This is the last story I am reviewing for month of asexual fiction from Dreamspinner Press.
What is this story about?
Candy is buying up bad brothels in City M, tearing them down, and redeveloping them. He is jealous of his lover, Ivy, spending so much time with Jack – both because Ivy is his lover and he is interested in Jack himself. Meanwhile, somebody is going around murdering whores in City M in gruesome ways. Horrible as that is, it is not as big a deal as the possibility that the people will rise up and overthrow the government – or that an army is coming to take over City M.
What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?
A LOT. LOTS OF SEXUAL CONTENT. LOTS OF VIOLENT CONTENT. It would be easier to list the types of sexual and violent content which aren’t in this story. Which, ummm, IIRC, there is no suicide, and I do not think there is any sexual content involving female characters (in fact, there are very few female characters).
Tell me more about this story.
This is the third and final book in the Hidden Gem trilogy. For once, I actually did read the other books in the series. Is it possible to read Candy Land as a standalone novel? Maybe … not. I probably would have been a lot more confused if I hadn’t read the first two books in the trilogy.
This review is going to be focused on Candy Land, not a review of the trilogy as a whole. However, since the first two books in the trilogy influenced my experience of Candy Land, I am going to discuss them too to some extent.
Okay, so tell me about the universe of this trilogy..
An important part of this trilogy is the setting. It’s set in the future, after the United States has been destroyed by environmental disasters. There was also a plague which killed tons of people. The former United States is split into the ‘South’ which is a full-blown dystopia, complete with slavery, concentration camps, anti-queer bigotry, terrible quality of life for most of its residents, a class of powerful elites, etc. Meanwhile, there are the United Cities of the North, each named after a letter of the alphabet (such as City M, where the trilogy takes place). While not quite as dystopian as the South, the Northern Cities ain’t no paradise – the population is much below the peak when the United States still existed, the government is super corrupt (and apparently non-democratic, according to the second book in the trilogy), there is a shadowy secret intelligence service which *might* not be as evil as its counterpart in the South (or *maybe* it is as evil and just better at hiding it) etc.
Meanwhile, some people are ‘psis’ – they have developed various kinds of psychic powers. They are a stigmatized group. And there is a great secret – in addition to the psis, whose existence is common knowledge, there are also the A-Ms – animal mutations. They are the survivors of the plague – and even the fact that anybody survived the plague is a secret. The A-Ms are people who, due to mutated DNA, shapeshift into various animals. Thus there is a pseudo-scientific justification for including werewolves and such entities in this trilogy.
The trilogy revolves around characters associated with the Hidden Gem (in fact, the first book of the trilogy is Hidden Gem), the classiest brothel is all of City M. Thus, there is a lot of focus on sex work, as well as BDSM (it’s one of the Hidden Gem’s services) in this trilogy.
I think that just might be enough information to try to read Candy Land as a standalone. Granted, I didn’t get into any of the individual characters’ histories, but knowing the basics of this universe might give a reader a fighting chance of reading Candy Land in isolation.
This fictional universe … is going to appeal to some readers a lot, and not do so much for other readers. For what it’s worth, I’m not one of the readers who finds this universe particularly appealing, but it also does not put me off. It’s neutral with regards to my reading pleasure.
I know there is something you really want to say about the second book in the trilogy.
Yes. I think the second book, Cardinal Sins, is hands down the worst of the three books of the trilogy. And that’s even WITHOUT considering one part of the book which really bothers me, and had an significant impact on my experience of reading Candy Land.
[Warning: discussion of sexual violence coming up RIGHT NOW]
In chapter 9 of Cardinal Sins, there is this:
Candy didn’t hesitate in backhanding the mouthy bastard hard enough to send him sprawling on the bed. Jason’s eyes flashed with anger. “You have no right!” he protested.
“I have every right,” Candy said. “You are a contracted whore. I could tie you to the bed and lead every man in the building up here to fuck you and cover you in their come and you would have no rights.”
Summary: Candy is threatening Jason with gang rape.
And that is exactly what happens later in that chapter – Candy forces Jason to submit to sexual torture by clients, and then forces Jason to have sex with those clients against Jason’s will.
And Candy is one of the ‘heroes’ – a protagonist readers are supposed to have sympathy for (in fact, he is the character on the cover of Candy Land).
I am not bothered by having sexual violence in my fiction. I can even enjoy a story in which the protagonist initiates sexual violence, especially since I sometimes like unethical protagonists. However, I do insist on some kind of acknowledgement in the story that sexual violence is wrong, that it is the writer’s intent to have an unethical protagonist. Maybe the protagonist later shows remorse, or maybe other characters chew out the protagonist – just something which makes it clear that the reader is not supposed to cheer for sexual violence. And the Hidden Gem trilogy does not do this. Candy never feels remorse for this. I am not sure what other characters know about this incident, but if they know about it, they act like it was okay for Candy to do this. While I cannot say too much more without getting into spoiler territory, the way that both Cardinal Sins and Candy Land is written makes it clear that the writer wants readers to cheer for Candy and want good things for him, and to boo Jason and want bad things for him.
This really fouls my taste for the entire trilogy. However, now that I’ve said it, I am going to set that aside and pretend that Chapter 9 of Cardinal Sins does not exist as I continue to review Candy Land.
So tell me more about Candy Land.
