Review: The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, by Anne Rice
(writing as A.N. Roquelaure)
I’ve read this book multiple times over the past twenty years. I reread it recently in order to prepare this review, and it’s taken me a few days to crystallize my thoughts about this book. First, I want to remark on how well it’s held up in the three decades (!) since its release. The writing is still as fresh and accessible (and HOT) as it was the first time I cracked it open as a teenager in that crowded B Dalton all those years ago. The description, the emotion, and the lust still jump off the page. It still disturbs and fascinates in equal measure. It’s a remarkable, incredible book … but it’s definitely not for everyone. Not by a long shot.
Ms. Rice, writing as A.N. Roquelaure, gets things started with a, er, bang, with the opening sequence of the Prince’s claiming of the eponymous Beauty. This scene is not only incredibly brave (it takes guts to write fantasy this unflinchingly), but it’s so true to the animal, primal nature of the sexual fantasies this book not only explores, but embraces. Is sexual fantasy “safe”? Is it politically correct? The answer is of course, ‘no’, and this book both acknowledges this fact, and affirms the truth of the untameable, ever hungering nature of our sexual fantasies and desires. In its own understated way, this book is a subtle, yet emphatic refutation of the ridiculous notion that sexual fantasies and desires need to be safely within bounds, or even worse, politically correct. Does it make the reader uncomfortable at times? Of course. Does the line between “right” and “wrong” sometimes become blurred? Absolutely. But such is human nature; the complexities of sexual desire are not at all sunshine and rainbows, and the deeper needs and urges that drive sexual desire are sometimes simply inexplicable … and there are more than a few of us who like it that way just fine:)
Many have faulted Ms. Rice for overwrought or flowery writing here, but I’ve never understood this criticism. I’ve read a LOT of erotic romance, erotica (which this story definitely is), and just plain porn, and I found the writing in this story to be not only comparatively spare, but refreshingly direct. Rice manages to be supremely literary, yet does so in a prose style that is so very accessible and devastatingly effective in stirring the passions of the reader. She knows exactly where she wants to go here — and she knows how to get the reader there. To read this book — regardless of your particular reaction to the content — is to witness a writer at the top of her form, with a stunning command of language, and an enviable facility with description, and the eliciting of emotion.
The characters here, more than the plot (which itself is straightforward), are simply fascinating. Ms. Rice is content to paint most of the characters with broad, only selectively distinct strokes, and allow the reader the time, the opportunity, to fill in those negative spaces. It’s something I wish more writers would do, for it’s not only more thought-provoking, but it is (in my humble opinion) much more respectful of the reader; many of us do not in fact need everything spelled out for us. Where she does delve into more detailed character studies, her subjects are both unexpected and riveting. The character of Beauty (for the narrative stays with her POV for most of the book) is almost a sort of unwilling guide through this at once familiar, yet alien world of the kingdom of Queen Eleanor. The book does, as a whole, center on Beauty’s journey, but there are several other characters whose stories are just as vital, and perhaps moreso, to the overarching theme of the book. It’s through some of these other characters, particularly the sympathetic, almost martyr-like figure of Prince Alexi, that Rice explores the complexities of human emotion, sexuality, and the mysterious deeper motivations of human beings.
But it’s in the character of Queen Eleanor that we find the dark, beating heart of this story. Her influence is everywhere, whether she’s physically present in a scene or not. At once frightening and alluring, she’s a perfect example of the dichotomy, even paradox, so often found in the origins of human sexual desires. Is she an evil woman, corrupted by power, determined to ruthlessly exert it over all she surveys? Or is she much more complex? A woman uniquely equipped to explore and revel in not only her own sexual desires, but the desires she suspects lurk, in one form or another, within most of us? Ms. Rice gives us hints, suggestions, but never answers these questions. As much I love that Queen Eleanor was written in this open-ended, mysterious way, so many tantalizing, even profound questions are raised when it comes to her character. I know it’s a fool’s hope (my impression is that Ms. Rice never intends to revisit this world again), but I would so very much love to read more background on the Kingdom, and especially how Eleanor came to be the person depicted in this story.
As for the content of this book, readers need to be warned: there is almost every permutation of sexuality and BDSM that you can think of here. I’ve seen the descriptor ‘pansexual’ used in other reviews, and I think that’s a reasonable approximation of what you’ll find here. But that word doesn’t quite do this book justice, because though the varieties of sexual coupling are myriad, I think the general theme of the book is anything but pansexual. This is a book about the deeper meaning, the dichotomy, of sexual desire in the context of Dominance and submission, pain and pleasure, and much more subtly (though no less powerfully), love and hate. There is corporal punishment galore here, largely in the form of paddling, and though some reviewers fault the pervasive nature of it, it is not in fact in every scene, and does actually make sense where it’s depicted. There is dubious consent, and non consent aplenty, and if the general idea of enforced sexual slavery for a period of multiple years is offensive to you, then you need to run away from this one, and quickly. If you are averse to the depiction of female/female and male/male sexuality, you’re going to have a tough time with this one. Yes, the sex depicted is primarily heterosexual, but there is considerable same sex content as well. I had some trouble initially with the male/male content, but I kept an open mind about it, and though personally not my thing, I was able to see how it actually added to the narrative, and helped tell the story of these characters that you cannot help but care about.
If you are a person with a kinky bent, I would say this is indispensable reading; I can’t think of any single work of BDSM erotica, save perhaps Story of O, that I would recommend all kinky people read. I would say one can read this book both to see what you do like and to help determine what you don’t like. This is not only an excellent, even important, work of erotic fantasy, but in my opinion it’s a fascinating, insightful study of the human condition — what we desire, what we fear, and what deep down drives us all.
Very highly recommended.