When I finished reading Misbehaving by Tiffany Reisz, I immediately picked up the first book in her Original Sinners series, The Siren. I knew going in that The Siren was erotica, not romance, but I didn’t expect what I got. The series centers around a world-famous dominatrix and Switch, Nora, and the men in her life: Zach, her frosty, British editor; Wesley, her nineteen-year-old, virgin intern; and Søren, her Dom.
The Siren is surprisingly light on sex, but heavy on kink, and it’s the most detailed look into S&M I’ve ever read. It’s also sharp and smart, and incredibly well-written. I normally don't read a lot of books about S&M because generally I don't like reading about people in pain. I like steamy contemporaries that feature some spanking or submission (like Rush by Maya Banks) but hardcore pain is typically not my thing. I really liked this book, though. It was like a potato chip book for me. I couldn't stop at The Siren. I read The Angel ( A | BN | K | ARe ) and The Prince ( A | BN | K | ARe ) immediately after in one big bleary-eyed kink fest. I stopped reading at 3 a.m. because I loved the characters.
The book opens with Nora at a crossroads. She’s been writing erotica and is in the process of switching publishing houses. Zach isn’t thrilled at being Nora’s editor. He doesn’t have a great opinion of erotica, and he’s generally got his panties in a knot. He’s also depressed following the separation from his wife. When he actually meets Nora, he’s intrigued by both her sassy mouth and her ducky pajamas. They make a deal that Zach can ride her as hard as he wants in the literary sense and in six weeks, if the book isn’t up to par, they’ll scrap it and walk away from each other. Zach makes a private deal that he will not be riding her in the literal sense, no matter how much he wants to. Because he’s frosty. And British. And conflicted.
Nora is conflicted too. She left her lover and Dom, Søren, years ago, but she yearns for him every day. Søren was Nora’s master, he controlled her and she submitted to him. He’s also a sadist. He can’t get aroused without inflicting pain.
The last time Nora ran back to Søren, their interlude left her battered. Despite the fact that Nora wants this, consents to this and craves this, it totally freaks out her intern/houseboy Wesley. Wesley is a student a nearby liberal arts school, living with Nora rent-free in exchange for his help around the house. What started as a friendship between them has been blossoming into love and desire. Wesley is strictly vanilla though. He wants love and fidelity. Nora has never had vanilla sex, doesn’t know how to be the person he craves, and so they dance around each other, never touching, afraid of crossing that barrier.
Wesley is a key part of Nora’s life. He’s so appalled by her relationship with Søren, that he tells Nora that if she goes back to her Dom, he’ll leave.
So there’s really three intertwining storylines here: Nora and Zach, Nora and Wesley, and Nora and Søren. The fact that book didn’t feel disjointed and that everything blended together seamlessly is a testament to the writing.
So now for the kinky stuff. I said parts of this book would normally bother me. This isn’t like light spanking/flogging S&M romance that’s more or less flooded the market. Søren is not a billionaire with waaaaay too much fucking time on his hands. This is hardcore pain and control. Søren doesn’t redden Nora’s ass with riding crop (well, he probably does, actually). He canes her. He beats her. He causes her serious pain. There is a sodomy scene in this book that made me wince and do deep breathing through my nose (luuuuubbbbe, you need lube!). In the past, after their scenes together, Nora has wound up needing medical care.
So why didn’t it bother me? For one, Reisz deftly handles the subject of consent. Everyone involved in Nora’s world, a world centered around a club called the 8th Circle, is there by choice. It’s not just a game for them, it’s a lifestyle, and something they need. There is no manipulative “do not Google BDSM” or “I will leave you if you use your safeword” bullshit. Everyone knows exactly what they are in for. At times I needed more detail to tell me Nora was enjoying this, that her protests were merely play rather than my assuming that. In the next few books, Nora's joy at a kinky sex is much more apparent, which eased my reading about some of the violence.
Also the sex is character-driven, not just for titillation. Søren cannot function without being a sadist—it’s as much a part of him as his eye color. Søren is off-screen a lot in this book, but you always feel his presence. And he does love Nora, although I didn't really pick that up until The Angel. In fact, their need for each other is this all-consuming, pyre-like thing. Nora doesn't just submit to Søren because she loves him, she does it because she needs to submit, and she enjoys the pain and accompanying pleasure.
