of super secret ancient stone bracelets: the ones Allegra wanted to sell; a second more-or-less identical set which Culhane finds in a secret wall safe in their house on the night Allegra runs away with Dzmura; and a third set they find at the British Legation House in whatever country Allekah is supposed to be in.
At one point there’s a stunning revelation that they aren’t bracelets at all, but parts of a set of candlesticks. I had to put the book down and laugh hysterically for a while. Then all three sets turn out to be fakes made by Alexandra’s father to lead them to the headquarters of the leader of the evil cult.
Couldn’t he just stick up a wall map with “evil cult is here” on it? Waiting for someone with a broken set of Ikea candlesticks to eventually go to the last place you were archeology-ing at is not an efficient means of communication.
Then Alexandra gets kidnapped for the Anal Harem, and Culhane uses the bracelets to decode (?) a message left by her father, revealing the location of the Anal Harem. Because Dzmura is the evil cult leader, you see. Culhane burns the place down, killing who knows how many people, and rescues Alexandra and (temporarily) Allegra. Allegra is really, really angry at being rescued from her life of anal sex. And I mean: they just tracked down her lover and killed him. I would be fully on her side, except the fact that he’s been grooming her for years is horrible.
Culhane is also angry, because — wait for it — he thinks Alexandra might have had sex while she was kidnapped and held against her will in a harem. And this is INFURIATING, not just for all the things obviously wrong with that, but because all through this damned book he’s been psychic. Sometimes he reads her mind; sometimes he reads Dzmura’s mind, or the minds of Dzmura’s henchmen. But now, just so that can have this stupid argument and sulk and she can return to England without him, he can’t tell what happened.
Then everything happens all at once: Sir Arthur Hadenham is at Dzmura’s house, because he is the new head of the evil cult. Culhane is there, and Allegra is going to shoot him and Alexandra, but instead Allegra gets shot by Culhane’s manservant, who then ALSO turns out to evil, so Alexandra shoots him, and then the house burns down.
Yes, poor Allegra dies. It’s actually fairly awful. I mean, she’s written to be whiney and a bit delusional, so I couldn’t actually LIKE her, but then she gets killed for being the servant/brainwashed victim/whatever of New Evil Cult Leader, and I was all “…oh my God.”
It also makes the whole impetus of the “plot” (“Sure, I’ll be your sex slave as long as I can help RESCUE MY SISTER”) suddenly just disappear:
“She is with him now,” Alexandra whispered. “They shared the same fate.” (p.440)
Which is pretty horrible given it starts off as an adventure story with the goal of saving her sister.
Alexandra agrees to be Culhane’s odalisque again, and he’s okay with her now even though they haven’t sorted out any of the issues like, oh, him blaming her for being raped even though she was never in fact raped. It’s a happy ending, because coercive sex is fine when the hero does it, as long as it’s not anal I guess. The end.
It’s an absolute trainwreck, but it was hugely entertaining. The Anal Harem and Dzmura’s huge rubber strap-on are unforgettable. Like, “I will need therapy to get over this” levels of unforgettable.
Also in its favour: Alexandra really, truly, enthusiastically likes sex (once Culhane has coerced her into it. Ugh), at one point fantasizing about having her own harem of ten men.
Plus the confusing sex scenes were hot, at least insofar as I could understand what was happening.
Aside from the Anal Harem, what stays with me from this book is a faint sense that I’ve been reading something in code. The text is littered with tropes that feel like a kind of shorthand: a preference for anal sex means he’s evil; a foreign setting means sex outside marriage is okay; enjoying (vaginal) sex with the hero proves he actually is the hero. The tropes aren’t just tropes, they’re also metaphors, and unfortunately I think you had to have read this in the time it was written to fully understand them.
But that Anal Harem? Yeah, that’s the kind of timeless total insanity that’ll live on forever.