by Bertrice Small, Susan Johnson, Nikki Donovan, and Liz Madison; historical (2002)
Brava, $15.00, ISBN 1-57566-823-8

Score one for the readers who keep ranting that erotic romance is softporn: this latest anthology, Delighted may have some male chicken parts and words that rhyme with buck-buck-buck flying around, but it's actually tamer than your every day Nicole Jordan or Stephanie Laurens novels. I noticed that there are still readers out there who scream about "soft porn" in regard to this book, but to those readers, I wish someone will clobber them in the head hard and tell them that "F**k me baby" does not soft porn makes. Compared to Stephanie Laurens, this anthology is merely Laurel and Hardy does R-rated sex.

Apart from the Susan Johnson novella, that is. That one is hotter than the two books she has put out so far this year.

I find Delighted an oxymoron. It isn't hot, and I'm expected hot when I read Delighted, so that's a minus. There's more meat, or plot if you will, but the novellas with more meat are the ones I find the weakest. The best novella here, in fact in my opinion, is a toss-up between Susan Johnson's beautiful porn Out Of The Storm and Bertrice Small's fascinating The Awakening.

Let's start with Bertrice Small's novella The Awakening which kicks off this anthology. Yes, it's brimming with horrendously purple and laughable love lances and moist wet grottos and red tresses. But before you start lobbing ice cream dollops at Ms Small, I must point out that while this novella is ludicrous and bad as hell, it is also a fascinating feminist romance novella featuring some of the strongest heroines I've ever encountered in a romance story. Fascinating, like I said.

The story revolves around whores finding love. The prologue has our heroine's French aristocratic aunt Renée as a child offering her virginity to the French prison guard in exchange for sending her niece to safety in a nunnery far away from the guillotine. This is victimization, pure and simple, but how Renée decides to take control of the subsequent situation makes her a true survivor and strong woman.

The niece Marguerite grows up to follow her aunt's footsteps. While Aunt Renée runs a popular brothel, Marguerite finds solace in the company of an elderly man. When her protector dies and his son evicts her, Marguerite runs to her aunt and searches for a new protector. She finds a customer who brings her to purple heavenly heights and it's love, the end.

The portrayal of prostitutes as happy, trippy tarts is ridiculous and unrealistic, but it's no worse than when Mary Jo Putney and Gaelen Foley does the same thing. The only difference here is that the prostitutes are really in control of their sexuality, and any abusive men are thrown out of the ornate doors of the bordello without question. Even Marguerite, a rather dim bulb compared to her aunt, never lets herself be victimized (when her protector's son tries to rape her, she kicks him in the groin and then steals some of the household items she believes to be hers).

Feminism in the bordello? In this case, yes. And what's more amazing is that the love-lancing men in this story actually love and respect the whores for loving and being in control of their own sexuality. Ain't no whining martyrs in this bordello, people. There will always be unfortunate prejudice evoked by the name Bertrice Small alone, but for me, I find this one a fascinating read.

Susan Johnson creates a typical sex fantasy in Out Of The Storm - LuLu and William are two strangers seeking shelter from the storm in a shack. Wet clothes plastered on perfect physique, what more do you need as an excuse to throw them off and get biz-ay on the floor? It's meant to be a one-nighter, but imagine their shock when they realize the next day that they're stepsiblings. And he's a Russian prince.

The sex is hot. It's a nice fantasy, this stuck in the rain with a handsome stranger thing, just like how the 1980s group Heart immortalized it in their hit All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You. LuLu is one of Ms Johnson's stronger heroines, and oh yes, she's fast. She lost her virginity at 14 and she hasn't stopped since, never even letting an abusive (late) husband stop her. When Willie plays too hard to get, she grabs for the small garden trowel and does a really obscene thing with the handle. How's that for self-reliance?

Yeah, there's some silly rescue fantasy subplot that actually isn't necessary, because LuLu shouldn't need to be rescued. The rescue thing does a lot in damaging her character, but no matter. Short, sexy, and dirty, there's something really delightfully obscene in LuLu scolding William to treat her like a sister after their real identities are revealed.

And Mary Gilgannon! I'm shocked. Writing as Nikki Donovan, her Enchanted is a take on the Beauty and the Beast fable, and yes, the hero is a half-beast thing, but this story only hints at and stops short at depicting the beastiliaty overtones the original fable is brimming to the rim with. And unlike the original fable, this one is not dark at all. Our hero Lack Blackhurst kidnaps Esmay, has his faithful housekeeper woman prims her nice and sweet for his pumpies, and sex breaks his curse. The end.

This one is ruined completely because Esmay's main trait is apparently innocence. She has the personality of a braindead ragdoll and the whole "innocent-taught-sex" thing is inanely written that Enchanted is a wasted fantasy. Yes, there's lots of bock-bock-bocks and buck-buck-bucks, but this is a dark fantasy that is devoid of darkness, bestiality overtones, violence, Stockholm syndrome, coercion, or any other staple of dark erotica. Ironically, the only readers that could appreciate such sanitized erotica would be the same ones who scream "Porn!" at this book even as they enjoy that Stephanie Laurens bonkathon.

Liz Madison's story has the most plot and characterization, but too bad the plot and characterization in With His Promise are done to death already. Highborn medieval castle lady Victoria Woodville sees the knight Stephen de Burgh fend off her castle with his men from evil people, only to learn that she has leapt off the frying pan into the fire. Stephen wants her as much as the bad guy.

Silly coercive sex ("Noooo.... yes!") follows, written in a style more suited for a 1970s/1980s bodice-ripper, and the whole story unfurls like a typical mediocre medieval romance only with extra bucks and bocks and bussies. Bonus points for pure comedy gold, such as this fabulous line:

"Give it to me, Jonas, give it to me. I'll ride you like a stallion, I will. Now fuck meeeee!!!"

I know, erotic romance is a subgenre that has been given a bad rep for being softporn, et cetera, and Delighted will not revolutionize the general perspective too many readers have of the subgenre. But for me, I find this anthology the more interesting - not the best, but most interesting - of the erotic anthologies Brava have issued so far. If one digs a little in Delighted, who knows, it may actually delights. It sure did me.

Rating: 83

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