2010, Circlet Press; 2000, Mystic Rose Books; 1993, Masquerade Books (writing as Sara Adamson).
If anyone out there questions my love for The Marketplace—both this first book and the series—they should read the dedication page in my novel (which you should do, anyway). Along with Pauline Réage, A.N. Roquelaure and Molly Weatherfield, Marketplace creator Laura Antoniou is right there, in gratitude. The world described in her books is the kind of thing I fantasized about long before I’d read a word of erotica, and is also, to a certain extent, the kind of thing I want to write.
For those of you not in the know, Ms. Antoniou writes a type of erotica that in many ways seems to be fading, or perhaps has just been engulfed by the flood of the new—as far as I know she is the only successful writer in this subgenre still standing, which is to me both confusing and sad, though I am very happy for her own success. The series does not fit the current trend of BDSM Romance, let me tell you. (And that, by the way, is a good thing, nothing against BDSM Romance writers or readers.)
The Marketplace series—currently up to six books—takes place in the somewhat fantastical world of a global network of wealthy elites who buy and sell, train and trade human slaves, all of whom enter this society voluntarily. They submit to their Masters, and to the Marketplace system, wholeheartedly and totally—they are owned, and their owners have full rights to do whatever they wish to their properties, within the bylaws of the network. In fact, this “consensual non-consent,” central to the books’ ethos and aesthetic, is what troubles many new readers of the series—but is also the very thing that attracts so many of us. Like any good erotica, it has both its devotees and detractors.
The world Laura Antoniou created is situated within certain traditions of erotica. Yet it also, especially when it was first published in 1993 under a pseudonym, stakes out brand new ground. Some of that revolutionary-ness has faded over the decades, but in my opinion the quality—of the storytelling, the writing, the hotness—has not. (It should perhaps be mentioned that the writing may have improved—the original book, which I have not read, is now listed as an “earlier version.”) And, it should definitely be mentioned, all of those qualities have only improved as the series progresses.
I will be reviewing all six books over the next couple of years. (I’m reviewing slowly, these days, and there is much smut to uncover.) The series has grown too large to do it justice in one big review, as I did with the two Weatherfield novels. Because it’s impossible to view each Marketplace novel as totally stand-alone, I will also try, without giving away too many spoilers, to situate the individual books within the set as a whole while focusing on each book’s individual merits and potential problems.
The Marketplace—both novel and series—does sit within a certain tradition, and one which I absolutely love. It goes back through Roquelaure and Réage, and Dedeaux, to Sade, and likely beyond—not the erotica of one-on-one (or so) D/s, but that of organized dominance and submission, what I like to call “institutional porn.” In my review of Romana Byrne’s excellent Aesthetic Sexuality: A Literary History of Sadomasochism, I wrote extensively about why that strain of erotic literature, and fantasy, resonates so strongly with me—and the Marketplace world is perhaps the most cogent, and certainly thorough, example of such a scenario.
What do I, and presumably many of Antoniou’s fans love so much about such a situation, besides its unattainability in reality? (Not to mention the sex and whippings?) Its thoroughness. Its totality. Entering the Marketplace as a slave is consensual, but once within it, all power is given up, given over. It is a total submission, not to only one lover, or a small group, but to an entire system. To make my synopsis of Byrne’s relevant chapter as brief as possible, it is a losing of oneself into something bigger, more powerful, darker: the Dionysian orgy, the sublime, leaving the orderly Apollonian light of reason (though not precision!) behind. It is not the temporary play-submission of a scene or play date, but a surrendering, a transfer, a giving up of one’s entire life (for as long as the contract you’ve signed, that is). To some of us, this is powerful stuff—though how close each of us might be to wanting such a thing in real life is bound to differ from Antoniou fan to Antoniou fan.
