Thrones of Desire

Thrones of Desire, edited by Mitzi Szereto

Full Title: Thrones of Desire: Erotic Tales of Swords, Mist and Fire
Mitzi Szereto
Publisher: Cleis Press (2012)
Number of Pages: 222
How long it took me to read: 1 day
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-1-57344-815-4

Like a Moth to a Flame

Like most of the human race, I’m fascinated by sex. It’s one of those core motivations that belie so much of what we do, yet we understand so little about it, and are willing to explore it even less. It’s something I love and hate about myself—the simultaneous capacity for beauty and weakness. Maybe that’s why I found it difficult to look away from the extravagant cover of Thrones of Desire. There is a half-naked wild woman who has a necklace of fangs around her neck, a blade somewhere between a chef’s knife and a rapier, and a fur wrap for a skirt that doesn’t even grace mid-thigh. She is also wearing a rather useless vest (ermine, I’m guessing, from the rather out of place black polka dots on white) and, for unknown reasons, is carrying a flagpole with a red banner. Maybe she looks so ridiculous because she is some kind of standard bearer and her outfit is purely ceremonial. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued. Her facial expression, something between snobbish pout and ecstatic meditation, has a confusing superiority that compels me to read the stories within.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “She felt completely helpless, suffused by the ancient imperative to yield, to melt, to submit to him.” (p.27)

4. “Our arid land is littered with the corpses of these women whose bodies could no longer provide their husbands with fruit.” (p.151)

3. “After all, he was human, and humans had been designed to reproduce. Some part of him, despite his own proclivities, had to answer that primary urge.” (p.10)

2. “To my utter amazement, I am filled with a rolling sensation, fast as a wind-driven thundercloud. My shrieks become moans. The cloud is dense, dark, centered in my loins for an intolerable moment before it releases a crack of jagged lightning that is the harshest, wildest climax of my life.” (pp.72-3)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “It is only the walls that defend Jericho. Not the soldiers, slipping into alleyways with the cheapest of whores. Not the gates, whose key can be bought with a kiss. Jericho prides itself on the ceremonial beauty of its warriors in their dark uniforms, the masterful workmanship of its gates, but it does not look at its walls. Its walls were not made to be looked at.” (p.200)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: arabesque (noun)

Definition (Source: Meriam Webster): an ornament or style that employs flower, foliage, or fruit and sometimes animal or figural outlines to produce an intricate pattern of interlaced lines
Origins: first know use 1656; French; from Italian arabesco; Arabian in fashion, from arabo; Arab; from Latin Arabus
As in: “Jericho, city of the moon, city of twilight, city of stone shadows and arabesques.” (p.200)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

I’m more than a little skeptical as I begin reading this collection. One of the final selling points mentioned on the back cover is that these stories are inspired by the TV series Game of Thrones. I’m concerned that the editor thought it would be more applicable to compare these stories to an HBO show rather than the series of books, titled A Song of Ice and Fire, that the show is based on. Having both read the series and seen the TV show, my hopes are not high. I simply love the series (and if George R. R. Martin dies before finishing it, there will be a little hole in my soul forever), but the show is merely okay. I enjoy watching one of my favorite stories come to life, but the prevalence of pointless nudity and hardcore sex in the show has induced in me many an eye roll. There’s plenty of meaningful sex in the books without needing to add more. Game of Thrones is practically a drinking game: if a character has to delve into some wordy, long-winded exposition, take one shot if it’s accompanied by a woman who’s topless, take two for full nudity, and take three for a brothel scene complete with giggling.

“Since Thrones of Desire is inspired by a show that views sex as a way to increase viewership, and not as a way to add emotional complexity to storytelling, I’m a bit worried that this book is more pornography than erotica. Sex has its place in fiction—you can’t really examine the broad spectrum of humanity without it—but I find it disingenuous to use it to merely titillate your readers. And, honestly, I would rather have sex than read about it.”

“There’s a surprising amount of violence coming off these pages. A good chunk of it is merely instigated for damsel-saving, but a lot of it also happens between the lovers who are at the center of each story. There are two warriors who wrestle each other into compliance, a wounded knight who rapes his caregiver in the midst of a fever dream, a kidnapper/molester who turns out to be a loving prince from a faraway land, and a woman who feeds her lover to a cavern full of dragons. There are only the faintest hints of S/M, but its milder sisters of submission and domination are everywhere in the collection. For all the quivering and moaning, some of these stories are more about power than they are about sex. And it isn’t even restricted along gender lines; both male and female characters take on both of those roles.

