Saturday, July 16, 2011

REVIEW: Soft Focus by Jaye Valentine and Reno MacLeod

This was just a lovely story, as thoroughly enjoyable as it was completely satisfying. On the surface, Soft Focus is a BDSM fantasy, one that's played out over a Halloween weekend in an exclusive hotel. It has all the trappings you would expect, include a lifestyle couple, an exhibition of pain and punishment, and some elaborate costumes. All the characters are there for an exciting exploration of the BDSM scene . . . but not quite in the way you would expect.

Let's start with Ethan Bouwer, author and photographer, and the reader's perspective into the story. Ethan is an innocent soul, almost wholly ignorant of the BDSM scene. He is only exposed to it by accident, through a magazine shared on an intercontinental flight, and his decision to investigate the scene for a new book is simply a whim. Through him we get to experience the scene as an outsider, to dabble a bit, and to test our limits. His assumptions are likely similar to those of most novices or outsiders, and his physical progression through the story parallels that of the reader's ideas.

David Turner is the man who brings us into this world, having agreed to an interview to help provide some background for Ethan's book. In many respects he is the Dominant we would expect - supremely confident, decisive, prone to black leather, and entirely possessive of his 'family.' He is far more than just a stereotype, however, with surprising (and delightful depths to his character). Playful, aloof, and comfortable engaging in an almost self-depreciating banter with his submissive, he's as much a romantic hero as a dominant one. David is arousing, both intellectually and amorously, and the force of his personality projects beyond the page, drawing us willingly into the scene.

A story centered on Ethan and David would have been quite satisfactory, but it's the presence of Kiyoshi that escalates this to stellar. Kiyoshi is David's lifestyle submissive, a playful, obedient, loyal, sweet, cheeky, gender-bending boy. Far more than a transvestite or crossdresser, Kiyoshi is the epitome of genderqueer - both masculine and feminine at the same time, encapsulating the best qualities of each. He dresses to impress, to best display that which belongs to David, but makes no attempt to disguise his voice or his manner of speaking. He is very proper and careful, seductively choreographed in his every move, but his femininity is just as much an act as his innocence. I know I'm not doing him justice - he really does need to be experienced - but Kiyoshi is a character with whom I can quite happily identify.

Initially, it's Kiyoshi to whom Ethan is first attracted, and their growing relationship carries much of the story. In many ways it's a romantic tale of unexpected, almost adolescent love, with the two of them carrying on and pushing David's boundaries (and patience) until you just want to spank them both. Of course, that's precisely what Kiyoshi craves, so the decision to chastise isn't quite so easy.

The three-way love story, set within the BDSM scene, is wonderful to behold. It casts an entirely new light on something most people dismiss as an occasional bit of role-playing, and does a great deal to distance itself from the stereotypes of cruel, capricious Masters, and snivelling, docile submissives. In fact, a very stereotypical Master is introduced into the story to illustrate the contrast, and he ends up becoming a key player in the development of Ethan, David, and Kiyoshi's relationship.

All in all, this was a breathtakingly sexy read, and one that had me grinning from ear-to-ear with delight. There are some necessarily tense moments, and enough suspense to tease us with a little doubt, but I can't remember the last time a book made me feel so good.

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