As far as other such immersive worlds go, in its initial consensuality (among other things), it does differ from Roquelaure’s Beauty trilogy; despite the author (Anne Rice)’s claims, Beauty was taken, not voluntarily, to the castle, and Sade’s victims hardly consented to the extremities they are subjected to. It also differs from Réage’s Story of O in that the gang of men at Roissy is a small and local club, not to mention a strictly M/f affair. As for Dedauex, well, that’s just good old British school-girl discipline, similar in many ways to sexploitation women-in-prison films (not that there’s anything wrong with that) with their own history going back to Edwardian times. In most ways, the Marketplace’s world resembles my also-beloved Carrie novels by Molly Weatherfield—both are consensual global trading and training organizations, but there are important differences: in the limited scope of two novels, the Carrie books are more focused on the raw sexuality of the vast club, the slaves’ use as sex toys. In the wider vista of the Marketplace, there is more room for exploring the detailed logistics, policies and relationships of the members, both Owners and slaves, and other associated positions. These specificities end up making it all more realistic, though occasionally less erotic: this more complete form of servitude includes a lot of non-sexual service in later books.
In this first installment, however, the focus is indeed on the red-hot sexual and objectifying uses to which these volunteers can be put. And like so many readers, that is what first got my attention.
One of the unique aspects—perhaps even true innovations?—of The Marketplace novel is its ensemble cast, and that we read each character’s point of view throughout the book. Unlike most erotica, this first book in the series follows not just one or two point-of-view characters; we get inside the heads of seven people: four new recruits, two Master/trainers, and one majordomo, who seems to be somewhere in between these extremes.
While this complexity generally works, it can lead to a bit of frustration for the reader, or at least this one—one of the very few complaints I have about this book is the occasional slippage into “head-hopping,” the switching of points-of-view within a single scene. It can be a bit jarring, reading one person’s thoughts and then another’s without a break between. I sometimes wonder if Antoniou would go back and change that if she could.
Trust me, this is not a deal breaker. The approach of following so many people is refreshing. While many erotic novels might alternate between, say, Top and sub, or in the case of Beauty between two slaves on separate journeys, I can’t recall any other examples of examining the thoughts and feelings of so many characters—and diverse characters they are. Through this variety, we get to see what they, especially the submissive recruits, want. Why they are there, what they are seeking, and why they would be willing to give up so much. And their reasons are all quite different.
In terms of plot—story—The Marketplace fits within a category not usually seen in erotica, and I hope Ms. Antoniou takes no offense at the comparison because none is intended: that of a gang of misfits thrown together in a common goal, who must learn to overcome their differences and mutual antagonisms and work collectively or face their own failure. It’s a theme used in films as diverse as The Dirty Dozen, The Bad News Bears and Stripes (although, thinking about it, Stripes involves the loss of their leader so they must fend for themselves, which believe me, oh believe me, does not happen in The Marketplace).
While later novels do center on fewer characters, The Marketplace serves as an introduction to this world, and perhaps that is the reason such a variety of personalities and histories is shown to us. The novel takes place in the Upstate New York mansion/training center of Grendel and Alexandra, two highly regarded Marketplace trainers who specialize in problem cases. They make their living preparing new recruits—who have been carefully spotted, vetted, and informed via scouts who work in S&M clubs and other places where such people are likely to hang out—for their new life. As I said, this not only means accepting total submission—ownership—to another person, but learning proper manners, adaptability, and non-erotic skills, because if you’re paying big money for a slave, you very well might want more than a mere fuck toy—something some slaves were not expecting, and neither, perhaps, is the reader.
Grendel and Alexandra’s problem is that they have an unusually short window of time until the next big auction, and no “easy” trainees. They are faced with a stack of folders containing nothing but problem cases, which will put everyone—themselves, the recruits, their majordomo—under unusual pressure. And if there’s one way to turn up the heat in a training novel, it’s added pressure. (God, I love this genre.)
The recruits, two women and two men, represent a veritable smorgasbord of non-normativity. There is Brian, perhaps the most “normal” of what they might expect: young, gay, and very eager, he is convinced that he already has the looks and skills to be a good—no, great—slave. He has bondage experience, but it is not of the kind expected nor needed in the Marketplace—it’s always been all about him. He’s used to being the center of attention, and thinks that entering this world will mean that he will get to serve more or less whom he chooses. But alas, this is not how it works. He may well be auctioned to a pair of lesbians who want him to do nothing but housecleaning.
