The Slave. 2010, Circlet Press; 2001, Mystic Rose Books; 1994, Masquerade Books.
Until the superlative Inheritor came along, The Slave, the second novel in the series, was my favorite of them all, hands down (when my hands weren’t otherwise occupied). Because The Inheritor has largely replaced it as favorite for reasons other than sheer hotness, The Slave is still my favorite as pure, but smart, erotica. Consider my buttons—the right ones—pushed.
Along with the first, eponymously titled book in the series, The Slave does not so much innovate in terms of new forms of erotica as it executes extremely well and innovates within established forms. The Marketplace world inherits traditions established by Swinburne, Sade, and Réage, of large-scale, well-funded organizations that take in people who feel a serious need to lose control, to submit, on an existential level: not just playing with a partner (or two) for an evening, mutual orgasms assured; these people need something deeper, something more complete. It was not until the twentieth century that technology and travel reached a point where such accounts of consensual, erotic slave-trading organizations, always—always—run by the wealthy, were able to attain a global reach. (Though I would love to read—or write?—a novel exploring a sailing-ship-and-telegraph era attempt at such an endeavor.)
The original Marketplace novel was an excellent introduction to this world; it followed a varied, ensemble cast as they were also introduced to it via their first, delightfully severe weeks of training. In The Slave, training also ranks high in importance (as it does in all Marketplace novels), though we now follow a new character, Robin, on her more solitary journey from fantasizer and amateur play partner to hardcore slave. The character of Chris Parker, who loomed large in the first novel but was not necessarily its center, also plays a major role in this book as well.
I will admit, part of the reason I love this novel is that I am so damn hot for Robin. And kudos to Ms. Antoniou for making me so. It’s not just her physicality—auburn-haired, average-breasted and petite, pretty but not drop-dead gorgeous—it’s her mentality: submissive but very smart, and above all eager. For some very dark treatment. As with the main character from my other favorite series of erotic novels, I want to be her (as far as is possible); I want to own her. And she wants, more than anything, to be owned.
I have no idea what Ms. Antoniou and Molly Weatherfield, the author of that other favorite series of mine, the Carrie novels, think of my constant, occasional comparisons and contrasts of their works—annoyance? Amusement? Indifference? I do know they are both aware of it, and I hope they both see the sheer admiration. The worlds they’ve created share similarities, but their respective series have different goals, partly due to the difference in scope—there are only two Carrie novels, and six Marketplace books, with the definite possibility of more. Ms. Antoniou has gone far deeper into her world, and often into the less erotic aspects of it, especially in later novels.
But in this earlier Slave, we get the similar situation that so thoroughly turns my crank as the Carrie novels do: an attractive woman, who has long had fantasies of submitting on such a deep level but has never been afforded the opportunity, is faced with exactly that chance, and a choice—and takes it. A period of training ensues; an auction. Tons of nakedness, obedience, beatings with toys; but most of all, facing the unknown—it’s that uncertainty, of putting oneself so completely into the power of others who quite frankly enjoy inflicting pain and humiliation, that just sets my mind abuzz and gets my heart rate up. This is the kind of thoughtful erotica I seek out. I do love this book!
One aspect of both authors’ novels—and since I’ve discussed the Carrie books elsewhere, I’ll drop the comparisons after this—that I absolutely adore are certain non-(overtly)-erotic chapters in which both Carrie and Robin are given a period of time in which they have to put their affairs in order, divest themselves of their possessions and apartments, before they can enter this new world for the duration of their respective contracts. These chapters are entirely practical: they quit their jobs, complete degrees, sublet or cancel leases, get rid of stuff and put the rest in storage, pre-paid. They carefully say goodbye to those they love, without explanation—especially their parents.
Why does this get me so hot?
Robin has a career, a good one. An art history major (another reason to fall in love with her) and an art buyer for auction houses, she’s respected in her field, though not exactly famous in it. She’s had a series of kinky lovers and participates, however unfulfilling it might be, in local BDSM scenes. While she does not have many possessions (an unconscious preparation for her hoped-for lifestyle?), why would she give up what is a pretty good thing for a lack of control so total that she can’t even choose to whom she might be sold?
This is exactly the kind of porn that interests me.