“The human desire to submit has always fascinated me. I mean, domination makes sense from an evolutionary stand point. Submission, less so. But it is something that I have even felt in myself from time to time, and it is a reoccurring theme in many forms of literature. There is something universal about it, and the only way I’ve ever been able to explain it is this: there is a euphoria that accompanies freedom from responsibility.

“The only time we are ever truly free of all responsibility is when we are being dominated by an outside force that limits our ability to choose. The most visceral example of that is another human being. Paradoxically, a slave is free from the burden of choice. I think this is an emotional weight we feel acutely in the U.S., though it is a feeling that is difficult for us to articulate because we are a culture that equates freedom of choice to responsibility. The freedom to sit in the driver’s seat of your own life, to participate in open elections, to marry the person you love, to pick the career that fulfills you, to buy either the crunchy or the creamy peanut butter, is heavy. Because if you steer your life down the wrong road, vote for the wrong candidate, marry the wrong spouse, choose the wrong career, buy the wrong peanut butter (hint: it’s creamy—creamy is always wrong), no one is going to take the responsibility for your failure but you. You will have failed. But if you give up your free will to someone else, you’ll never be a failure. You’ll never succeed at anything either, but hey, life’s full of tradeoffs. In a society driven by success, even a brief vacation from the fear of failure in the form of a sexual encounter where all you have to do is allow yourself to be handcuffed to a bed is more than appealing: it’s intoxicating.”

“The sensation of jumping from one fantastic world to the next is wonderful. The authors of several of the stories have taken great care to add minute details of setting without being overwhelming. They realize that short stories can only give a glimpse, and they want to make sure that glimpse shines. There is the occasional author who uses setting as mere backdrop (for example, the order of the ‘Knights of Helion’ is something that could have been taken straight out of a Dungeons & Dragons manual), and I think that choice misses the point of writing in the fantasy genre. If an author wants setting to be merely backdrop, why write fantasy at all? It’s just going to distract the reader from what the author actually wants to write about. A fantasy world should shape and inform its narrative, not detract from it.”

“I am finding the occasional glint of substance. While most of the stories seem to merely set up plot as a background for copulation, a couple of the authors realize that sex is a unique moment for character development because it gives an intimate look into the will of the protagonist. Sex is one of the most powerful moments when our emotional motivations become physically manifest, and that holds true in fiction as well as in real life.

“All the intimate scenes, however, are very polished, very smoothly put together. It’s rare for me to find an erotic scene that has the fleshiness, the messy beauty, the true clinging intimacy that I associate with real intercourse. Perhaps it is a topic better left to the grittiness and viscera of post-modern poetry, and maybe truly intimate relationships are only erotic to the people having them, but surely that realism is something that an erotic anthology should explore.

“Beyond Song of Ice and Fire, one place I have found that realism in the fantasy genre is in the erotic work of Neil Gaiman. Though some of his grit comes from the fact that he is often writing erotic horror, his sexual content often includes characters whose physical characteristics and personal motivations more often approach reality. Sometimes he takes the realism too far to be palatable (disturbing and pornographic renderings of beloved children stories just don’t do it for me—I’m looking at you, The Problem of Susan), but I don’t think that literature should be written in order to be palatable. American Gods was one of the first books I ever read with adult themes, and though I didn’t verbalize it at the time, I think it was while reading it that I first realized that sex wasn’t about abstract, plasticized beauty, but about a need as visceral as hunger, a need I felt just as much as anyone else. I had read a good deal of erotic fiction, and pornography before I had sex for the first time. Perhaps because my first reading of American Gods was long behind me, I remember being surprised at the physicality of the act itself, the feral vulnerability, the awkwardness of the dance, the laughing and the being afraid of laughing for fear of prodding some freshly exposed nerve, of carelessly brushing an emotional bruise. I did not realize how terrifying it would be, or how wonderful. Most of what I have read and seen is merely a shadow. True art, however, should be a mirror.”

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