A somewhat similar problem for the trainers is Sharon—auburn-haired, drop-dead gorgeous in face and body, though exceedingly loud-mouthed and crude. Sharon too has been worshipped as a so-called submissive, loving the restraints and whips but always calling the shots: deciding whom she will “serve,” being whipped, yes, but also pampered, adored. She not only has the exact opposite mindset needed for true service, but she has cheated her way into the mansion, forging her own recommendation. Sharon is clearly trouble, but one look at her says she could bring in big money if they could just class her up a bit. Alex and Grendel decide to take her in, against their better judgment.
The other two cases are more complicated. Claudia, while attractive (though not as overtly hot as Sharon), has been mis-trained by her lesbian owner. She specializes in being an absolutely perfect ornament, who can serve tea with flawless deference and take a caning, but anything outside her very small comfort zone causes a complete breakdown. She has become too perfect, and far, far too limited. She needs her wheelhouse widened, so to speak, or she will be sold off, to her horror. She is desperate to please and return to her Mistress.
And then there’s poor Robert, a complete mess. Sissified by a seemingly man-hating Mistress, he is beautifully built but has been feminized to the point of mental illness, ready to castrate himself to please the unhealthy requirements of a woman he was lucky to escape. He speaks in a high voice, becomes flustered at any criticism. I found him as irritating as his fellow recruits do, but that is the point. If brought out of his miserable shell, he too could bring in a huge commission.
Grendel and Alex have a huge job on their hands, their biggest challenge ever. Fortunately they have the help of a very efficient majordomo, Chris Parker, whose job is to translate his employers’ plans into reality. We follow his thoughts as well, although, without giving anything away, things are not always as straightforward as they seem with him.
The recruits do not care for each other, not at all. Brian and Sharon deem themselves already ready, superior to the basket cases that are Claudia and Robert (though they refuse to admire each other, either). And while Claudia and Robert are more than willing to support each other and get along with the more obnoxious alpha-type slaves, they can be infuriating in their helplessness, even for the reader. How will these four get through this basic training boot camp in just a few weeks?
“Training novels” confuse some fans of erotica. Isn’t the process of training a slave yourself the very point of BDSM? As a Top, why would you hire someone else to go through this process, with such delightful rewards, when another trainer cannot know your preferences like you yourself would?
But such thinking is for Tops and Sadists, and believe me I do understand, being one myself. While not “wrong”—there are many novels of a Top/Master/Owner training their sub(s) from the Top’s point of view—such criticisms miss the point, or perhaps those dissatisfied just do not understand the appeal. Perhaps it’s not their proverbial cuppa. But some of us, Tops or not, do. Oh, some of us do indeed.
One of the interesting aspects of such a varied cast of characters is that it begs the question: just who is this novel for? Who is its intended audience?
So many erotic novels focus on a one-to-one relationship, one person submitting to another. The intended audience in those cases is easy to see—women (usually), who like to picture themselves submitting to a man; often these books have a romantic aspect to them.
I have always maintained that the narrative heat in BDSM fiction lies with the sub/bottom/victim, whatever their gender and preference. It gives the submissively-minded reader the intensity of putting themselves in that character’s position, from a safe distance, while the more sadistically minded reader can imagine themselves doing all the things to them and enjoying the reactions of the submissive character. There are exceptions to this theory, of course (and who reads more fem-dom novels, men or women? I do not know). There is a wonderful supply of non-heteronormative work out there, of course—Califia, Preston, for examples—that also usually have a more defined intended audience, but the tension is nearly always with the subs, because of the uncertainty of their situation.
