Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review--Strength in Numbers 3: Branded, by Rachel Bo

Strength in Numbers 3: Branded

by Rachel Bo


BDSM f/f/m poly erotic romance-bisexual


Purchase at Loose Id, fictionwise

Brandy Mitchell has it all. Wonderful friends, a career she loves, a great life. But something is missing, and it’s not just love.

The people around her are all involved -- in committed, loving relationships with multiple partners. She’s never been judgmental, and she can definitely understand the appeal. Still, she’s never found that kind of bond -- the kind that makes her friend Kendall glow with vibrant sexuality -- with one person, let alone two.

When she takes a ‘special’ cruise, she’s shocked to find herself aroused by blatant, public sexual displays. She’s never even thought of herself as especially kinky. And then she meets Eric and Lin -- a Dominant pair looking for a submissive…

When you’re looking for love, sometimes you have to walk on the wild side.

Publisher's Note: This book contains material that may be offensive to some readers: bdsm, menage, m/f/f.

Reviewer's note: This book was published 4 years ago, and I only found it last week, despite my frequent prowls for f/f/m menage romance from publishers I know are open to it. Despite several searches of Loose Id's site using the terms "f/f", "f/f/m", and "m/f/f", their search engine failed to spit out this book. I only discovered it because in my travels across blogland hunting down discussions of f/f content, an author (I don't even remember if it was Rachel Bo, or just someone whose name I didn't recognize from my multiple searches of the site) mentioned she'd had an f/f/m published by Loose Id. I went hunting again, using every term for f/f I could find. And finally turned this one up with the keyword "lesbian".

Lesbian???!!! Are you kidding me? Neither of the female characters are lesbians, the relationship is not a lesbian one, and the sex is not lesbian--it's menage. Yet it's categorized as "lesbian", but not "f/f", "f/f/m" or "m/f/f"???!!! I'm sorry, but you guys, publishers and authors both, are going to have to do a better job of putting this stuff in front of the right eyes. Because people searching for lesbian books are NOT looking for f/f/m menage--even if there are lesbian sex scenes in them--and people looking for f/f/m menage are NOT looking for lesbian books!

I constantly see comments about how f/f and f/f/m just doesn't sell. But essentially hiding it from the very people who want to read it and are actively seeking it, well I can't imagine that helps move the stuff.


Now for the review. Where do I start? With Brandy, I suppose.

Brandy is a control freak. She manages two artisan shops with plans to open a third soon, and like most type A personalities, she takes on more responsibiltiy than is necessary or healthy, and steamrolls over anyone with the temerity to help her with what she sees as her duties. She's territorial and possessive--both with her place in the universe and with the people in her life--but at the same time, she holds those dearest to her at a safe distance, afraid to get close but constantly terrified of losing them. She keeps furiously busy and distracts herself with a thousand tiny minutiae so she never has to think about how lonely and empty her life is.

Brandy's been out of the dating scene for a while. For her, the courtship dance seems a pointless exercise. The men she's dated have never done a thing for her, and she finds herself wondering just what's wrong with her that no man she's ever met has pushed her heartrate above a sluggish 70 beats per minute.

In desperation, she lets her best friend Kendall talk her into going on a "special" cruise (we all know what "special" means in this context, so save your eyebrow waggling for someone else :P). I quite liked the uncertainty that comes out in her when she removes herself from her comfort zone and throws herself into this new experience.

On the first night, in one of several night clubs on board, she notices a couple watching her, and the game is on. The couple are brazen in their fondling of each other, their eyes locked on Brandy's as they invite her into a tiny circle of voyeuristic desire. Brandy finds herself so stirred by them, she does something that shocks her to her type A core. But when the couple approach her, she runs like a skeert rabbit, appalled and frightened by her own out-of-character behavior.

The next day, she's still thinking about the couple when she finds a secluded spot on deck to sun herself. Next thing you know, they're right there. They introduce themselves as Eric and Madeleine (Lin) Brogan. They seem to be ordinary people on the surface, but Brandy can sense under that facade a predatory nature that both excites and unnerves her.

Brandy is enormously attracted to them, and in short order they've charmed their way into her bikini bottoms and have brought her off in spectacular style. I'm not going to lie. Between the public sex, their brief acquaintance, the subtle D/s dynamics and the mild sadomasochism, well...this bit was effing hot. I mean, really hot. Ms. Bo's writing is smooth enough and her POV protagonist well-developed enough for me to really buy her conflicting feelings of attraction and unease, and those feelings upped the stakes and the heat level.

After a perfectly normal bout of angsting over how she can be attracted to a woman (which has never happened before), and how she could possibly be thinking of an extended fling with two people she just met, Brandy embraces the opportunity. This was my favorite part of the novel. Over the course of the cruise, Brandy, Eric and Lin do lots of the normal relationshippy things people do, and have some of the hottest sex I've read in a while--uncovering Brandy's enjoyment of pain and giving up control, and all the while their emotional bond grows stronger.

And then [insert doomsday metaphor here], when at the end of the cruise it's revealed that Eric and Lin are the owners of the cruise line. And that they are BDSM practitioners. We're not talking dabblers, either. They're both Doms, and they've been searching far and wide for a compatible sub that could become more than a few weekends' plaything. Something permanent. And they want Brandy.

Brandy is...kind of thrown. She doesn't want to lose Eric and Lin, but she's not sure about this whole BDSM thing. And to be honest, neither am I. I like the characters as they've been introduced to me, and I want to see them end up together, but this is the point where I started to have mixed feelings about this novel. I mean, Rachel Bo is clearly a talented writer, and she seems to know her stuff as far as master/slave relationships go. But the second half of the book is...not for the squeamish.

