I love fantasy stories with evocative descriptions and well-researched world-building. I may even love them a bit too much. There were times in the course of reading Lisette Ashton’s Dragon Desire that I was almost distracted from the sex by the skillful writing. Right away in the Prologue, for instance: As he spoke he lifted the crystal carafe and splashed a gill of the golden liquid into each of the three waiting goblets. This made me think, “Oh, gill/golden/goblet--lovely use of alliteration reminiscent of the Norse saga style!” Fortunately Ashton got me back on track with what followed: He didn’t need Caitrin to reiterate the legends that were associated with dragon horn. He knew all of them and had made up many more. Dragon horn was a legend amongst legends. Nevertheless, he longed to listen to her whisper all the salacious rumours about the reputed benefits of the drink. There were few things more arousing than the voice of a chaste woman talking about illicit sex.
Needless to say, that’s about the last we hear concerning chaste women, although a certain mage does have a spell to restore the physical semblance of chastity, and considerable skill in its application. Illicit sex, however, is nearly omnipresent, with or without the aid of the legendary draught of dragon horn.
The plot of the novel revolves (and twists, and turns, and backflips) around the quest for dragon horn, a rare, very effective, and extremely valuable aphrodisiac derived in some unspecified (but probably harmful) way from dragons, although the dragons in this world have no horns. Even relatively close exposure to dragons produces some of the same effect.
The couplings (or triplings) among the major characters shift from day to day and hour to hour. First Tavia and Caitrin, the twin daughters of the castellan, have a dragon-horn-induced orgy with Robert of Moon Valley, who turns out to be…well, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. Later Tavia gets it on in a dungeon with Alvar the Seer, who turns out to be…well, never mind that. And Caitrin gets special treatment in a dark tower from Nihal the very talented Mage. And their older, married sister Inghean seduces the dragon-keeper Owain (who has to pretend to be…never mind) in the stables. And then she makes out with the loathsome Gethin ap Cadwallon, who is actually… And later there’s much changing of partners in the labyrinths below Gatekeeper Island and the temple above, with the inclusion of Meghan the Dragonmeister and a trio of expert bath attendants. You get the picture. Clue meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a faint aura of Game of Thrones in the way the chapters switch from the close viewpoint of one character to another, avoiding head-hopping within chapters.
It’s all very well done, and, above all, it’s great fun. The sex scenes are frequent, extensive, and explicit; so frequent and extensive, in fact, that there’s some unavoidable repetition, but chances are that only a picky editor would notice it. The premise that drinking dragon horn makes sex exponentially more fabulous than sex without it makes a bit of a problem, since even the sex-without seems hard to surpass, but why complain? And when sex turns out to have a component of true love, one can certainly believe that it’s the best sex of all. This is, after all, a fantasy story.
I can certainly recommend Dragon Desire to those who like well-written, hot-as-a-dragon’s-breath erotica with a fantasy setting. I can even recommend it to those who love fantasy in general, although they, like me, may turn out to wish some of the sex scenes were more, well, compressed, without being any less intense, so that we could get along to more of the intriguing story. Ashton might even think about writing novels with more of the fantasy story elements and less of the sex…as long as the sex stories keep coming too, of course.
I'm American, but since I've been networking with fellow authors from "across the pond," I've picked up a bit of British slang. There's "bollocks," for instance, a far more elegant way to swear than our one-syllable American curse words. I love to say that I'm "chuffed." It's the perfect word to describe that excited, proud, cocky state we writers enter when we learn about an acceptance or first see our work in print. The other day I told my husband, “Don't get your knickers in a twist”. Aside from the fact that he doesn't wear knickers, this phrase is a magnificently evocative description of annoyance and discomfort. And then there's the slang usage of the word "brilliant."
Everyday American English applies the term "brilliant" to works of surpassing artistic genius, like Mozart's "Requiem," or to the inspired leap of intellectual power that leads to great scientific discoveries, like the structure of DNA. Brits, however, appear to use "brilliant" to describe aspects of contemporary culture that are clever, well-executed, and wildly entertaining.
In the British sense, Once Bitten by Lisette Ashton is definitely brilliant. Once Bitten is that exceedingly rare article, an original vampire story. It is also sly, sexy and hilariously funny.
