I’m always really wary about reviews that begin with “I don’t like genre/subgenre [x]” like it’s a badge of honor. It inevitably leads to the reviewer making trite observations about what are probably quite sophisticated tropes, and winding up with a comment along the lines of “I’d have enjoyed this romance a lot if the central couple hadn’t got together at the end” or “This space opera would have been so much better if it hadn’t been set in space.”
Nevertheless, I feel I can’t really talk about Cecilia Tan’s Slow Surrender without first offering this bit of context: of all the subgenres of romance I’ve encountered, the one that appeals to me least is the one I think of as Billionaire & Human Female, books where the hero is some kind of tormented, maverick genius billionaire, and the heroine is, well, a human female, and often seems to have no distinctive features beyond this. Fifty Shades of Grey kind of typifies the subgenre for me. That said, this is entirely personal taste. There’s nothing wrong with B&HF, and, if it’s your kind of thing, then I suspect you’ve probably already read Slow Surrender. If not, you should. You’ll like it. See you later.
However, if B&HF is not your preferred subgenre then this review is for you, because you should read this book, too. Books that explicitly and self-consciously interact with their genre can be quite difficult artefacts. Deconstructing tropes is all very well, but it can leave you with nothing more than dust on the floor, and internalized critique is only meaningful to a reader if you already agree with the criticisms being made. Also it tends to place the author outside the text they’re writing, which can be quite alienating. Slow Surrender, however, navigates this complicated territory expertly, managing to both engage with and represent its subgenre. To me it felt very much as though it enjoyed, and respected, the fantasy elements of B&HF, while gently challenging some of its more troubling aspects.
Of course, a large part of the reason Slow Surrender worked for me, when pretty much nothing else in this subgenre does, is that it felt like a lot of the things that annoy me about B&HF were specifically and very directly being addressed, and this is largely what shaped my response to the text. Honestly, it gave me warm and gleeful fuzzies, because it felt like me and Slow Surrender were in the pub together, and I’d be all like “you know what really bugs me” and Slow Surrender would put down its pint, and go “totally, because I’m about six steps ahead of you, and I’ve already fixed it.”
The plot of Slow Surrender is pretty simple in terms of actual events, although it’s also an intense emotional and sexual journey. The book opens with the heroine, Karina (who is actually a PhD student), filling in as a waitress at her sister’s restaurant. She meets a mysterious man who offers her a marble and an invitation to a sexual game. Aaaand, that’s it. Expect lots of kinky adventures, including shibari, exhibitionism, pain play, orgasm denial and general boundary pushing, deep conversations about sex, desire, and freedom, and a mystery surrounding the identity of the hero, which is pretty obvious to a reader because of the narrative context, but doesn’t make Karina look like an idiot for not getting it. There’s also various side characters who exist for reasons other than to make the heroine look good, and Karina has genuinely affectionate and meaningful relationships with people besides the hero. Win win win win win.
In case it’s not obvious, I have all the enthusiasm for Slow Surrender. It’s a thoughtful book, and at the same time a fun one—which is a difficult balance to strike, I think, but so delightful when it works. I probably can’t entangle all the ways it’s clever and interesting, but here are some of the ways it really worked for me in terms of the B&HF subgenre. Basically, my main difficulties with these sort of stories fall broadly into three categories.
Problem Numero Uno: The Human Female
While I recognise that issues of empathy, placeholding and identification are very complex and very subjective, I’ve discovered I tend to be a heroine focused romance reader. I don’t particularly identify with heroes (because they’re kind of doofusy), and I rarely fancy them (see previous), so this leaves the poor heroine bearing the full weight of my interest, sympathy and attraction. Unfortunately, I tend to find the heroines of B&HF kind of uninteresting, despite the layer of “feisty” that is usually spread across their blandness like an insufficient quantity of buttercream over a badly baked sponge cake. This leaves the central premise of the book—that Billionaire would be utterly emotionally, intellectually and sexually obsessed with Human Female—a little bit incomprehensible to me.