The discipline--both physical and emotional--is extreme. The BDSM is that highly ritualized form where the scenarios are painstakingly orchestrated and the practitioners don costumes I can't help but see (at least when worn by men) as a little absurd. I know it's my own tastes and biases talking here, but I just can't make the leap in my mind from high-powered entrepreneur in a Hugo Boss suit to a bondage master in leather pants that lace up at the crotch.

(Yes, it's just me. A writer like Remittance Girl can make a greying man with glasses and a paunch sexy in my mind, but I don't know if any writer is talented enough to put even Clive Owen in leather bondage get-up and make him appeal to me.)

Still, although I found the physical discipline a little (okay, a lot) too over the top for my taste, and the emotional discipline made me like Eric and Lin a little less, the scenes in between the ritual--the small, spontaneous moments of affection and closeness--were nice. The story is told solely from Brandy's POV, and her journey toward understanding herself and her needs is clearly defined. And though I wish the novel had continued as it had begun--with more subtle D/s dynamics and something approaching a normal relationship, I can't say this was a bad book, or that the second half totally ruined it for me or anything. In fact, I can tell you the sex was still freaking blammo--but the BDSM got in the way of my emotional connection to the characters. Again, just me.

The book ends on an HEA for three (which is my favorite kind), and though I didn't love the second half as much as the first, it kept me reading and enjoying until the end. I was thinking of giving this one a dual grade, but since my mixed feelings are based on personal bias and not the strength of the storytelling, I decided against it.

I can imagine readers who enjoy BDSM-heavy romance more than I do would find this a sexy, satisfying read, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. Oh well, the search goes on.

Sex rating: Orgasmic--very graphic language, public sex, voyeurism, "sharing" of subs between doms' friends, pretty extreme physical discipline, dildo use, and a butt-load (pun intended) of anal.

And a note to readers: the Brazilian waxing scene should not be used as a stand-in for the product manufacturer's instructions unless you want to make an embarrassing trip to the ER.

Grade: B


MB (Leah) said...

I have to say that from this review, I might even try to read this book. Even though the BDSM, which I'm not fond of, is of the more ritualized rather than hinted at kind, in some author's hands I can get into it.

But I'd only read a book like that if there's nothing else to read.

I think the psychology of a person who is outwardly and thinks inwardly that they are type A and need to control everything finding out that they like to give up control can be an interesting thing in a character make up.

What I don't get is two people married or together for a long time both being able to be Doms. This would have me scratching my head.

Was it believable that both Lin and
Eric were OK with each other as doms?

I do like the fact though that all parties bond emotionally and that it's not totally about just BDSM orchestrations. In BDSM I'm more into the psychological aspects behind it and if an author can convince me of that, I can be good with the nitty gritty of BDSM.

Once again, I'm glad you read this one Kirsten. LOL

kirsten saell said...

I'm glad I read it, too. Glad I found it, LOL.

As for Lin and Eric being doms, they actually seemed kind of...vanilla with each other, and that made sense. They really did seem to need a sub to complete them, and had engaged some short-term subs to satisfy the sexual side of that need.

I'm not sure whether it was because Lin was the woman and therefore Brandy pondered her feelings for Lin more, but she seemed slightly more fleshed out as a character than Eirc, and I found her style of domination so hot--even when things were getting extremely rough. Although it might have been my own bias in liking f/f D/s dynamics better than m/f when it comes to BDSM.

She actually reminded me a bit of the Maid in La Bonne, since Lin spoke with a French accent and was constantly praising and encouraging Brandy in that effusive, adoring way the Maid used with Amanda. And she was very open in her fascination with innocence and the "corruption of innocence" (to borrow Remittance Girl's words) that was so hot in deLully's La Bonne, and RG's The Dinner Party.

It really was a good book, and although the physical and emotional discipline were a bit harsh for me, the scenes where Eric and Lin let their friends "play" with Brandy were freaking hot, as well. And it's strange but even in those scenes, I didn't doubt their devotion to her.

Anonymous said...

I would have thought you had already read it, though I only found it through Rachel Bo used to be an autobuy for me when this book came out.
I actually quite like this book, and it is quite hot.
I must admit though that the way their relationship turned out in the end, Brandy's decisions life wise, left me a bit.. uncomfortable? But I think that is a personal thing.

Anonymous said...


Apologies for the poorly worded post, six day - too many hours = my brain is fried.

kirsten saell said...

No worries, Anon, LOL. I can relate.

I have to reiterate how glad I was to have found this one. I can't tell you how frustrating it is when you're actively looking for a kind of book that probably comprises less than 3% of the titles available, and publishers don't label them correctly. I mean, yes, it's a niche market, but failing to present it to those niche readers can only hinder a book's success.

And I agree, I felt a degree of discomfort with Brandy's journey, but yes, that is a personal thing. I've had one of my books reviewed poorly because of a reviewer's personal bias against f/f sensuality before, and I refuse to do that. This book was well written and kept me interested right to the end, and I'm not the type of person to give it a lower grade because master/slave romance isn't my cuppa.

Anonymous said...

I soo should have nanna-napped this arvo, but hey.
Even the apology was stuffed up, pmsl.
Def loved the story, and was able to get past the personal bit at the end, though do think of it every time the book comes up in conversation.

And yes it would be a lot easier if pubs would have some sort of categorisation, instead of having to wade through 500 mm releases to find one ff. *stamps feet*