Forget about gothic mansions, shadowy crypts or fog-hung alleys. Ms. Ashton's heroine, a twenty-something slacker named Tessa Cameron, is made a vampire on the couch of her dingy rented flat, in the throes of a Sapphic encounter with her best friend Melinda. As far as Tessa can tell, the main features of being undead are heightened senses, an immortal body that can heal itself of any wound other than a stake through the heart, and an insatiable libido. Oh, and the fact that she can't see herself in mirrors, a detail that causes the somewhat vain Tessa a bit of consternation.
Tessa doesn't even drink blood. She drinks vodka, a clear holdover from her very recent days as a mortal.
We'd been drinking vodka. Mel had found the bottle in the kitchen cupboard of my third floor apartment. It was next to a mouldering loaf of bread and a rusting tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce. The bottle wasn't anything special?one of those made-up Russian names (Glasnost, Prada, Kervorkian or something) that are meant to sound authentic and as though it had been shipped direct from behind the Iron Curtain. The main thing I remember is that it was cheap, the aftertaste wasn't too bad, and it mixed well with the dregs of the Dr. Pepper Mel had brought to our impromptu girls' night in.
Tessa's few qualms about making love to a woman vanish almost immediately under the influence of the vodka and Mel's seductive caresses. However, it turns out that Mel's motives are far from merely sexual. Tessa's century old pal has turned Tessa in order to bring her as an offering to the man she loves, a handsome, tortured and very kinky priest named Alan. By bringing him a vamp to exorcise, Mel hopes to win his affection. Alan, however, betrays Mel herself into the hands of the mysterious Legion of Vampire Hunters, a band of rogue monks dedicated to eradicating the undead--very slowly and painfully.
Tessa may not be the sharpest tool in the shed but she has many positive qualities. She is fiercely loyal and admirably stubborn. She is determined to rescue her friend from the clutches of the villainous League. In pursuing this goal she interacts with a variety of individuals, both vamp and human: her well-hung but boring ex-boyfriend Dean (who happens to be a cop), a gorgeous, titian-haired, blood-sucking lawyer (or is that redundant?) in a power suit named Christine; and the swarthy, hairy, charismatic vampire Dom, Carlos san Miguel. A good deal of the book takes place in Carlos' luxurious home, sort of a cross between the Playboy Mansion and a house of horrors. With the enthusiastic assistance of his voluptuous blonde subs, the Ron Jeremy-esque Carlos subjects poor Tessa to delicious and painful sexual torments that would likely kill a mortal, in an attempt to make her submit. The indomitable Tessa takes it all in stride. Sternly, he demands again and again that Tessa beg for his horse-dimensioned organ. Focused on her objective of freeing her friend and just plain annoyed by the greasy Dom's arrogance, Tessa manages to resist her very strong temptation to comply.
The tale climaxes (so to speak) in Priest Alan's church, where the hapless Mel is bound to the altar and ravaged by members of the Legion. In the course of the scene, a vampire is killed and Tessa is held responsible. In fact the entire novel is narrated within the frame of her trial for heresy, treason and murder. The logic and decorum of Ms. Ashton's vampire court is reminiscent of the Red Queen's.
I don't think I'm giving away too much by telling you that Once Bitten ends happily for all concerned (except the murdered villain, who definitely deserves his fate) and indeed, that true love conquers. The fun of this book is in the journey, though, not in the destination. The frequent and inventive sex scenes (including an abundance of delicious lesbian interaction), the meticulous attention to details of costume and setting (the look-a-like trio of subs are particularly vivid) and the occasional off-hand social commentary make the book a delight to read. It's difficult to write humorous erotica without slipping over the line and becoming ridiculous, but Ms. Ashton succeeds wonderfully. The sex scenes manage to be arousing even though they tend to be (as we Americans say) "over the top". This is partly due to the intimacy of Tessa's first person narrative (and the fact that she's an exceptionally horny young vampire).
No, I don't think it's an exaggeration to call Once Bitten brilliant. It might even be appropriate in the American sense. In a literary scene awash with vampires, Tessa stands apart. She might not make you swoon, but she'll definitely make you howl--with laughter and perhaps even with lust.