First things first - for the purposes of this review, Lovers and Beloveds: (An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom, by MeiLin Miranda, will be henceforth referred to as LAB. Perhaps not the most glib of monikers, but it gets the job done, and typing out that whole title over and over would eventually kill me.
I find LAB extremely hard to describe or categorize, but I'm going to give it my best shot. While a large part of the novel in some way is devoted to sex and sexuality, I would not classify it as primarily "erotic fiction." Those words always make me think of a thinly veiled, somewhat pornographic venture in which the main goal is to either turn one on or provide spank-bank fodder. LAB strikes me as something more contemplative, almost anthropological. When boiled down to its bare-bones, one might summarize it as a fantasy novel that details a young prince's passage into adulthood, nobility, and sexuality. I will state that it is not appropriate for minors or for those who are less than comfortable with some of the more "alternative" forms of sexuality. I don't want to get too far into the details with that one, so let me say this: if the idea of "alternative" sexuality makes you uncomfortable, then you may want to research this book further before purchase.
I should also state, for those still on the fence about a possible purchase, that while the book isn't without its issues, I found it interesting, unique, well-written, and thought-provoking - the last of which is a characteristic you rarely find in a fantasy work. We've become very used to just having a great story told to us, but sometimes it's also important to think about what you are hearing (er, reading).
So, as is always my style, let me begin with what didn't work for me.
My biggest issue, by FAR, involves the way the author handles describing a scene. I think this is definitely a novel that would have benefited greatly from "rose-trimming"; visual descriptions are often jam-packed with someone redundant adjectives that leave little to the reader's imagination and stretch sentences to mammoth lengths. This clunkiness especially applies to clothing and outdoor scenes. I know that many readers have a particular love for clothes and period costumes, so we may not be in agreement here, but there are only so many descriptions of a ruffled collar that I can take before I start skipping pages. Here's an example of the style I mean:
"On the tracks, the royal train awaited, a great black locomotive at its head, its details picked out in gold, the platform round it and its coal tender behind painted the deep red called Tremontine red: the color of garnet, of a pomegranate, of a thick pool of blood."
In and of itself, it's not that bad, but when sandwiched between a description of the station and a description of the engine handrails, it kind of gave me a headache, and I found it really interrupted the flow of the story.
Happily, this tendency to over-describe seemed to peter out during the course of the novel - or maybe I just got inured to it. Either way, the novel seemed to flow better after the first 15%. It VERY quickly became a novel I didn't want to put down, and not because of a few steamy passages either.
The only other major complaint I had was with the opening itself. It felt rough, abrupt, and didn't match the rest of the book well. We find out later that it has a very good reason for being there, but I feel like the transition needed to be handled better; I spent the first ten to fiteen percent of the book upset and somewhat confused as to its purpose, only to have an a-ha moment later. So, if you read the beginning and go, whoa, I don't like that - hang in there just a little bit. This novel just blooms, expanding in both scope and emotional pull until it's another creature entirely.
So, moving on to the good, and the stuff that I really want to talk about.
First off, the mythology is great. While not completely original in structure, the take is fresh, inventive, and well-crafted. To me, it echoed the pantheons held by the Greeks and Romans. People pledge to the temples of different Gods, each of which has influence in different spheres. Additionally, we see the use of "embodiments" - gods coming to earth to possess living beings for certain amounts of time. One of my absolute favorite details it the way people treat their own religion, in the novel, just as in real life, people believe and worship in differing degrees - some not at all.
Adding further flavor is a back-story that adds in strips of magic. Magic is difficult; give people too little power, and it has no reason for being there, but too much power, and it overwhelms everything else. I found the author's system to be a real winner, powerful without being overly invasive or cutting into the integrity of the non-magicked. I was especially fascinated by Teacher and his powers - without giving away too many details, I will say that I avidly follow the way authors examine the spatial/communicative restrictions present in a world without internet, airplanes, and radios.
The book very much centers around sexuality, and as such, would probably be considered by many to be a work of erotic fiction. Note: I do not read erotic fiction, but I still found LAB to be captivating - almost like an anthropological study of sex, identify, gender, relationships, power, fetish, etc. Unlike your normal smut novel or porn piece, the sex is heart-breakingly realistic, full of warts and rough edges. People are attracted to individuals that fall outside of their mold - without really knowing why - and are uncomfortable with it. People have sex, not just because they are "in love" or "horny", but for many of the reasons they do in real life - loneliness, compensation for a bruised ego, the need to feel included or cared for. One motivation touched on is power - the need to possess it, to punish, or conversely, the need to yield to it, to be forgiven. We are shown a full spectrum of relationships that crosses lines of age, of gender, of occupation. At the same time, it isn't romanticized - Tremontine sex has as many consequences as in real-life. One of my favorite moments was the reaction of a mother whose husband had engaged in a few too many dalliances, and as a result, sired a daughter. The author could have presented the situation in many ways, but I think that with anyone, there's a definite wish to give your opinion on the matter - to either condemn or condone - but instead, Miranda was adept enough to instead offer us the observer's window into both the wife's anger and resentment, and the husbands confused mixture of pride, apathy, even reminiscence - without making us feel pushed into either judging or forgiving. Without a skilled hand or a perceptive eye, the scene wouldn't have worked; Miranda pulls it off beautifully.
As I mentioned before, the book gets better as you go through it. Descriptions improve, to the point where some of them are just wonderful -
Her screams sent fat bubbles up through the foulness until her lungs contained nothing but water.
- but I think another part of it involves the general structure. Each passing chapter peels back further layers of intrigue, moving us from the "more normal" to the "more fantastic", including a story-within-a-story that just really well done. There is enough action to keep things exciting, but not so much we are overwhelmed.
Overall Rating: 4.5 stars. Thought-provoking, well-written, emotionally powerful - but definitely not for the kiddies!