April 21, 2012

Review: Power Play by Charlotte Stein

Reasons this book is exciting:

  • It's only just published - March this year.
  • It's by an author I've only just discovered, who has written other femdom books.
  • It's part of a new erotica/erotic romance line - Mischief, which features more than one title labeled explicitly as femdom.
  • It's very, very hot.

Power Play is a disingenuous title. Yes, there is definitely a theme of power games in this book, but not really play. Play implies light hearted and for me, this is quite a serious book featuring power games. In many ways, it is all the better for that. 

Elenor Harding (Ms Harding) is a editor in a publishing house and in the opening scene she is fucked up the ass by the boss, Mr Woods. Literally. In the next scene, she's fucked up the ass by Mr Woods metaphorically. Woods has left suddenly and Ms Harding has been promoted into his place and is left with a mess of a department since his alcoholism and D/s play has been higher on his priority list than doing his job. Despite her best efforts, Elenor soon finds herself following his example with D/s, (though thankfully not with the scotch) and engages in D/s games with Woods' PA (now her PA), Ben. As Ben and Elenor's relationship develops, it becomes clear that it wasn't just Elenor who was on the end of Woods' sexual power strings.

One of the delicious things about this book is that the build up is really good. Although it is packed full of very hot sex scenes, the beginning of the relationship between Ben and Elenor develops at a nice pace. Erotica can easily fall into the trap of being: meet, lock eyes, fuck, keep fucking, HFN. This isn't like that at all. They're work colleagues and there is a sense of that barrier and a natural progression from fantasy to reality.

I really liked the writing style and the fact that it's written in the first person from the dominant female character's point of view. This seems to be pretty rare, but it gives an awesome 'there in the moment' feelings. I never felt that I was shut out of the headspace of the submissive character, because he was written very much as a 'heart on his sleeve' kind've guy.

One little irritation was that the way that some of the sections/paragraphs were written, I wasn't sure how much time had elapsed since the previous scene, or sometimes even the previous sentence. Several times I ended up scanning back trying to figure out when things were happening.  It was only a minor thing, but it jerked me out of the book, giving me a 'huh, what's going on?' feeling.  

About mid-way through I had pretty much mentally written my glowing review, with my only reservation being what I felt was a token M/f anal sex scene at the beginning. This felt like it was tagged onto the beginning of the book so that there was a sex scene in the sample, but isn't really in keeping with the rest of the beginning of the book which is such a brilliant crescendo. Near the end though, a new question emerged, along the lines of WTF? This next bit contains lots of spoilers.

***** Spoilers *******
Everything has sort of come full circle and yet again, and Elenor is being fucked in the ass on the desk, rather like she was in the opening scene. Except this time, it's Ben, not Mr Woods, Elenor is in control and the whole thing feels much stronger emotionally - she feels out of control and about to bare her soul to him. Then Aidan, Elenor's second in command, walks in. Basically, he takes control of the situation. Oh, Elenor still has some agency but she has to fight for it and I don't really see that she wins. The thing that made me really uncomfortable was this:
'Enough,' I say, but this time he doesn't obey immediately. He waits - he actually waits - until Aidan suggests the same, which probably just makes matters worse. I'm very aware of how disastrous I look, how little power I now have, and I can't deny that those things contribute to the way I then behave.
 Elenor thinks of Aidan's look that,
It's too much like a challenge, which I unfortunately have to meet.
And goes on to order Ben to suck Aidan off, whilst clearly wanting Ben to say 'no'. So the scene effectively ends up being a kind of power struggle between Aidan and Elenor. Ben is suddenly side-lined to being Aidan's plaything and I feel really uncomfortable with that, though it's clearly consensual on his part. I think the issue for me is that I interpret the reason that this scene has Aidan (an otherwise wallpaper character) rather than say, Woods, in it is that it's supposed to be clear that he plays no emotional role. But all I can think is how on earth are they going to work together again?  Elenor allows her professional subordinate dominate her and her submissive, so I don't see how Elenor can continue to credibly be the boss professionally. This isn't resolved in the book, so as a reader I'm left with a big question mark about Ben and Elenor's HFN.