What I’ve always loved—and usually write, in long form, anyway—is what I call “kitchen sink” erotica, almost always taking place with large numbers of people around, all genders and preferences dominating and being dominated by all genders and preferences. Beauty (which I do feel I’ve outgrown a bit, but still), Carrie, Marketplace. These are the blissful harbors in which I take shelter from everyday life.
Some readers assume that such an approach is one designed to attract as many readers as possible—throw in every combination, and all the more people will want to buy your book. But I’ve discovered that the opposite is true: fans of more focused M/f domination, or F/m, or only M/m or F/f or Trans, or what have you, avoid having to read all these encounters that do not engage them. A writer in this specialty is risking fewer sales.
So with the variety and the unusual problems these recruits bring with them to boot camp, The Marketplace, which I can only see as a wide-lensed introduction to this varied world, actually had a more narrow audience in mind—people like me, who of course have our preferences, but either enjoy or don’t mind some reading outside our innate or acquired comfort zones.
In statements I’ve read by the author, Antoniou says that she simply wanted to write a book, or series of books, that she wanted to read—the best answer I know. There was a shortage of well-written kitchen-sink novels back in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, when she started this, and she decided to fill that gap herself. I, for one, am glad that she did.
As far as the deficits of logic or arousal in the category of “training novels,” that’s simply a matter of taste, and, as I said, misses the point: the fantasy is in being the one who is trained—not the owner awaiting the well-mannered slave—or in being the strict and demanding trainer. Is this a logical flaw in such erotica—acknowledging the appeal of the training process while ignoring the possible boredom for the future owner? My friends, porn is awash in decisions of emphasis for purposes of heightened fantasy, as are your own fantasies themselves—you’re into it or you’re not. And what those doubters miss is that it’s the anticipation of the unknown future—not knowing to whom you could be sold, once this totally hot training process is over—that is this genre’s most arousing feature.
Of course, this belief of mine relies on the tension and heat following the sub/slave—and, as we’ll see in future reviews of this series, following the Top is indeed perhaps not always the most successful approach. (Others are free to differ.) Not that that matters here. Throwing yourself into a complete world—to the point of having to figure out how to sever all contacts with the outside one, store your possessions, leave your family—having no control over your future, or your present, your body, your will. It’s more than nearly all of us would want in real life, even those who play at 24/7 D/s, and I think many of those who do want it would reconsider if they were faced with the actual choice of the Marketplace. But that’s the very fantasy that keeps some of us up late, drives nearly every kinky thought, prods some of us to write our own erotica to fill that gap that can never be fulfilled in reality.
These books fill a need. Some of us have a receptor in our brains, awaiting such stories.
It’s been a long while since I’ve written a review in my Classics category, so I might as well apply the four questions I ask of every novel in considering its long-term value:
- Is it hot?
Oh god, yes.
Although, as in all things erotica, it is not for everyone. Want that “romantic sizzle” as two lovers discover each other’s preferences in discipline as they also learn each other’s secrets and fall deeper in love?
This book is not for you.
In later books, there are deep feelings between characters, though never what would be called “romance,” either in its genre terms or, for that matter, any other terms. There is love. But while that love is one of concern, and desire, and especially loyalty, it is always—always—tempered by the understanding that duty and service come first, and that all incidental attractions and feelings must be subsumed to the system they have voluntarily entered. Fallen in love with your co-slave? Too bad—he may be sold tomorrow; you may be punished or even sold for expressing it. The slaves in the Marketplace have offered themselves not just to individuals, but to the entire system of rules, behaviors and traditions.
Now, if your tastes lean toward a punishment scene in a library, one slave bent over naked and told to withstand the beating with a leather strap (oh, that strap…) without restraints while the other slaves watch lined up and relieved it’s not them (or will it be, next?), then this is the series for you. It is quite probably the best series for you.
Now, if you require consent, in your fiction…
- How is it hot?
