Erin (PT)'s Reviews > Under Contract

Under Contract by Helen Saito
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's review
May 02, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: alternate-universe, erotica, lgbt, kink, poly, romance, short-stories
Read from April 27 to May 02, 2012 — I own a copy , read count: 2

I'd read Under Contract before, in another format, but it's one of those stories that's well worth the (many) reread(s). Mainly because Saito stands in very, very slim company among pro writers writing about kink and kinky relationships and because what she gives is very much what I'd like, no love, to see more of in the genre.

The sad truth is that, in any genre, most of the stories are going to be of a piece. Certain tropes are very popular, what's popular sells and there's a significant audience that delights in reading the same stories over and over. And while I can't say I'm entirely immune to that—I have my own cherished tropes that I'll read ad nauseum—I still want those stories that will take it to the next level.

Most BDSM stories are at a BDSM 101: BDSM for Dummies level. Regardless of the genders of the participants, it's often a wide eyed naïf discovering for the first time that there's more than vanilla sex to be had out there and the story is lensed through their viewpoint, introducing the audience to world of kink at the same time as the protagonist. And, if it's your first BDSM story, that's great. That's exactly what you want. But after having read many, many iterations of that same story, I, at least, want to get to what comes next. The stories where it's not their first time. The stories about the people who've been scening for years, that aren't just kids sight-seeing for the first time, the ones who know what they're doing and what they want.

(And honestly, you can take those criteria and apply them to polyamorous relationships, too, because that's just as lacking)

Under Contract delivers that advanced level of both kink and polyamory and does so with a practiced, nuanced, and knowledgeable hand, without exposition dumps that feel like they came from Wikipedia.

Under Contract takes place in a nebulous future where indentured servitude—slavery—has been reinstituted and Cascade, the setting for the story, is a place where people indenturing themselves go through training before being auctioned off. Gavin, a former slave, is a trainer at Cascade and Alex is his new trainee, a "thrill-seeker"; someone who isn't indenturing themselves out of financial need. Gavin's long-term lover, Sam, is a member at Cascade, but gave up buying slaves when he and Gavin got together, because Gavin has Issues. Though Gavin has a low-opinion of thrill-seekers, there's immediate chemistry with him and Alex, who’s a natural and eager submissive looking for something bigger and deeper than the relationships and hook-ups he's had so far. In the course of the story, we also meet several other characters that Gavin, Sam or Alex have had relations or relationships with.

So, the first thing that sets Saito's book apart from her would-be peers is that, although Alex is new to Cascade and not technically knowledgeable, all the characters involved are fully adult (I don't think anyone's younger than 30) and experienced. They already know they like this, that they want this as part of their lives, and there's no brow clutching or shame about it. That, in and of itself, is SO REFRESHING.

The poly aspects of the story are handled with similar casualness. All the characters have connections to each other, history with each other and some of that history is current, as they scene together or offer to scene together in the future. And, though there are some moments of jealousy or tension, none of it—including the feelings—are presented as out of the ordinary, wrong or worth shame. I love it!

Another problem I have with a lot of books—and this doesn't even start or stop with BDSM-centered stories—is that too many authors a) don't understand consent and b) don't think of consent as sexy. If it's included at all, it's a hurdle, a sign-in-triplicate formality that has to be gotten out of the way before the "real" business of sex can happen, instead of an integrated and integral part of sex itself. There is nothing that delights me more than finding authors who understand consent, firstly and secondly, contextualize it properly and Saito manages these, as well, and beautifully.

In terms of the non kink/poly elements of the story… Saito's prose is straight-forward and functionally descriptive, with a good sense of spatial orientation—which is specially critical in scenes that have multiple participants. The characters are exceptionally well drawn and inhabited, with their own wants, agendas, personalities and Saito draws the relationships between them with the same loving hand, giving them the worn-in feel of people who've known each other for years. The characters are not just chronological adults, either; they act like adults, which…man, there's just not nearly enough of that, a sad statement in and of itself.

The entire story takes place pretty much in the closed environment of Cascade, so it's hard to talk about how the overall world stands up to scrutiny, but within the microcosm of Cascade, the world building feels real and textural. The story conflicts, such as they are, feel real and for emotionally important stakes; this being a reread, I remembered how it would all turn out, but I remember how tense I was the first time I read it and some of that still carried through, even with the confidence of a satisfying ending.

I loved this story and I'm sure I'll come back to it again and again. I'm really hoping that Saito will be moved to write more and that other authors will start to take a page from her playbook, because if more books were like this one, I'd be a much happier reader.
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