In some ways, it is the best book in the trilogy. I like that, after going through two books of A-Ms being such a secret, it finally becomes possible that the secret will be exposed to the public (I am not spoiling if or how that happens) and the political upheaval it might cause. I also liked that it featured A-Ms getting organized to try and create a society which worked for them, rather than having to live in secrecy all the time. I wish this angle of the story had been treated in greater depth, probably because I am more interested in this kind of thing than in M/M romance.
However, whenever a character was ‘dying’ in this book, it was not nearly as dramatic as it was in the first book of the trilogy. By this point, as a reader, I had learned that when any significant character ‘dies’ there is a high chance that said character will be resurrected in the near future, so character death had stopped feeling so dramatic by this book (to be fair, there was a significant death in Cardinal Sins which was not followed by a resurrection). Character death which was NOT followed by resurrection would have surprised me, of course. And maybe it did, because maybe some significant characters died in Candy Land without being resurrected. I’m not spoiling.
On the asexuality content scale (1 = least content, 10 = most content) I would rate this as a 3.
It is strongly hinted in the epilogue of Cardinal Sins that Jack is asexual, and it is finally said outright in Candy Land that yes, Jack is asexual. Though he was just a supporting character in the first two books of the trilogy, he finally becomes a major character in Candy Land. It seems that, between the second and third books in the trilogy, he’s developed a close non-sexual relationship with Ivy, a character who was first introduced in the second book.
The main ‘romance’ of the novel is the Candy/Ivy/Jack triad. The main obstacle to them getting together is that Jack is asexual and has no need for sex, and Candy is really into sex, and Candy does not know how to have a romantic relationship with someone who doesn’t need sex (in fact, at first, Candy has trouble believing that an adult could not want sex). Here is an excerpt:
CANDY LAY in bed listening to Ivy breathe for a long time. He should have been sleeping, but his head was too full of shit to even consider letting him sleep. What did Ivy mean, Jack and sex was nonexistent? Who didn’t want sex? So all these months that Candy’s gut had been churning with jealousy thinking Ivy and Jack were off fucking like bunnies without inviting him, and they were reading? What the hell?
Here is Candy coming to terms with Jack’s asexuality:
He’d looked up the term Ivy had left for him after his last client: asexuality. A lack of emotional interest in sex. There were a dozen divisions within the term, some even sex- or relationship-averse, meaning they were repulsed by sex. Did sex disgust Jack? Was that why he hugged himself whenever he entered the Gem and refused to meet anyone’s eyes? Candy had thought it was just shyness, and maybe it partially was. He just didn’t quite understand. How could someone be physically able to have sex, but not want to? If he asked Jack, would he answer?
Jack is not the first asexual that Ivy has known, so Ivy was completely comfortable with Jack’s asexuality from the beginning. He doesn’t mind that their relationship is non-sexual. I also like that Ivy takes it upon himself to educate Candy about asexuality rather than forcing Jack to do the education – as an asexual myself, I know how exhausting it can be to give people Asexuality 101.
Anyway, enough about Candy. How does Jack experience things? Well, there is the obligatory subplot about Jack and cake (I groan at cake-culture, but, well, it is common for asexual fiction stories to have some kind of cake tie-in). Here’s an excerpt from Jack’s point of view:
Jack was frowning by the end. He didn’t want Ivy to be all his for whatever debauchery Candy thought he might enjoy. He hoped that whatever the gift was it didn’t involve some sort of kinky sex toy that Jack was sure to have never seen before. His experience with sex was limited—mostly learned from smutty romance novels—and he was okay with keeping it that way.
And here’s another excerpt:
“What…?” Jack began to ask, but Ivy leaned forward and kissed him soundly. Jack pulled away as if he’d been slapped, jumping out of the chair and tipping it over. His heart hammered with fear. Not really of being touched, but of the expectations that usually followed a touch like that. He liked Ivy. Hell, he sort of liked Shane, Aki, Paris, and even Candy. Would they still like him if they knew how different he was? He’d been trying to keep himself detached from them all for this very reason. “Sorry, sorry. You should probably go. Tell everyone I appreciate their gifts.” He headed to the door ready to let Ivy out.
And then there is the other asexual that Ivy knows – Marc – who is a minor character in this story. Of course, the most interesting thing Marc does in this story is, ummm, unrelated to asexuality and a major spoiler. He does not want sex, but he does sometimes hire Ivy to cuddle him. He says that he would be willing to have sex as a ‘gift’ for his partner. Oh, and at one point of the story, Candy accuses Marc of being the killer going around murdering whores because Candy thinks that someone who would hire a whore like Ivy without having sex is very suspicious and possibly harboring murderous inclinations. Yep, Candy has a really (not) asexual-friendly worldview.
And finally … Jack does have sex at some point in the story. I’m not going to spoil the circumstances, or who he has sex with, but since some asexual readers feel strongly about whether or not asexual characters have sex, I felt I ought to put that out there.
Is the writer asexual?
Yes, Lissa Kasey is asexual.
Sara, do you like this novel?
I was able to read the entire trilogy, which says something about its readability, and I definitely like Candy Land more than Cardinal Sins, and I do think Candy Land has good representation of asexuality. However, I cannot say that I like Candy Land.
Candy Land may be purchased at the Dreamspinner Store or various book retailers.