The other issue with this scene is that for a book that is otherwise quite strong on emotional sub-texts, this non-quite menage with a marginal character ends up quite incongruous. In a book full of scenes with just Ben and Elenor, the sudden appearance of this extra scene with another characters feels like it was an add on to fulfill the kinkiness quota. I understand that the point is that Elenor is trying to push Ben's limits to have an excuse to break off the relationship. But Ben doesn't say no, and I feel that it compromises Ben and Elenor's relationship in a way that is difficult to define.
*****end spoilers *****

Elenor is an interesting character. Since it is written in first person, it's actually difficult to really get a hold on what sort of person she is objectively. From inside her head, she's a bit giddy, almost panicky, that she suddenly has control and is constantly second guessing herself even as she's turned on by what she's doing to Ben. It's only really later in the story that we get little glimpses of how others see Elenor as an ice queen. There's also a late mention of a hard childhood. This feels like a justification, along the lines of 'the reason I'm a female who is into domination is because I had a tough childhood'. Yes, it's implied that this bad childhood is the reason for her ice queen-ness, but it's so briefly touched on it doesn't add any insight for me into Elenor's character. It's just there to 'explain' a personality characteristic which doesn't really need justifying or explaining. Elenor is in many ways portrayed as quite a vulnerable, perhaps even weak character. I'm sorry that she isn't portrayed as being a bit stronger and unapologetic for being dominant. Though to be fair I'm being pretty picky, she's an interesting, multi-faceted character, and that has to be a good thing.

Ben, by comparison, is the perfect beta male submissive. He's truly adorable: clumsy and impulsive like an eager puppy. He's not portrayed as stupid or weak, he just truly gets off on being submissive and humiliated. Yes, he tries to force Elenor's hand to get what he wants by deliberately doing his job badly, but I don't see him emotionally or professionally undermine her, so I can easily forgive that. If anything, he's a bit too perfect. But as a character, I love him for being so different to the composed, emotionally repressed dom male or the snivelling worm submissive. He's just a man and that's just wonderful.

I feel that there are unresolved power tensions at the end of this book. We have a nominal HFN for Ben and Elenor, and I believe in that. But are Woods and Aidan going to cause trouble for them? I don't know about that. It's not neatly tied up and in some ways that's quite a nice novelty, quite like real life. But I don't really read for real life, I have enough of that of my own!

All that said, this is great book. As straight up femdom erotica it is hotter and has a more cohesive plot than anything I've read for quite a while. I less read it than consumed it. If I have criticised it, it's because the characters are so engaging that I was disproportionately upset when I found things that I didn't like. Power Play is well written and incredibly visceral and arousing.



  1. Mischief is the romance fiction arm of a huge mainstream publisher. While that is likely to promise more coherent and intricate stories, it is unlikely that there'll be too much deviation from standard romance novel tropes. A female dom who is confused about her sexuality and "damaged" due to a rough upbringing is likely the best you can expect from a mainstream publishing house.

  2. Yes, I did notice the little reference at the bottom of the site. Perhaps you're right that this is about all that can be expected, but I live in hope. :)

    Personally, I would like to see more femdom and deviation from the standard tropes in mainstream publishers. As I see it, the only way that is going to happen is if when publishers take a risk on something, readers reward them by buying it, even if it isn't *perfection*.

  3. Wow, thanks for the orsum review! And not only for the orsum review, but for the huge support of femdom. That's just amazing to see. I'm a huge fan of it, myself, but very rarely find the kinds of books I like. So few people write it! Which is probably why I write it, instead.

    Best wishes,

    Charlotte Stein

    1. Thank *you* for the orsum book. :)

      it's a pity that more authors write don't femdom - although it makes it pretty 'wow' when you discover a new author that does. I'm looking forward to reading through your backlist and really hope that you will continue to write great femdom books.

  4. Awww! You're so kind!

    And it is a pity. Unfortunately, I've been outright told by at least two publishers that they wouldn't publish femdom, full stop. So there's one potential reason for the lack of it, right there! The only ones I've worked with who've been really open to it (and in some cases, preferring it) are Black Lace, Xcite, Ellora's Cave and Mischief.

    Also wanted to say - I too loved Megan Hart's half of Taking Care of Business! It's one of my all time faves, and one of the few that has a masculine hero!

    Oh, and just to save you wading through my backlist - Giving and Control are my two other femdom books. Telling Tales has some femdom themes, too!

    1. Was there a reason given for those publishers not wanting to publish femdom? It's a depressingly short list of publishers that will take femdom, especially since Black Lace is no more. I take heart though that Mischief has turned up and that Bantam published A Lady Awakened, despite it being the femdomiest straight romance I have seen, by about a million miles.

      I might have to start love-spamming Megan Hart until she writes another femdom story. She's just so good. In fact, I could do that to you too. (Uh oh, must find time to work as well...)

      Thanks for the heads up on your backlist.

  5. i love the idea of femdom, turns me on, if i were in a relationship, i would so let the lady run things, even sexually, joey w. hill also writes femdom romance

    1. Hi sean,

      You would *let* the lady run things would you? *Even* sexually? Wow. What a 21st Century man you are.

      That notwithstanding, thank you for the recommendation of Joey Hill. There are a couple of reviews on this site of her books, and several more on my TBR.


    2. thank you for accepting my comment. yes the lady being in charge gets me hot and bothered (in a good way.