See above. I’ve said earlier that what appeals in The Marketplace is not an intimacy of one-on-one love or romance, but a subsuming of oneself into something far bigger than what a love affair or a marriage can give, no matter how steeped in BDSM it might be. Some will see this as cold, impersonal—and in some ways they are right, but also wrong: it’s just a different part of your possible self that is examined, as a reader and fantasizer, through the lives of the characters (as is all erotica). It is darker. It is a total giving to forces well beyond your control; you can’t just safeword out and go home and have a glass of wine: lose yourself. Such are the fantasies of some of us, though some (most?) would prefer to keep it as fantasy.
All this of course brings about the question of consent. Consent has always been at the center of debates not only about S&M in real life, but in erotic fiction, as well. There are many who require explicit and enthused consent even in fiction—full SSC and RACK compliance, and there are even those who want to do away with the whole domination/submission thing altogether. If they’re not into it, it can’t be good, right? This is not the place for a prolonged discussion on anti-porn feminism, especially anti-S/M feminism, although I have read bits of Ms. Antoniou’s place in such debates in the ‘80’s and would love to know more. As for me, I have always held strongly to the belief that we are all entitled to have whatever damn fantasies we want, and no one can tell us otherwise—how we treat people in real life is a separate issue, because most of us can separate the two. That right extends to reading—and writing—whatever fiction we want. That’s why it’s called “fiction”.
There is consent in The Marketplace. But it is in the form of what I’ve seen called “consensual non-consent,” an agreement to give up the right once the contract is signed. Those of us who are grownups know that this would almost certainly be a disaster in real life (and in later books in this series, it can prove to be), but perfectly acceptable in fiction. If your fantasies do not lean this way, that is fine—I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to fantasize—but do not tell me what mine should be, either.
It’s true, the consent in the Marketplace is dicey; it rides right on that edge. The characters are mature (or at least adults), and know what they want, know what they are getting into, have known all their lives. The bondage club ain’t doin’ it for them anymore; they want a life of total submission, total service to another.
So…where was I? Oh, yes: How is this book hot?
Oh my god, the “Italians” chapter, with Sharon.
Full disclosure/self-promotion: When Laura Antoniou published a call for stories for an anthology called No Safewords 2, a collection of fan-fiction stories based on the Marketplace characters of our choice, I jumped at the chance and wrote my one and only piece of fan-fic ever. It was accepted. (Though I’m not sure when the release date will be; it’s been a while now.)
The character I chose? Sharon. She of the smoking-hot body and auburn hair, and hopelessly obnoxious (but immensely talented) mouth. Ms. Antoniou told me there was a surprising number of Sharon stories; she picked mine. Asked to give a brief statement of why each author chose their character, I wrote, “Who else but Sharon?”
It’s true, it was easier to choose a character who is in only one novel—it would feel much harder to make certain other characters “mine.” But the real reason? That Italian chapter.
Late in the book, Sharon is examined for possible purchase by a pair of expensively dressed Italian gentlemen, in response to her constant demands (demands!) to be sexually used, which, as part of her training strategy, she has been denied.
…And goodness, is she used. Jaw-droppingly so. Good god, I love this little chapter—only a few pages long, but WOW.
As it turns out, Antoniou has probably received more criticism for that scene than any other in the book, perhaps in the series, for all I know. It is certainly intense—and goes beyond consent. It goes too far, well beyond what Sharon wants. She is left sobbing, blubbering in tears.
Is this rape? In the real world, it would be unlikely that the excuse “But she signed a contract!” would absolve liability or criminality (although it is entirely possible that so many millionaires and billionaires involved in the organization could succeed in keeping it quiet). But that doesn’t matter—in the sealed, separate world of the Marketplace, within a work of fiction…yes, she literally signed up to be treated in any way that a buyer wishes. To her regret, perhaps, but not mine for buying the book.
It’s an intense fantasy—to be Sharon, or to be one of those Italians—but it’s just that: a fantasy.
- Is this book important within the genre?
