It isn’t easy to sum up the thread of these stories, which are all supposed to feature agonizing pleasure and/or exquisite pain. The terms can mean many different things. Fortunately, several of the stories offered me some help. In the paranormal story “Each Step Sublime,” one of Bettie Sharpe’s characters comments that “Love must suffer pain, child. (29% of Agony*)." This is certainly true for the couples featured in this collection – and it is a predominant theme.
Luisa, a young skateboarder, puts it another way when she tells her lover Priya in A.L. Simonds “Stitch and Bitch,” “‘I want it to hurt with you . . .” (55% of Agony*).’ I think many of the characters in the anthology would agree with Luisa that sharing the pain is key. Lastly, Lily Daniels elaborates on this theme in her historical tale “Kiss of Life,” when she writes that “Pleasure and pain were how one knew one was alive. (43% of Ecstasy*).” Ultimately, as these quotes suggest, this collection is all about the combination of pleasure and pain.
As a whole I was greatly impressed with this anthology – and with the majority of the individual stories. Things begin strongly with Anne Calhoun’s “Transformed” where the very alpha Cole finds agonizing pleasure when he visits the diminutive dominatrix, Miss Banks, for some punishment and pain. Interestingly, Calhoun offers readers a second story that appears in the Ecstasy portion which takes Cole and Miss Banks from anonymous sexual encounters into a relationship. In this second story, Cole seduces Miss Banks into letting herself experience ecstasy. Calhoun cleverly covers the two extremes of agony and ecstasy.
Delphine Dryden’s “Safeword” is another story that resonated with me. The story begins with a joke about paddling that dramatically changes the relationship between two coworkers who have been friends for several years. The joke reveals Ashley’s fondness for being spanked. Nathan is intrigued although is unsure about this ability to provide what Ashley craves. It is a story that focuses on Nathan’s sexual discovery of his dominant tendencies. I found this to be one of the strongest stories in the collection.
A.L. Simonds “Stitch and Bitch’ is another winner, a rather touching love story between the very driven Priya and the younger and seemingly nomadic Luisa. Their relationship develops during the Stitch and Bitch knitting sessions. It is highly appropriate that Priya uses yarn to restrain Luisa – and sewing needles to make a point.
One of the more emotionally powerful stories is J.K. Choi’s “Caged,” a tale of Agent Donnelly and an imprisoned wolf-shifter who she visits regularly to work off her frustration. Their physical battles inflame them both and lead to some intensely angry sex. There, of course, is a twist and a definite reason for Nora Donnelly’s emotional agony.
There is Jessica Clare’s “Bachelorette Party.” It is one of the most erotically charged stories of the anthology in which a bride-to-be’s deepest fantasy, involving spanking, is fulfilled during her bachelorette party. While the twist was not a surprise, the story was quite well done – and extremely sexy.
Just as sexy is Shoshanna Evers’ “The Wooden Pony” which is about a woman who needs pain to find sexual release – and to stop her desire to cut herself. The pain of the wooden pony gives her agonizing ecstasy which helps to quiet her mind and her need to hurt herself.
There are several historical stories that stand out as well – Margaret Rowe’s “Wicked Wedding Night,” Lily Daniels’ “Kiss of Life” and Sarabeth Scott’s “Silverhouse.” While each story is different, all three feature dominant men who embrace an edgy sexuality that is laced with exquisite pain.
Next up is Christine d’Abo’s “Bruised Ego” – a compelling story of a man, Lee, who has a problem. He gets sexually aroused from being in pain. He fights regularly to turn himself on, but eventually become impotent unless pain is involved. Therapist Diana helps Lee understand that he likes pain, that he isn’t a freak and that he is not alone. Diana’s session with Lee is a scorcher. This is a fascinating story. Lee and Diana stayed with me for quite some time after I finished their story.
I don’t want to leave out D.L. Galace’s “On My Skin.” In this one, the depressed Marnie is reeling from her recent divorce. When she is caught skulking outside a tattoo parlor, the owner convinces her to come in and get a tattoo. In a sexually charged atmosphere, Michael gives Marnie a tattoo – in a way using the pain to bring about pleasure and help her purge her negative feelings. I was ready to rush out and get a tattoo after reading this one.
There is so much to talk about in the “Agony/Ecstasy” anthology – 21 unique stories that illustrate the combination of pleasure and pain in very different ways. I was most impressed by the fact that all of stories fit so well together. While there were a couple of stories that didn’t work for me, these in no way detracted from the strength of the collection.
“Agony/Ecstasy” hits all of the right notes showing readers the myriad ways in which agonizing pleasure and exquisite pain play into people’s intimate relationships. Readers who enjoy BDSM-themed stories will not be disappointed. The stories are extremely well written, and the level of eroticism is off the charts. Do not miss this one.
*all quotes are taken from e-ARC received from the editor