Silk And Poison
by Barbara Sheridan and Anne Cain, historical (2007)
Liquid Silver Books, $5.95, ISBN 978-1-59578-363-9

Silk And Poison is the "official" first book in the Dragon's Disciple trilogy, although there are already two previous stories published by Samhain Publishing that are part of the ongoing yaoi soap opera by Barbara Sheridan and Anne Cain.

While many publishers nowadays are slapping a cover with girly boys over any ordinary gay romance and calling them yaoi, this one is one of the rare real deal out there since the story is steeped in Japanese culture and it tries hard - too hard, I sometimes feel - to emulate the more excessive melodrama of a typical yaoi anime. Still, the authors are keeping things real and I respect that.

We're back to the opulent opium dens and shadowed bedrooms of San Francisco's Chinatown in 1870. In a way, this story is a new beginning of sorts since unlike the previous two stories where there are too many sex scenes and not enough storyline development, this one has some substantial plot development. I don't think you need to read the previous books by the authors to understand what is going on here. I can barely remember anything from those books and I don't have much difficulty getting into this one.

Dao Kan Shu is a really bad boy. He's an assassin and by that, I really mean it. He kills people without remorse as an assassin tends to do. No, really, folks, this isn't some "only in romance novels" thing where we tend to get things like sack sad vampire types who hate to drink blood and instead spend their time hanging out with the emo groups on MySpace. When I say Dao Kan Shu is an assassin, I really mean it. He's bad-ass and nasty. I love it. He's a walking one-man Kill Bill show. When Shu...

Okay, let me say something first. I have some issues with the names in this story. I'm pretty sure that the authors are aware that the names of the Chinese and Japanese characters in this story are such that the family name comes first. Therefore, I am taken aback when the main characters' names are Toshiro Itou and his mother Ume Itou. Maybe they are just Americanizing the names for the readers' benefit, I suppose. As for the Chinese characters, we have folks like Dao Kan Shu and Ren Yang being called Shu and Yang, which is very informal for folks back in those days. In the case of Dao Kan Shu, even if we are to call him only by his personal name, it will most likely be Kan Shu instead of just Shu. In fact, a part of me have a hard time making myself call him "Shu". But since that's what he's called in this story, I suppose I may as well go along even though a part of me winces every time I call him "Shu".

I'm also a bit disconcerted by how well the Japanese and the Chinese get along in this story - in 1870, mind you! - but that can be a touchy issue that I'd rather not get into here, heh.

Back to the story, Shu encounters a sneaky and charming Japanese young man, Toshiro, in a little B&E and is moved to take him as an apprentice of sorts. There's this tendency of Shu to kill those students of his that don't meet his standard but I don't think that is stopping Toshiro. That man is very ambitious - he wants to a powerful man in the Chinatown scene just like his despised stepfather Iwakura was a powerful man back in Japan. Toshiro is sent by his mother on her husband's insistence to live with his biological father (her ex-husband) but he is in no hurry to spend time with the man whom he barely tolerates.

"I'm not afraid," Toshiro looked up sharply, his eyes flashing. "I'm looking to the future. If he's dead now I might find myself on the poor end of the stick that's all. No sense being inconvenienced for something that can wait."

"Indeed." Shu smiled. "Then taking someone's life - let alone your father's - poses no concern to you?"

Toshiro shrugged and poured another drink before taking a long swig. The alcohol warmed his insides, loosing his tongue a bit. "Every case is different isn't it, but on the whole I'd have to say that no, it doesn't bother me."

"No," Shu corrected sharply. "Every case is exactly the same." He flicked the ashes from his cigarette off the edge of the table and stared into Toshiro's eyes. "The methods may change and the circumstances leading up to the act may differ, but the purpose never alters." He paused a moment, his piercing gaze never leaving the boy's. "To consciously take someone's life is to exercise the ultimate form of control... of power," his voice dropped to a throaty whisper, sending a chill down Toshiro's spine. "Every time you kill... you are a god."

Inside his chest, Toshiro's heart skipped a beat. He wanted that kind of power. Iwakura had it. His boss in the new Meiji government, Ookubo, definitely had it. They never dirtied their own hands with blood, but still... Toshiro had seen what that kind of power could do. And he wanted it for his own.

You don't want me to describe Toshiro's initiation into Shu's tutelage, trust me. Needless to say, if you want your characters to be moral and virtuous, this is one book you should be running away from as fast as you can. I love it, I love it, but you know me. I have a thing for insane bad boys, and I tell you, you won't find any misunderstood wounded puppy elements in these two men. They are amoral bloodthirsty sociopaths. Their "romance" and those sex scenes are so perverse and almost blasphemous in how beautifully sick they are that I am pretty intoxicated by every word. I love it.

The other main storyline revolves around Toshiro's mother, Ume. The authors call her Ume Itou Iwakura and really, I have to groan and wonder whether they think Ume is Elizabeth Taylor or something. I wish they have left some kind of note in this story telling me that they have taken liberties with the names of the Japanese characters because "Ume Itou Iwakura" is really killing me. Back to Ume, she learns that she will be joining her son in San Francisco soon enough because the tongs want her as a collateral while her husband and these people work to salvage a shady deal that didn't go well. Ren Yang, one of the most powerful players in the Chinatown "economic" scene, if you know what I mean, is surprised to say the least when he learns of this beautiful woman who is sent to him as collateral from the Japanese fellow who owes him a lot of money.

By the way, Ren Yang is called "Mr Yang" in this story. Oh, I am dying, I am dying! How could the authors be so cruel in hurting me like this?

At any rate, Ume finds herself playing the whore to Ren. After all, it's that or a life of being a whore at the mercy of sadistic creatures like her son's boyfriend, heh. Ren soon uses Ume to seduce and kill his enemies and in the process realizes that she has a ruthless streak that really appeals to him. As he tells her, he thinks he can fall in love with her. However, when Shu and Ren Yang find themselves at opposite ends of the playing field and Ume and Toshiro are caught in the cross-fire, that's when things become even more complicated.

Silk And Poison is all about the antiheroes and amoral bitches having their time in the limelight and it's fabulous. It's especially great that Toshiro isn't the whiny and weak little girl in a man's body like I fear he will be. Instead, he's a willing accomplice in Shu's sick little games, bless him. The story of Ume and Ren Yang need more pages in order for the authors to develop it more fully since in its current length the whole thing feels rather rushed and underdeveloped especially towards the end.

But at the end of the day, this book is fabulously sick and twisted. It's definitely not for everyone, but if you like mean and bad antiheroes - and if you like Japanese anime, I suspect you already do, heh - you may just want to pick this as your poison. There is probably no other romance novel, gay or straight, that dare to be as unapologetically brutal and amoral as this one. Like I've said, the authors are keeping things real and I take my hat off to them for Silk And Poison.

Rating: 92

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