Tuesday, August 2, 2011

REVIEW: The Seventh Veil by Heidi Cullinan

It's not often you hear the word epic mentioned in the same breath as erotic, but Heidi Cullinan's The Seventh Veil is an astounding work of fantasy that manages to be both epic and erotic. This is a big story, full of big ideas, complete with an elaborate sense of geography, history, and mythology. It has everything you would expect to find in the first installment of an epic fantasy saga, along with some very progressive ideas regarding gender and sexuality.

The opening scene does a masterful job of establishing the right kind of expectations for the story. Heidi welcomes us into a cheap, tawdy, dirty sex-den for rent, and then invites us to watch a bisexual threesome engage in a frantic orgy of lust. It's undeniably erotic, but with an undercurrent of danger. No sooner have the orgasms come and gone, however, and the ghosts suddenly follow. Charles Perry, we discover, is a man haunted by ghosts . . . and the sexual excesses that once kept them at bay are no longer enough to preserve his fragile grasp on reality.

From there, we follow Charles to the back-alley sexual alchemist, who offers up the traditional be-careful-what-you-wish-for kind of deal. The goings on there are as dark as they are fascinating, offering up the ultimate revelation that Charles is the lost consort of the Goddess of All Creation, a man destined to be the focus of a cosmic power struggle that extends far beyond his pesky ghost problem. To make matters worse, his brother, Jonathan, has just returned from the war with a festering demon trapped inside him . . . with his only hope for redemption to be found in a woman the demon wishes to devour.

The character who brings the brothers (and, ultimately, the story) together is Jonathan's foreign equerry, Timothy. For someone who initially comes across as nothing more than the standard loyal friend/servant of any generic fantasy saga Timothy ultimately proves to be the centre of the entire saga. Without giving away too many spoilers, he is a complex individual with deep ties to the same mythology that has put such demands upon Charles, and their ultimate relationship is one of the emotional cornerstones of the book.

The mythological elements here are, as I've said before, truly epic. The story takes us in and out of the spiritual realm, through layer upon layer of story, building upon the present, while also drawing deeply from the past. It's a little bewildering at first, and it does tend to get a little exhausting at times, but sticking with it is a richly rewarding experience. What we have here is a single, self-contained story, but also the first volume in a much longer saga to come.

This is neither a light read, nor an easy one, but an erotic fantasy with some real substance behind it. Instead of taking a erotic story and simply slapping on some fantasy elements, Heidi has taken a serious fantasy saga and allowed it to express itself as its sexuality, spirituality, and morality demand. The sexual elements are as open as they are diverse, tinged with darkness, but also coloured by romance. Straight, gay, bisexual, Heidi covers all the bases equally, allowing love (and lust) to bloom where it must.

The writing is crisp and clean, but with a sense of style that lends itself well to the most magical elements. The characters are well-rounded, and allowed to develop significantly throughout the story. It's an ambitious tale, but one that delivers.

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