Sunday, February 1, 2015

Lips Like Ice by Peggy Barnett

Well now, this certainly wasn't the book that I was expecting. When Peggy Barnett pitched it to me, I thought it would just be a fun bit of erotic gender-bending fluff. Of course, knowing Peggy, and knowing what else she writes, I really should have expected more. Yes, there is a lot of eroticism here, and it definitely breaks the gender binary, but none of it is fluff. In fact, Lips Like Ice is a very deep, very thoughtful story that goes to some very dark places, both physically and psychologically.

Before I get into its themes, let me set the stage for you. Lydia awakens from a surreal sort of illness, bereft of both her memories and emotions, to find herself in an alien land. All she knows is that she has been brought there by the Queen, to serve as a pet for an adolescent royal. Not a friend, not a companion, not a lover, but a pet that will help its owner to learn compassion and caring. As for her owner, the Prince is an elf-like being – perhaps a god or an alien – from a civilization that looks down on humanity as a lesser, animalistic race.

That brings me to the first theme here, which is one of dominance and submission. Human pets are a common aspect of BDSM erotica, usually with a collared slave who happily submits to the role. There’s a servile, submissive element, but it’s clearly role-play. Here, Peggy strips away the safety and sanity of the role-play framework and explores what it really means to be a pet, not a person. Lydia is ignored, her comforts disregarded, and often completely dismissed – not out of cruelty, but simple neglect. She nearly dies because the Prince doesn’t give any thought to her needs, and more than once is kicked like a puppy when he’s in a bad mood. It’s a relationship that evolves throughout the tale, but that role of pet, that question of ownership, is always there.

Not surprisingly, the theme that excited me the most is the one that Peggy uses to take the story outside the gender binary. The Prince, when we meet him, is a smooth, hairless, genderless being, on the cusp of maturity . . . at which time he will choose a gender. The very idea of being able to choose a gender is an attractive one, but Peggy doesn’t play it safe or easy. The Prince comes from a culture where only firstborns are expected to choose male, and younger siblings female. The fact that he has chosen male is a great scandal, putting both Lydia and himself in grave danger. There’s some fascinating exploration, particularly in the latter part of the book, into why he chose male, what prompted it, and what it all means. Anybody who has ever stepped outside the gender binary will immediately appreciate the dilemma he faces.

Actually, the Prince’s world is one in which sex is just as bent as gender, but I will restrain myself (as much as I’d love to gush over the imagination there), and not spoil the surprises!

The final theme here is one of consent. Lydia is very aware of her circumstances, and painfully aware of the ways (both deliberate and unconscious) in which the Prince tries to domesticate her and win her affection. She knows all about feeling like a victim. She’s aware of the perils of Stockholm syndrome, and she constantly questions her own actions towards the Prince. The question of rape looms large over the entire story, and if it gets uncomfortable at times . . . well, it should. To easily dismiss it or resolve it would be to neuter the whole story, and some role/gender reversal in the final act of the story really brings this theme home.

There are so many things I’d love to say about the story itself, but you really need to let it develop for yourself. Peggy took it in places I so did not expect, challenging me, delighting me, and ultimately rewarding me with an absolutely perfect ending. Lips Like Ice is often deeply thoughtful, to the point of being philosophical, but just as often tender, erotic, and exciting. OMG, is it ever worth a read!

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