I’ve delved into this before (perhaps to the point of repetition) in my review of the previous Marketplace novel, and in my essay on Romana Byrne’s incredibly insightful Aesthetic Sexuality. There is something about not just a total power exchange to another person, but a total submission to something bigger, an organization, a machine, that I find very appealing. Many people do not—they find it impersonal, cold. But that’s exactly what gets me hot. The objectification inherent in it, the facelessness of it. The submitter (as character in fiction, as reader, as character in your own fantasies) is just a body, to be used. In real life? Not so much fun, most likely. I mean, really. But as thoughts in the dark or words read in private: hell, yeah.
And it’s those scenes in which the character (Robin, or Carrie, or whoever else out there that I haven’t read yet) must take the time to slowly relinquish themselves of their real (fictional) life—the paperwork, the goodbyes to cozy but boring stability, the stuff—that serve to both take care of the realistic-ness of the author’s story, but also to drive home what such an endeavor/adventure would require, if we ourselves were to take it. Giving up on one’s entire life is a bigger step than most of us would want to take—which is why fiction, notably dark sexual fiction—exists, and that touch of logistics that we all have in our lives puts us (or me, at least) in the mindset of the character. It highlights the separateness of her upcoming ordeals and sacrifices—the dread, and the arousal.
Anyway, the story.
It’s always difficult, in these reviews, to decide how much to reveal. Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are simpler; if you love the book you help the author sell more copies by tempting potential readers with mere hints—and we all hate those reviewers who spoil. But I tend to discuss books on this site, and that sometimes means I have to give away certain plot points, or we end up with a lot of vague nonsense. How does one pick apart a work of art without discussing the parts? It’s a delicate balance, since I do want to convince new readers to look into the works I love and admire. (And I have sometimes overshared.)
In reviewing an entire series of books one at a time, it’s even more difficult to conceal things that I know will be important down the road. In Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series, this is sometimes especially difficult.
The Slave is basically a three-part novel: an overview of Robin’s sexual past as she realizes her kinkiness and submissiveness but never finds what she really wants; her brief but intense training with Chris Parker with an auction fast approaching; and finally her life after the sale. (It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that she is sold. It would be a very different book if she weren’t, although I’ve long had in mind a sort of deconstructive novel in which the hopeful trainee is not sold—the self-questioning and subsequent journey might be an interesting twist.) In a neat structural move, the first part of Robin’s life is told through intermittent interviews with Parker during her abbreviated training; the two timelines are interwoven before moving on to the third.
Robin’s early journey is typical in many ways (at least in the pre-internet era), and brings forth issues that have long fascinated me, and are in fact at the center of much of my own writing: namely the disjunct between what kinky people desire in fantasy, and what reality presents them (us) with, and what they would actually want from real life. It’s not either/or, it’s either/or/or, and it’s often full of miscommunications and disappointments, as are most relationships.
On top of that, I love the idea of readers of erotica following characters who have fed their own fantasies through the reading of erotica. That is the main idea behind my novel Blue (sorry for the plug): the main character has sometimes-misguided expectations of what the Lifestyle will be, based on reading too many erotic novels—even as the reader herself is reading an erotic novel. I’ve explored variations of this in my short stories as well—I’m fascinated by the experience of the reading of erotica, especially in written erotica. 🙂
Robin is never able to find exactly what she wants—to be owned. Not pretend-owned, not merely topped.
Her relationships start off with a nice harshness, a control, but tend to disintegrate into girlfriend/boyfriend status as time goes on. Topping 24/7 isn’t easy, it turns out; sometimes a Master just wants to relax and cuddle or go see a movie and chat. And, in real life, consent and limits and negotiation are the very basis of BDSM. I’ve read enough accounts (though never experienced this) that subs who say they only want to submit, completely, with no limits, are really full of shit and need to be educated and think things over. Abuse is already endemic online and in many local Scenes; setting oneself up for it is pure idiocy.
But in fiction… Hey, I myself love a good non-con kidnapping novel, the kind which many reviewers give one-stars to on moral grounds. But that’s the conundrum I find fascinating: I detest rapists and abusers, yet I love darker fiction. Being an adult, I am able to separate the two, although I too puzzle over it sometimes. Many cannot. Many readers find Antoniou’s “consensual non-consent” offensive. As I said in my review of the first novel, the scene in which Sharon is used beyond all consent is one of my favorite scenes in all erotica—and yet it probably gathers the most criticism of anything Antoniou has written. To each their own.
…Where was I? Oh yes. Robin—a fictional character, finding her reality unsatisfying—wants to be owned, for real; no limits. The meta-fictional cycle of real people wanting/not wanting the same thing delights and intrigues me beyond belief.