Karina is not like this at all. She read to me like a fully-rounded person, someone I would be really thrilled to be friends with, or, you know, perform a variety of kinky activities with. She’s not feisty, she’s genuinely adventurous and bold, all the more so because she deliberately chooses to push and challenge herself. She’s open to experiences, willing to take chances, but not risks, and she certainly doesn’t put up with any bullshit:
I decided to test him out a little, though. “I’ll play if you’ll answer a question.”
He smiled. “Name it,” he said, imitating me perfectly.
“Tell me why a wealthy, well-dressed man like yourself is drinking alone.”
“You mean, am I here fleeing aharridan wife or escaping my supermodel girlfriend?”
I shook a finger at him. “No answering a question with a question, mister. That’s rude.”
The other thing I found really refreshing about Karina is that while her sex games with the hero (James) naturally create a push-pull dynamic, there’s never any doubt that Karina is there because she wants it, and she’s chosen it, and she’s having a really fantastic time. She’s an enthusiastic participant in everything they do, even when she’s allowed James to do something with her that leaves her exposed or helpless or vulnerable. Her submission to him is active—physically, emotionally, intellectually—which is, uh, cough, sexy as hell.
Where was I?
Oh, and while Karina is great—honestly great, on my list of romance heroines I’d totally want to go out with—part of it lies in the way she’s quite an “ordinary” person. I use the word “ordinary” advisedly because I’m occasionally quite troubled by the way ideas of ordinariness interact with the gender dynamics of the B&HF genre, but Karina is ordinary in a specific and detailed way. She feels like someone you could meet, or someone you could know, but at the same time is uniquely herself, a character, not just a Human Female, right down to her occasional gawkiness, her inability to put stockings on, and her love of bad puns. She’s a little bit insecure sometimes, she makes mistakes, she doesn’t naturally triumph over all adversity (there’s an on-going issue of sexual harassment in her department she’s unable to resolve), and she’s occasionally just a bit rubbish in this low-key, recognizably human way. Like there’s this conversation with her Chinese housemate:
“So you are Chinese!”
“Yeah, I am. Didn’t you know that?”
“I wasn’t sure which nationality you were.”
“You could’ve asked, you know.”
Problem Two: The Billionaire
Again, this is pretty personal and mileage may vary, but I generally find Billionaire-type heroes to be complete tossbuckets. And maybe it’s just me, but I feel quite strongly that the ideal person to stand over you wielding an implement while you’re naked and helpless is absolutely not a complete tossbucket.
James is not a complete tossbucket. He seems to have an actual personality, and hobbies beyond stalking and/or trying to put his dick in the heroine. I’m not in any position to judge but, to me, he comes across as someone you might conceivably trust to play sexual trust games with. He’s not pushy, or threatening ever, and he’s genuinely careful to make sure Karina feels safe with him. He is, of course, sexually dominant and to a degree dominant in their interactions because he sets and controls their games, but he’s never a dickhead about it. Usually he’s terribly, terribly polite, and I genuinely appreciated a portrayal of male dominance that wasn’t stompy or psychotic. That struck me as genuinely attractive. I suppose, if I wanted to say something glib, I could say he’s basically a beta dom, but that doesn’t quite do justice to his characterisation.
The other thing I liked about him is that he’s not an infallible master of circumstance – occasionally something interferes with their activities, because engineering kinky sex games isn’t an exact science, and they deal with it:
“I apologize for my error in judgment,” he said, a bit of a quaver in his voice. “I would’ve liked to watch you walk the entire block very much.”
“Yes, well,” I said, because I felt I had to say something, “that’s New York. Never know when you’re going to hit traffic.”
