Guest Reviewer Dora emailed me at length about this book, so I asked her to write it up as a review. Not only does it talk about her responses to this particular book, but she hits on something that often bothers me about erotica: unrealistic sexxoring locations and motivations.
The book is Spider-Touched, by Jory Strong, and the back of the book promises you will be in a constant state of arousal. So, you know, no unrealistic or hilarious expectations or anything. This is the second in a series, apparently, but the only thing consistent is the setting. It’s a post-apocalyptic world where said apocalypse was the result of supernatural beings suddenly coming out of hiding, and depending on who you ask, humanity won the war… barely. Things are bad; dirty, dangerous, and very dark. There’s a whole lot of interesting stuff going on we only get to peep at, such as a passing remark about the remains of a certain popular city belonging to the vampires now, or the way people have woven protection against the supernatural into their everyday grim lives.
The story follows Araña, a woman with a mark on her body in the shape of a spider with a mind of its own. Anyone it touches dies instantly, which has not only lead Araña to be branded a demon and driven out of her home, but to be understandably leery about human contact. Since the spider tends to show up anywhere on her person at any time, she can’t even hold hands with her two (and only) close friends. She doesn’t even know what the spider means; is it an entity of its own, or is it, as people seem to think, proof that she herself is a demon? The other half of the coin is Tir, a being who has been imprisoned so long under heavy spell and chain he doesn’t even know what he is… but he knows he’s not human. Which is good, because after centuries of abuse and being sold off to the highest bidder for various purposes, he kind of hates humans a lot. Like, a LOT a lot.
The story starts off interesting enough, as Araña and her friends arrive in a city looking for a healer, and Araña finds herself captured and sent to run in a deadly maze as a spectacle for the wealthy degenerates. The night before, she has a vision of Tir, which doesn’t surprise her; she’s been having visions about people and seeing the threads of their lives for a long time. What does surprise her is when she comes across him shortly after escaping with the help of a new ally, chained and bound along with other supernaturals to their new owner.
Naturally, they must bone.
See, there’s this whole thing where Araña is being aided by this young woman who seems to be on the run herself, and is working with a wereman stuck in human form who is trying to rescue his brother from the very same baddies Araña recently escaped. The other woman, Rebekah, works as a healer in the local brothel, because the prostitutes have nowhere else to turn, and HER bits never get soggy or weep at all when Tir’s around, so I liked her much better. In fact, I liked her better because when Rebekah’s around, the story GETS SHIT DONE; people have conversations about things other than how turned on they are, you meet fascinating and creepy characters, and nobody drips with anything, ANYWHERE. Suddenly, it turns out that Tir’s new would-be owner might have been the church, and since they spend so much time condemning the supernaturals, it’s more than a little shady they were trying to buy one for unknown purposes. It’s like she’s the world’s biggest wet blanket for Araña and Tir, and when she shows up the plot gets back to business. When Jory’s not focusing on trying to play up the nonexistent chemistry between her two cardboard main characters, there’s actually a whole interesting world out there.
The writing itself actually isn’t that bad, despite a frustrating tendency to mistake having every female character get weak-kneed and emotional about anything and everything as an admirable quality in lieu of more character development. Author Jory Strong does a great job of painting a fascinating world you want to learn more about; this world of tomorrow is full of dark alleyways you wouldn’t want to walk yourself, witches who are shunned even by other supernaturals, and special zones where the “gifted” are quarantined… for their own safety, of course. There’s so much given towards great world building and other interesting characters that it can get frustrating when things grind to a halt. Every few pages, the author would go, “OH SHITS THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE ALL EROTIC AND JUNK” and before you know it Tir would look at Araña and his breeches would become laden with whatever, because nothing is sexier than a woman tearfully explaining all the hideous abuse she went through as a child, and then before you know it UNF UNF UNF and then abruptly back to the plot for a chapter or two before the whole squicky cycle begins anew. It’s like the Circle of Life, only dirtier and less tear-jerking.
Despite trying to be an erotic romance, there’s actually very little, y’know, SEX in it. Oh, when Jory gets down to it, there are pages devoted to each scene, but they’re surprisingly few and far between. The rest of the time the “erotic-tude” is limited to discribing how Araña’s ____ (pick your word; Jory Strong runs through them all) begins weeping whenever Tir looks at her or his manhood grows heavy when she’s submissive or touching his nipples. Which she does a lot. Or it’s queerly sandwiched into scenes it shouldn’t be; like, for instance, when Araña begins tearfully telling Tir about the death of those close to her and her near-rape, his response is to question her about it while manhandling her in a very creepy way. The relationship between Araña and Tir is also extremely skewed towards “poor, innocent woman needs big primal man to possess her, feed her bits of dead animal, and juggle her bits whenever she tries to wrap her little head around big concepts.” But, you know, whatever, right? Some people dig the super submissive/super dominant stuff, and if this gets your bits in a bunch, more power to you.
But most insufferable of all, and the thing that knocks this story down from a solid B to a C+ is Araña herself. She can’t go two pages without tears springing to her eyes, or her heart clenching at something, or letting out an uneven breath or GRAR! I think the intent was to portray her as a reluctant heroine, someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy the things she needs to do, but she actually comes across as rather spectacularly wishy-washy and incompetent. This is who I’m supposed to be rooting for? Someone who only seems to succeed by accident and spends all her time either tearing up or getting fondled? Bitch, put down those knives, I am a grouchy video game reviewer and I still know what to do with them BETTER THAN YOU. There is SO little chemistry between herself and Tir apart from what seems entirely superficial; Tir likes her because she’s hot and submissive, and she likes him because he’s hot and can touch her without all that pesky painful death business. There’s no romance and genuine feeling between the two, no common ground or interests, so scenes that are meant to be intense and passionate come off feeling cheap and tacky, like a drunken grope on the dance floor.
This was pretty close to working, and had a lot of good ideas, but just fell short. It feels a lot like someone tried to write a pornographic version of a fantasy novel (like Harriet Porkher and the Sorcerer’s Bone or something) and the plot bits and the sexy bits are just sitting awkwardly in the same room together unable to make anything but smalltalk. With a bit more time and willingness to let the characters and story speak for themselves, Jory Strong would have had a real hit. As it stands, this is an almost-clever book that never gets the chance to roar along with all cylinders firing because it keeps tripping up on all the untidy boners sprouting everywhere. Ew. Might want to get that looked at.