He saved up her pain, counted it like currency and the more pain she endured, the more pleasure she could buy with it.
The idea of someone wanting to be beaten or to beat their lover doesn't super appeal to me, but I'm not appalled at it either. I didn't do any pearl-clutching during this book. But I did understand that Nora needed it, and that it was an integral part of her character, not something she was dabbling in or coerced to endure. This was the lifestyle she wanted and she was absolutely 100% an empowered character. And most of the time Nora is the Domme. Can we just have a hallelujah for a female Domme here? I'm so sick of billionaires spanking their girlfriends books. I want dominant Amazonian women in leather boots, goddammit. I need a break from all the other books out there. I love the Reisz can write a submissive male character and still keep empowered and sexy. It can be done, people! Hurray!
I found the Nora/Wesley storyline to the most enjoyable, probably because of the unfulfilled longing between them. Their mutual desire and frustration is palpable, and I love that shit. It also illustrates Nora stuck between two worlds—the one represented by Søren that doesn’t completely fulfill her, and a “normal” life with Wesley that can’t fully make her happy either. Basically this book is about Nora pursuing Zach, holding herself back from pursuing Wesley, and being pursued by Søren.
This is not some Edward/Jacob shit though, largely because Wesley and Søren and Zach don’t suck. Søren is manipulative to be sure, but Nora is his match. Nora is a tough, smart, independent woman and I love her as a character. She’s sassy and funny, a one-woman sexual revolution. I love a female character that just goes for what she wants and articulates her needs clearly. Nora is like that. And I think she also looks like Betty Paige (well, in my head she did) so that’s awesome too.
Reisz also explores the link between religion and kink in a really thought-provoking way:
“Look how Ciseri painted Jesus. See the curve of His back and shoulders. It is a classic feminine posture. His hands are tied behind His back and His robe is falling over His hips. And all the men are just pointing and staring and gawking. But the women—see them? One’s looking down and she—“ Nora pointed a female figure who was turned completely away from the horrible scene unfolding behind her “—she can’t even look. She has to hold onto the other woman just to keep from collapsing. And of all of them, she’s the only one whose whole face we can see… They know what He’s feeling. The women always know. They know it isn’t just a beating or a murder they’re being forced to witness. It wasn’t even just a crucifixion. It was a sexual assault, Zach. It was a rape.”
Nora took a deep breath and Zach felt his own breath catch in his chest. He wanted to say something but didn’t trust himself to speak yet.
“That’s why I believe, Zach,” Nora continued. “Because of all the gods, Jesus alone understands. He understands the purpose of pain and shame and humiliation.”
There was a scene in this book that bothered me slightly. SPOILERS: At one point Nora unknowingly has sex with an underage, teenage boy. He’s a masochist, and so conflicted about his unusual sexual preference that he’s driven to the point of attempting suicide. His parents have disowned him, and he feels worthless. When he comes to the 8th Circle and Nora dominates him and takes his virginity, it’s done with such compassion and tenderness that it felt like a healing moment, not exploitative. Again, handled less deftly than Reisz does, this would have really upset me, but I found myself able to accept it.
Strangely, my issue with The Siren is the same issue I have with paranormal romance. Giant Carpathian dicks and doggy-style.
No, just kidding. It’s world building.
It takes a lot of world building to set up the lifestyle Nora and the other characters live. The time spent world-building detracts from the time spent telling Nora's story. I felt like The Siren was missing a little depth in that regard. Like I said, this isn’t dabbling in S&M, this is something that these characters must have in their lives. It’s a sexual underground, similar to the vampire undergrounds I’ve read about in paranormals. The reader is introduced to this world through Zach, the newcomer, which made the transition fairly easy. Still, I enjoyed the next two books in the series more because I was already immersed in the world.
This isn’t a book for everyone. It deals with a lot of taboo subjects as erotica is wont to do. But it’s wonderfully written and smart, and I’m glad I found the series. It definitely broadened my understanding of what S&M is, and Nora is like my erotica WonderWoman; she just has a whip rather than a golden lasso.