Problem the Third: The Sexing
This is kind of a symptom more than a problem, arising from problems one and two. Given that B&HF is a very sexually charged and sexually driven genre, I personally don’t quite know how to invest in a tossbucket and a badly baked sponge cake getting each other off. I mean, dominating her would be like trying to dominate a piece of damp spaghetti and I wouldn’t trust him to open a tin of beans—yet, somehow, there they are, having what is apparently hot and fulfilling kinky sex. And while I could probably not-entirely-willingly suspend my disbelief, what I really can’t get my head around is that the sex never seems very...well...fun. In erotic romance especially, sex is as important to the story as plot and character. It’s how these people communicate. But it often feels to me that as soon as the word “kinky” gets applied to a sex scene, then suddenly it becomes this “other” type of sex that becomes divorced from all the other reasons you might normally choose to have sex with someone: desire, attraction, loneliness, tenderness, joy, connection, vulnerability.
This is, err, not an issue in Slow Surrender. It is the very opposite of an issue. Because I genuinely liked (and could comfortably envisage being interested enough to bonk) both Karina and James, their mutual attraction made perfect sense to me, and consequently their erotic encounters were, y’know, emotionally satisfying and interesting to read about. They also seem to be having a lot of fun together. Something I particularly appreciated about Slow Surrender was—even though they’re often quite intense—a lot of what they do together is saturated with a sense of play. There’s an extent to which I probably just got lucky in the book being well-suited to, uh, what I think about things, but I’m huge believer in the impact, and importance of play in adult life, and Slow Surrender embraces those ideas so wholeheartedly it was impossible for me not to be completely in love with it. Fairytales are a very explicit theme, and so there’s a lot of performance, and playacting, and dressing up, and storytelling in their relationship, but I was just really enchanted to read a book that depicted kinky sex with such whimsy and joy. Sometimes they’re even laughing at their own game:
He chuckled. “I’m tempted to, but no. Even seeing my cock is a privilege you will have to earn.”
“Really?” I sat up a bit straighter, trying to wrap my head around the idea. A man whose number-one goal wasn’t to get off was still a foreign concept to me. “Is it that gorgeous? Or is it deformed or something?”
One of the other things that worked for me (and, let’s face it, there were many) was the mutuality and the reciprocality of their relationship. I mentioned above how marvellously active Karina’s sexual submission is but, far from being a stereotypical icedom, James is as much made vulnerable by his desires as Karina is. It’s personal taste but, while I entirely support its legitimacy, I absolutely don’t get the fantasy of the apparently indifferent partner, as you squirm around in exquisite sexual agony. I could see it might give an extra frisson, but, for me, if I was going to go to all that trouble, I’d want to be damn sure the other person was visibly getting off on it.
While James spends a lot of the book controlling his own desires, or rather expressing them through Karina’s, his fascination with her, and his reactions to her are never in doubt. Nor is the fact that they are bothrevealing themselves, and surrendering to each other. There’s a really lovely scene in the middle of the book, where Karina kisses James’ feet after sex:
His feet were more slender than I expected, and on a whim I bent down and kissed them. His breath caught. I kissed one, planting a short line of kisses from his toes toward his ankle, and then went down the other instep from ankle totoes. I raised my head slowly then, letting my eyes travel up his legs to his… and then my breath caught. He was rampant, his cock jutting out from his pubic hair. Having his feet kissed aroused him that much? I looked up at him as I pressed one almost-chaste peck on the tip of it and saw that he was biting his lip.
I can think of about a gazillion ways something like this could seem either passive or debasing, or just intersect really, really problematically with gendered power dynamics. It’s just my take, but I felt it really worked in this book, for these characters. It’s edged with their usual sense of play (when Karina finishes, she makes a joke about King Cophetua and the beggar maid), James is clearly annihilatingly romanced by it (cos, hell, who wouldn’t be) and —as ever —it’s Karina’s choice, and she’s absolutely in control of that choice.
