Jul. 3rd, 2017

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Okay, let's get the awkward part out of the way. Sunstone (a 5-volume graphic novel from Image) starts out with, "This is a love story about two BDSM-loving girls".

No, it's not porn.

Well, mostly not. Bear with me.

Our narrator is Lisa, a struggling writer (and novice sub), who works as a barista by day and writes BDSM porn online by night. Her primary series of stories is "Lisbeth", something of a MarySue featuring the title character and Allison, who is based on...

... Ally, a successful game programmer (and moderately experienced domme), who has been Lisa's online penpal for some time now.

The story opens when Lisa finally gets up the nerve to ask to meet Ally in person, and they get together to play out their fantasies a bit. They hit it off really well, and the book follows their evolution from play partners, to best friends, to roommates, to...

... well, that's the hard part. Sunstone isn't porn; it is very much a romance novel, about the difficulty of admitting to your best friend that you've fallen in love with her. It head-on tackles the not-unusual problem of modern society that sex is easy, but romance can be much, much harder.

Now, normally I'm not a huge fan of romance novels -- I've hit a few too many stories that depended on someone being outrageously dumb, or some Terrible External Force Keeping Our Protagonists Apart, or something like that; stuff that I can't really relate to all that well, and which has made me a little cynical about the form.

Sunstone has basically none of that: our heroines are smart and witty, there are basically no antagonists (indeed, pretty much everyone in the story is quite likeable), and nothing horrible happens. Rather, both Lisa and Ally are real, well-rounded people -- but both are smart enough to be horribly prone to over-thinking things, a little bit proud, and insecure enough to be lousy at communicating about the stuff that really matters. In short, they remind me an awful lot of me and many of my friends.

It is pure character study, and most of the content of the five volumes is simply people talking. I credit the author, Stjepan Sejic, for managing to pull that off well enough that I intentionally read the story quite slowly, a few pages a day, just to savor it. (At the end, he confesses how terrifying it all was. He seriously contemplated putting an alien invasion into the middle, just so it would be more in his comfort zone. Fortunately, he thought better of it.)

Now, I should explain that "mostly not" above. While Sunstone is a pure romance novel in structure and style (and quite a sweet one at that), it is a novel about two people who get together over their shared interest -- and their shared interest is BDSM. So bondage is a constant element of the story, and if you get off on beautiful women in leather and vinyl, you'll find plenty of lovely artwork here. There's a moderate amount of nudity, and there is occasional partial porn -- you'll sometimes find yourself three pages into a scene, and just around the time you start going, "Wait, this is getting kind of porn-y", it snaps back to reality as you realize that it has digressed into Lisa's latest story, which she is using to process what's going on in real life. And at times it gets a wee tad didactic about Safe Bondage. Suffice it to say, it's not porn, but it's not SFW either.

There isn't much "will they or won't they" tension to it -- the entire story is told in retrospect, from a viewpoint about five years later, and it's pretty clear that they will wind up together eventually. This is all about the road to getting there: the initial nervousness about meeting, the passion at the start, the settling down to deep and abiding affection, the stumbles, mistakes and fights (including what amounts to some hard-learned lessons about poly), and eventually figuring it out.

It's a delightful journey, and I regret getting to the end -- I've been using it as my end-of-the-day reading, because it pretty much always leaves me feeling good, as few comics do.

Highly recommended, especially if you like romance stories. Not quite High Art, but excellent enough that it's going onto The Shelf, at least for the moment. The story reaches a clear end with Volume 5, although Sejic is by now having enough fun that he is moving on (as often happens in romance universes) to spin-off novels about Lisa and Ally's friends. Check it out...

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July 2017

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