At a local BDSM party, one of Robin’s ex-Doms, Troy, introduces her to someone whom he knows is out of his league and who wants to meet her—the seductive and fascinating Ken Mandarin. A sleek woman of Asian descent, Ken (who figures into many future novels), takes Robin in, uses and abuses her in the most ecstatic ways, educates her as she sneers at amateur Scenes, and—though warning her off many times—informs her of the Marketplace. Robin wants brought in, and has to work to convince Ken to do so: Ken, as it happens, is a spotter, who does just that as a little side gig, in addition to just being rich.
There is an auction coming up on short notice, and she knows of a trainer who happens to be on vacation, an idea he detests—Chris Parker. Would he take up the challenge of training a newbie in record-short time, and split the sale money with Ken?
Well it wouldn’t be much of a novel if he didn’t.
Some people just don’t understand the concept of a training novel. Why, they ask, would anyone pay someone else to have the fun of training a slave, when the trainer couldn’t possibly know the buyer’s proclivities, anyway?
Because, of course, the fantasy is presented from the sub’s point of view—and what could be more fun than being trained, strong demands imposed upon us, while wearing no clothes? And, in the Marketplace novels, the clientele is simply too busy—running businesses, traveling, just being rich—to have the damn time. Also, the biggest part of the training is being taught to quickly learn their buyers’ preferences—the details will be handled once you’re owned. The initial training also serves as a filter to keep the wannabes out.
Fortunately Robin is a quick study, one of the reasons Ken passes her on to Chris. She is taught stringently and sternly, and more importantly, in that Chris Parker thoroughness. He is not unfair, but is teaching her that what she’s about to get into is inherently unfair—never expect anything like fairness, in fact, or go back to your little BDSM clubs.
Besides the delightful sex and punishment scenes in this section (I wish I had the time to discuss the character of Rachel, here), we get a deeper look not only into Robin’s past but into who Chris Parker is—though, readers of the full series know, not a complete look. As one of many characters in the first novel, it wasn’t yet apparent that—small spoiler here, for future novels—Chris is really the central figure in the whole series. While this novel is most definitely Robin’s story, Chris’s role is not only vital to her journey, both before and after her sale; his presence, his methodologies, his personality gives this book—and the series—its center: its heart, cold as it sometimes may appear. I in fact want one of those What Would Chris Parker Do? signs or bracelets I’ve seen, to hang above my desk, because nothing gets me organized and efficient and getting things done like reading his words and actions in a Laura Antoniou novel.
As I said, Robin is indeed sold at auction. Again, in this kind of book, this is not really a spoiler. What is a spoiler would be to reveal who buys her. No, certainly not Chris, or Ken. Because she does develop deep feelings for both, that would be cheap and easy and would defy the professional standards within the novels, not to mention the whole ethos of the novels. But as Chris advises Robin in her training, expect only the unexpected. It’s an amusing surprise that takes the book in unanticipated directions.
So, without giving the story away—then what? What happens to her, now that her life is out of her control? It is too early for a Happily Ever After? (And do we want one?) What is her new life like, the one that she has always craved? Is she satisfied? While her new situation is not a bad one—no one bought her for the purposes of merely torturing her, for example (though that happens, in this world), perhaps the best definition of fiction I’ve read is “Interesting characters, in crisis.”
And there is a crisis—but it takes a while for it to develop.
In the meantime, wow, are we treated to some incredibly hot sex scenes—if you like it harsh, that is (and if you don’t, why are you reading a Laura Antoniou novel—two, now?).
Besides the whippings and beatings with toys (seems like we always have to qualify the word “beating,” these days), there is a lot of oral sex, and very rough oral sex, primarily on men. Outright throat-fucking, and by no means only performed/received by Robin. I will mention that there are other slaves in the household. Near gagging, trouble breathing, choking on cock. Exhausted slaves, sore mouths, sore lips, sore throats; sore orifices in general. Good god. And of course the bruises, everywhere, the bruises, just because. It all gives me the warm fuzzies.
I haven’t compiled the exact statistics, but it is interesting that the majority of sex in this book is not heteronormative. The M/m, F/f, M/m/f scenes, you name it, far outnumber the “straight,” either M/f or F/m. This is also one of the things I’ve always loved about Antoniou’s books. It’s one of the things I most seek out in such “institutional porn,” since I first encountered the Sleeping Beauty novels way back when—all combinations of people, dominating and submitting to every gender. What I call “kitchen sink” porn; toss it all in there. It’s what I love; it’s what I write.