Hellz, yes. I pointed out above that while fitting well within a certain tradition in many ways, the series innovates in others. This introductory book is, perhaps in some ways, less innovative than the series as a whole, which should not be taken as a criticism. While revolutionary in its gender-and-preference fluidity, it is more outright erotica than later books. Lots of nakedness, discipline, pain, humiliation, obedience, fucking. The entire premise and situation itself. I have read that the author intended this to be a series from the beginning, but I don’t know whether her intent was to purposely use this book as a less deep (though not “shallow”) introduction, in terms of character. It follows many characters going through a brief, fast, and intense period, and unlike later books that really take the time to get to know some (especially one) of these people, it’s a bit more of a survey of them than a deep character study.
The book, and the series, have lasted, which I view as imminently important. “Institutional porn” as a subgenre has, seemingly, somewhat faded from fashion, in favor of BDSM Romance and a lot of books that take place in bondage clubs (and never mind all the littles/daddy porn). In the fantastical world-building of Weatherfield, Roquelaure and Antoniou, only Antoniou is still going strong (I’m not counting that fourth Beauty novel), wonderfully strong. The sixth book in the series, The Inheritor, is, let me go ahead and say, motherfucking superlative.
The Marketplace is the last great redoubt of the fantasy worlds of organized enforced submission, and is its greatest example. (More full disclosure/self-promotion: my work in progress, Villa, takes place in such a world, and is my homage/love letter/critique/sad goodbye and personal take on this beloved genre; the goal of my novel Blue was to gather these tropes and slap them smack-dab into the most boring American suburbs.) It was the author’s intent from the start to utilize an entire series not to follow the adventures of one or a few characters, but to create an entire world with a vast cast and a thorough exploration of how it works—and she has succeeded. While I hope that my own work is not an imitation, it has certainly been influenced. The model has been cast.
- Is it important outside the genre?
That’s the tough one, and what makes a book truly a Classic. It’s tough to do, to get into the consciousness of the general public, the non-erotica-reading population. Only a few have: Story of O; the currently successful Series Which Shall Not Be Named (which is no classic, but does deserve thoughtful examination elsewhere); we’ve all heard of Venus in Furs, but even I was surprised when I finally read it. The film Secretary, perhaps?
I don’t think an erotic novel needs to achieve full public awareness to be considered a Classic outside the genre, but its reverberating effects do, and it does need to somehow touch the reader in some way besides making them want to touch themselves.
One of the Marketplace series’ innovations is not only in showing all the non-erotic services potential slave buyers might want, that slaves are expected to perform—polishing the silver, child care, accountancy—but in the idea that not all slaves, if this were real life, would be shockingly beautiful, thin, and hetero- or any other normative. The Marketplace takes in all who are willing, but only those who would be truly devoted—to their individual Masters, to the Marketplace itself—will succeed, no matter what their size or shape or orientation or the color of their skin might be. A surprising and pleasant variety are represented throughout the books.
Antoniou has stated that the porn she read in her early years was sometimes fine and dandy, but the kinds of people portrayed were never the types—body types, personality types—that she knew, or for that matter, was. Different sizes and weights, differing levels of attractiveness, gay, bi, you name the orientation and self-identification; people in different levels of transition. She wanted to create a world more resembling her own milieu, her own preferences. It’s difficult to elaborate much further on this without giving away spoilers, though I will say it’s easy to realize while reading this book that something is afoot, out of place. I hesitate to say “amiss.” Because this is the first book in the series and I hope you choose to read it, I will keep certain things quiet that later prove to be vital—central—to the series as a whole. Such is the difficulty of reviewing one book at a time!
But that very effort—to take erotica and/or porn (Antoniou, like myself, sometimes uses the terms interchangeably) out of the strict expectations of straight/gay/bi, cis-born—was something pretty new. She was probably not the first, but was the most successful to introduce multiple fluidities as not just a concept, but a central part, of sexual fiction, especially lovely, harsh, sexual fiction.
And that, in itself, was revolutionary.
At some point later this year, I’ll be reviewing what is one of my favorite books in the Marketplace series, The Slave, a very differently structured novel which primarily follows one character, Robin.
I can’t wait to introduce you to Robin.