When it comes to transgender erotic romance, it seems like many authors tend to take one of two routes with their book – gender confusion or sexual confusion. In the case of the former, they approach every transgender individual as a full-fledged transsexual, just waiting to be revealed. In the case of the latter, they use transvestism as a cover or a coping mechanism for repressed homosexual urges, and explore it as an act of coming-out.
What few authors seem content to do is explore gender expression for what it is, which is an act of expression. Rarely do they allow a transvestite to simply be a straight man who takes comfort in occasionally expressing himself as a woman.
With Kiss, C J Payne focuses, for the most part, on that gender expression. Even if she does eventually cross some lines in terms of sexual identity, there’s no confusion, no covering, and no coping, just the natural progression of placing one’s self in situations that enhance the look and feel of femininity.
Alex Mann is an average, ordinary, well-adjusted young man who very much enjoys his transvestite outings. He is a man who carefully studies the way women walk, talk, and move about, looking for traits to emulate. For him, transvestism isn’t about the feel of the clothes or the taste of lipstick, it’s about the act of taking on a new persona and being accepted in it. When Kara Richardson begins developing a friendship with him, he looks to her as not just a girlfriend, but also as a ‘girl’ friend.
In fact, it’s Kara who is the main character here, and the narrator of the story, which offers an interesting twist on things. It is Kara who drives Alex’s sexual explorations, and Kara who deliberately puts him in situations where he is tempted to further explore the authenticity of his feminine experience. Ultimately, it’s the act of being courted and desired as a woman that convinces Alex to consummate his relationship with a man, but he never loses sight of the fact that it’s Kara that he loves.
What initially struck me about Caroline's Company was the amount of care and detail Caroline Jane Wetherby put into making her story feel authentic. The palatial mansion, the typical domestic staff, and the elegant dominatrix are all standard story elements for the genre, but it’s what she does with them that makes the story so delightful. All too often it's like these stories are set in a museum, devoid of any warmth of personal touches, but Caroline's home is as comfortable as it is magnificent, and the domestic staff are all ordinary human beings, personable and pleasant, with even a bit of a back story.
As for Caroline, she is a charismatic and loving woman, and a natural leader. There is a strength to her that doesn't need to be expressed with whips and chains and collars and all the rest. She is a woman of passion and elegance who expects to be obeyed, but who also understands that she is responsible for those in her charge. I think that sense of ownership, paired with genuine affection, is what makes the story so compelling.
Caroline's Company is a 4-part story that follows a very traditional story arc, but in an unusual way. After the Dreams provides a sort of introduction to the characters, their world, and the relationships involved. A Private Collection takes the story to the next step, evolving those characters, while also exploring a dramatic rescue. The Wages of Sin follows up on that rescue with a tale that is largely focussed on justice and revenge, but which continues to evolve the characters. Ecstasies and Agonies then wraps things up with a story of salvation, redemption, and happy endings.
Something that I really appreciated about the primary story arc is the realistic way in which the transgender element of the story is addressed. While Cassie does have a relatively easy time transitioning from a physical perspective, her mental and emotional transition is far more complex. I loved the fact that she was allowed to have real doubts and fears, to be impatient with her own development, and to be genuinely excited by her success. Similarly, Sadie's story is handled very well, especially once her tragic history is revealed. There is a very ‘forced’ sort of transformation in the later volumes that strains that realism, but it’s justified in how it ties together themes and characters.
In terms of sexuality, Wetherby smartly avoids shocking and titillating the reader with tawdry and explicit vulgarity. Instead, the sexuality here is subtle, suggestive, and oh-so-sensuous. I honestly cannot remember the last time I read a novel (erotic or otherwise) that took such a sweet, tender, and wholesome approach to a BDSM-themed lifestyle. Although the story explores everything from old-fashioned collars to cutting-edge bio-feedback tails, from maid’s outfits to pony-play, it never loses sight of the women at the heart of it all. This is not an environment full of degradation and humiliation, but one of mutual pleasure and, most importantly, empowerment.
Similarly, I love the fact that the entire story arc embraces, accepts, and empowers so many different expressions one one's self. There are no labels or definitions regarding gender or sexuality, just women who are at presented at different stages of their own personal evolution. There are also no labels as to gay, lesbian, or bisexual, just the rules that sex should always give enjoyment to more than one person.
The tone of the story does change drastically in the third book, forsaking much of the down-to-earth romantic fiction for a harder, more edgy sort of thriller, but it’s necessary to bring about a truly happy ending. We see that there are right ways and wrong ways to play with sexual power, and that there are consequences for abusing people. When the darker plot fully emerges, the story really climbs to a new level. As she deliberately contrasts the love and affection of Caroline's household with the cruelty and the sorrow of the human slave trade, Wetherby reveals even deeper layers of strength and solidarity in the girls.
This is a wonderfully written novel that is both extraordinarily moving and incredibly arousing. Caroline's world is the kind of home that we all aspire to, a place to feel safe, loved, accepted, and empowered. Wetherby goes to great pains to remind us that the rest of the world is not so friendly, but she also provides hope that goodness can and will prevail. While it’s much more than just the tale of Cassie and Sadie, those two heroines are never far from the core of the story, and their evolution into women is absolutely delightful.