It's an odd task, reviewing purely erotic work such as Rice's Sleeping Beauty series. Pornography, as defined by the New Oxford American dictionary, is "intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings." In other words, pornography and its slightly more respectable cousin, erotica, are judged by whether they get the reader revved up: a thumbs-up (wink wink, nudge nudge) or thumbs-down proposition.
Beauty's Kingdom gets a thumbs-up.
Twenty years have passed since the end of the original trilogy, when Princess Beauty rode off into the sunset with Prince Laurent, two former pleasure slaves now free to choose each other. Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Bellavalten, the old regime of erotic slavery is seemingly at its end after its queen and crown prince perish at sea. At the urging of old friends and lovers from their days of captivity, King Laurent and Queen Beauty return to Bellavalten to take the throne and usher in a golden age of erotic servitude.
It is at this moment in Beauty's Kingdom that the passing of decades between the original trilogy and this newest book is the most marked. In the first few pages of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty,15-year-old Beauty, cursed to a 100-year sleep, was raped into waking by the crown prince of Bellavalten, who carried her off to be his slave. She was to serve her time before being returned to her family, and until then she was a prisoner, treated well but without any say in her situation. Now, however, Beauty and Laurent are reformers. Erotic servitude will be voluntary—it's "slavery," the BDSM variety, not slavery, the illegal, immoral, and inhumane practice of owning people like chattel—and citizens from all walks of life, as long as they be fair and willing and able, may join the ranks. The new order of Bellavalten is more enlightened and less unsettling, though less titillating as well.
Rice's characters have matured along with her readers' sensibilities. In the original books, Beauty was a terrified teenager, enthralled with this world of sexual slavery she'd been forced into. Now she is an adult choosing the kingdom and its demands with eyes (among other things) wide open.
Beauty's Kingdom isn't a perfect book. Certain phrases and character names seem out of place in this pseudo-medieval, pseudo-European kingdom. It suffers slightly from too much of a plodding plot. But these are minor peccadilloes, and despite them Beauty's Kingdom is a delightful, immersive read, all at once playful, campy, explicit, erotic, and provocative.
And provocative it is. If it's difficult to shock Anne Rice fans, it's usually because we've read so many Anne Rice books. Yet a certain plot development late in the book left me wide-eyed. Well done, Mistress Anne. Early in Beauty's Kingdom, Prince Alexi chides another character for doubting King Laurent's devotion after his long absence: "You of all people should know the enduring bond that exists between a true mistress and a true slave." I know this bond indeed, which is why I returned to Rice's Sleeping Beauty series as Beauty returned to Bellavalten—with pleasure. (Apr.)
Tiffany Reisz is the author of the Original Sinners series (Mira).
Release date: 04/21/2015