At some point, it must be said, a Very Bad Thing happens to Robin, in this household, in which she has attained what she wants despite it not being quite what she wants. For the record, no, it is not a rape. (And the topic of rape is a complex one, in a world in which people agree, sign contracts even, to be available at all times to their owners, no questions asked. But that’s another discussion.)
Suffice it to say it is indeed bad, and is the central crisis of the book, beyond that initial anticipation of being sold into just this situation in which it is fully permissible for such Bad Things to occur.
I myself felt incredibly angered by what happens to her, and whether you find it erotic or not is up to you; hey no judgement here (I’ve mentioned I’m fond of dark kidnapping novels, yes?), and again, kudos to Ms. Antoniou for creating a character I am not only hot for, but care so much about. It is odd that I wanted to rescue her, while in the rest of the book I only wanted to buy her and give her every bit of sweet pain, control, and humiliation that she so craves—the thoughts of a sadistic but responsible Top, I hope?
I cannot reveal much more—what she does about the crisis, its aftermath, her possible trauma—without giving up more than I should. Suffice it to say that in a world in which people agree to be literally owned, or must leave, there are often compromises that must be made; even in the Marketplace, control is not one hundred percent. How you feel she handles things, and progresses, and the novels ends, is entirely up to you. If you have not guessed, I am quite a fan.
Whenever I read a satisfying erotic novel, I ask myself several questions about it. Why did I find it hot? Is its storytelling above average; does it have an innovative structure? (This doesn’t always matter; I can still love an erotic novel for its pure hotness.) Does it ask or answer important questions beyond the realm of abject filth?
It doesn’t have to, to be great erotica. And we’re not talkin’ War and Peace, here. Erotica, and porn (and there is good porn), have their own sets of objectives; sometimes they reach a bit further than just making us want to jerk off, sometimes they don’t. Does The Slave?
At first glance…nah, not really. It’s a hell of a good yarn, a woman’s adventure in submission and servitude and problems and striving for fulfillment.
But a book need not solve world peace or the meaning of life to seriously inquire into human nature—and that is exactly what the best erotica does. In some ways, it does touch upon the meaning of life.
Sexuality is a huge part of life, and a large part of the vitality of fiction (some academic literary fiction notwithstanding) explores and probes (so to speak) this aspect that drives us. And a certain percentage of us humans are driven toward the erotic exchange of power, at some level or another. To me, good erotica ponders why, to some extent, not just the “what” and “how.” This is perhaps the difference between erotica and mere porn, or what I call porny-porn. (As opposed to, you know, good porn.)
Robin spends a great deal of time thinking about exactly why she is driven toward what is often the unpleasant—pain, humiliation, shame, the loss of control. In fact, the worse the shame, the more total the loss of control, the more she is attracted. This is fascinating stuff. It’s just not logical, is it? Some commenter on some online forum once ridiculed me a bit, saying who says desire is ever logical? But that’s my point. Hanging by the wrists and getting a painful whipping—for fun, or at least because one is driven to it—hardly satisfies our innate genetic drive to procreate. And while much (if not most, to my critic’s point) erotic activity doesn’t make biological sense, either, BDSM resides at a more extreme level. Who would want that, the more mainstream citizens of Earth would ask?
Well, I do. And you, if you read Antoniou. To us it’s normal, natural: embedded in our psyches, our genes. (But why?) Yet despite the popularization of that horribly written trilogy of novels and films, practitioners are still seen as aberrant, perverted, shameful—unnatural.
In Robin we meet a woman who is initially conflicted, yet driven to pursue the extremes of what a person can take, in all of its glorious illogic. It’s who she is. (Yet she still doesn’t want her Mom to know.)
We need this kind of thing—those of us who are confident enough to let the world know of our desires, and those of us who cannot afford to. Some of us are able to find what we need in real life; most of us make compromises in some way; some have to live a life of dissatisfaction.
Harsh sexual fiction (god, those blowjobs, that strap of Parker’s)—whether we find real-life approximations, or just indulge in fantasy and stories—allows us to live vicariously through hardships and travails that even while we desire them…we don’t, really. It makes us question our own proclivities, embrace them, and sometimes, yes, just go ahead and jerk off.
But the best books make us think and jerk off.