Slow Surrender is very explicitly an exploration of power and sex and stories. Occasionally, I found it strayed very close to didacticism—but, again, mileage may vary. I think anything can feel didactic if it’s expressing ideas you’re already familiar with. For example, there’s a subplot involving Karina’s thesis which involves her advisor (I think is what they call them in America?) expecting her to wear floral skirts and give him blowjobs. To me, and I recognise I’m not really in position to have much insight into this, it’s just a little too much. Not the sexual harassment, but the fact the sexual harassment was so extreme, and coupled with this very literal “women should wear floral skirts” misogyny. But then academia is messed up, so who the heck knows? I think it was because the book is quite subtle with the rest of its explorations of power and gender, the fact these scenes are so blatant is a little jarring. And I felt while they were perhaps necessary to contrast against Karina’s choices with James (i.e. that sexual submission is not inherently disempowering and anti-feminist) it felt like a rather blunt instrument.
Also there’s an evil older ex in the final third of the book, who I was expecting to challenge the wicked witch stereotype that seems so prevalent in B&HF. Except—that doesn’t happen. Slow Surrender is the first book in a trilogy so perhaps wicked witch is in the queue for later, but the book is otherwise so committed to exploring and re-shaping the tropes of B&HF I was genuinely a bit shocked when that one hit me in the face. But, basically, my only real niggle with the book was connected to its series-ness. I’ll discuss that in a moment, but it’ll contain spoilers so, if you’ve made it this far and don’t want to know how things end, look away. Or rather, go and buy this book right now, whether you like B&HF or not. I’m not a natural erotic romance reader (I get embarrassed) but it’s sexy, fun, romantic and clever. What more could you want?
Okay, on to the niggle! A major part of my pleasure in Slow Surrender was the consistent sensibleness of the protagonists. They talk a lot, they resolve issues when they come up, they generally respect each other, and behave in a rational way. Except at the very end. When he’s a twonk. So, James has refused to give Karina his name or any clues about his true identity throughout the book, and she’s made a choice to go along with it because she’s a grown up and can, therefore, make grown up decisions. James has also refused to have PIV sex with her, but that’s part of their mutually-consented-to sex game. The climax (of the book) takes place at a Cinderella-ey kink ball, where they’re finally going to bonk. On the brink of, err, you know, Karina insists that James tell her his name, because they’re in love and this is getting silly now, or there will be No Entry. He tells her, they have awesome sex, he cries, then runs away and leaves her. Because who he is A Big Deal and she has, like, violated his identity or set him an ultimatum. Or whatever, man, whatever.
Now, okay, in his defence, just before you put your dick inside someone is a really, really bad time to be asked anything apart from “can you put your dick in me now.” So, yes, that was non-ideal behavior on Karina’s part. But, on his part? Jesus. He’d been so Not A Wanker for the whole book, I felt genuinely betrayed. What’s worse is that he’s left his chauffeur to take Karina home, and they end up discussing “what she’s done” as if she’s the one to blame here. A big theme in the book is the idea of either / or choices. As James says:
Life’s full of people who want to split everything into either/ or, when in reality so often and would serve them better.
The thing is, I agree with this sentiment, but Karina concludes that James running out on her like a complete weasel is her fault for essentially making their sex games and the possibility of a relationship into an either / or instead of an and. But, the way I see it, James has made his whole identity an either / or (the game OR his name) and then throws a wobbly when Karina fights for her right to and. Which makes you, Mr James Spoiler Name Redacted Spoiler, a goddamn hypocrite. And I am very, very cross with you right now. Partially I blame the trilogy requirement of the B&HF subgenre but it was still an irritating end to an otherwise bloody awesome book. However, given that it isa trilogy, there’s an extent to which this isn’t a fair criticism. And likely I will be eating my hat and looking sheepish when I’ve read the second one.
Which I will absolutely be doing, by the way.
Because: rabidly hooked.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Slow Surrender: kinky sex is actually fun, enjoying kinky sex isn’t a sign of being broken and deranged, marbles are shockingly sexy, to pay more attention at art exhibitions, men called James are the best men.
Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.