Though I am an unapologetic romance reader and have written more than one romance novel myself, my newest book, Reliquary, isn’t one of them. That said, it does have romantic elements — and a lot of sexual content — and it got me thinking about the nuances of embracing sexuality in a fantasy world.
That wasn’t my goal when I began writing Reliquary , though. I just wanted to tell a story that involved a magical system I’d dreamed up and included four types of magic: the power to manipulate (Knedas), the power to sense (Sensilo), the power to inflict pain (Strikon), and the power to give pleasure (Ekstazo). Some people are born with one of these powers, and those powers can be extracted and transferred into or onto objects (relics). Some people (conduits) can conduct or transfer the magic, and some can carry (read: smuggle) that magic — those are the reliquaries.
Nifty, I thought. Let’s play.
One of the jobs of a fantasy writer is to take simple ideas and push them to their outer limits. Only then can you really find the kind of story and plot that will keep readers turning pages. So as I walked down that road with this magical system, I got to think in depth about how these types of magic might be used. Like with any story, I had many choices to make about which way the tale would go, where I would aim the lens … and whether I would go soft focus.
From the moment Mattie, who is searching for her kidnapped fiancé, stumbles through a beaded curtain in the basement of a local restaurant and into what turns out to be a magic parlor, she is up against a substance that offers both intense pleasure and potential loss of control. Asa, her fiancé’s estranged brother and a dealer in magical artifacts, sells objects covered in Ekstazo magic for use as sex toys. Although she’s no shrinking violet when it comes to sex, Mattie’s also very traditional and tentative when it comes to being open about sexuality and her own pleasure. At first, she’s ashamed of how the magic affects her, and Asa hones in on that vulnerability and gets a kick out of making her blush. Before long, though, Mattie is turning not only the magic but also its effect on her to her advantage.
At first, she’s ashamed of how the magic affects her, and Asa hones in on that vulnerability and gets a kick out of making her blush. Before long, though, Mattie is turning not only the magic but also its effect on her to her advantage.
Mattie’s path through these books is complex. She starts out with purely conventional dreams and hopes, and by the end, she has covered a lot of previously uncharted ground. This happens on a number of levels, but one of the important ones is her exploration and ownership of her own pleasure. And here, the magical system, the fantasy world, pushed the issue, and I embraced the opportunity to let a character go on that kind of journey. She’s not discovering sex for the first time, and she’s no virginal girl who needs a man to show her how it’s done. That is absolutely not the story I wanted to tell. But she is like so many of us, I think, scared to surrender control, scared to look like a fool, ashamed when she doesn’t have it together, more comfortable with playing it safe than walking on a high wire with no net beneath her. Instead of creating a completely romantic scenario, the magical aspects of the story enabled me to pull pleasure apart from the relational pieces of sex (and to entwine it again in hopelessly complicated ways).
She’s not discovering sex for the first time... But she is like so many of us, I think, scared to surrender control, scared to look like a fool, ashamed when she doesn’t have it together, more comfortable with playing it safe than walking on a high wire with no net beneath her.
Although we’re all entitled to the pursuit of happiness, sometimes the pursuit of pleasure is considered selfish or destructive. And it certainly can be — just like the single-minded pursuit of anything else. Pleasure, though, and particularly female pleasure? How could pursuing it, talking about it, or even writing stories where it’s a major theme be a bad thing? It’s an exquisitely complicated but incredibly worthwhile puzzle box. But do we even have time (or, more accurately, can we give ourselves time) to explore that in a conscious, mindful way as we race through our lives and fulfill our responsibilities to others? Perhaps even harder, can we allow ourselves to be open enough, vulnerable enough, to engage with it? Because that’s what’s necessary — permission, not only given to others, but to ourselves. To really experience pleasure, you have to open up your emotional exoskeleton and expose the raw nerves underneath. To really feel it, you have to be open to it — and a consequence (not necessarily good or bad) of being open is being exposed and vulnerable.
In a fantasy world, I’m allowed to create all sorts of mechanisms to do that. I’m allowed to lay it out in all sorts of explicit ways. By that I don’t mean that this book is about sex or pleasure. I also don’t mean there’s a lot of sexual intercourse on the page. In fact, there isn’t! Sexually complicated situations and scenes, though? There are plenty of those. They were a natural extension of the fantasy world I’d created, and it was an opportunity I embraced.
I know this means my book won’t be for everyone, but I hope that many readers enjoy it not in spite of these themes, but because of them. Fiction, and fantasy in particular, is a chance to tour worlds, lives, choices and situations that are a universe apart from our own experience. It’s redemptive and necessary — both the act of writing and the act of reading. Neither is passive, because immersive stories will pull levers in our brains, and which ones depend specifically on our personalities, on our life experiences and what we’re going through.
Fiction, and fantasy in particular, is a chance to tour worlds, lives, choices and situations that are a universe apart from our own experience.
The right book will start or continue a process for the reader that pushes them to embark on a parallel, albeit contemporary and reality-based, journey. Inevitably, when I am finished writing a book, I realize that the story I’ve told maps onto my own life in some way, even when the characters are in fantasy worlds that bear no similarity to my own. And isn’t that why we all read to begin with? For escape — but also to return from the journey with a better, deeper understanding of ourselves.
Sarah Fine's urban fantasy Reliquary is available wherever books are sold. The book follows Matti Carver, a strong, determined young women who explores a different side of herself when she becomes entangled in a world of magic — a world she never knew existed. On a quest to save her kidnapped fiancé, Mattie discovers much about herself.. and her sexuality.
Images: Isla Murray/Bustle