This is a roundtable review of Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold by Kristina Tracer, which is available as a paperback from Furplanet or as an ebook from Amazon. Your reviewers are Miriam "Camio" Curzon, and [adjective][species] regular JM.
Camio is an academic writer first and writer of fiction second, with a graduate degree in gender studies. They specialize in queer theory and popular media studies, and recently became a member of the Furry Writers' Guild.
Camio, thanks for participating in this roundtable review of Kristina Tracer's Bonds of Silver, Bond of Gold. I'm sure we'll have plenty to talk about.
Bonds is a furry fantasy novel, following the travails of a young slave who ends up being instrumental in the resolution of a conflict between two neighbouring lands. The basic plot is breezy and fast-moving, but the real meat of Bonds is the exploration of sexual slavery. It's challenging stuff.
Before we go any further, I'll warn readers that our discussion will include spoilers. Bonds also has many explicit rape scenes, and we'll be talking about those too.
Bonds starts with a young male rabbit named Stannis, who sells himself into slavery for the good of his family at the beginning of the book. It's the first of what will be many selfless acts. Stannis has his gender changed, or possibly annulled, to become Taneh. Taneh has a vagina where Stannis's penis used to be, and has gender-neutral pronouns to indicate that the change is more than just cosmetic.
(I'm going to refer to our hero as Taneh from here on in.)
Taneh's gender re-assignation is non-consensual. Taneh is also raped by just about every single character in the book, and beaten nearly to death. The people who beat, rape, and mutilate Taneh are—in the universe of Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold—the good guys.
It's suggested that Taneh is a 'natural' slave and therefore happy to deal with this punishment. Taneh's gender re-assignation leads to horniness, they enjoy being raped, and they're very quick to make apologies on behalf their assaulters. It all seems to come down to negation of identity, that Taneh accepts that their life, as a slave, has little or no value.
This, by the way, is why I suggested that Taneh's (new) gender is closer to null than gender-neural. Nullation of gender fits better with the theme of the book, and the way Taneh is treated (and enjoys being treated). Yet Taneh is very much a sexual being, and continues to enjoy sex, is often horny, masturbates, climaxes from time to time, and so forth.
I'm curious as to your thoughts on this, Camio.
Personally, I found the gender and sexual politics to be genuinely challenging. Taneh is raped by a cook early in the book, and this is seen to be an important, positive step in the cook's mental wellbeing. Taneh is all but beaten to death by the baron later on, and everyone is quick to agree that it was inevitable because the baron was having a rough time in court. And so on, and so on. My moral compass took a real battering.
This was the most striking aspect of Bonds for me. I found it to be really quite shocking.
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this discussion.
The sex in Bonds takes place within the context of the Tracer's world, a medieval feudal society with some capacity for alchemical magic. The text never addresses the existence of any taboo, except some minor taboos surrounding cross-species breeding. Tracer goes as far as to tease Taneh with incest. In many ways, sex, gender, and sexuality does not matter in this world. The Baron is the son of a wolf and a rabbit, created through alchemical magic. I assume, likewise, same-sex couples would also be able to conceive in such a system. From this direction, I see Taneh's becoming as not a transformation of sex, but evolving into a creation beyond anthro/humanism. Taneh becomes a pet, whereas Stannis became a slave. As a pet, Taneh acts as a blank slate, able to adapt to their master's every desire. Ey is there to take control when their master needs a dominant. In that respect, Taneh exhibits more of a fluid identity.
The sexual politics of Bonds is problematic as it exists in between erotic fantasy and realist horror. It features rape that is not rape because the character asks for it and consented to become a slave. We cannot ignore that much of the non-violent sexual acts represent fantasies that are enjoyed in our reality. But it is difficult to ignore the systemic violence of a system that allows slavery, even the freedom to choose to be a slave. However, if read completely as a work of erotic fantasy, in the same context as Kyell Gold's Argaea series, then it doesn't matter. Bonds will be arousing for some, for others not, and there are probably some people who would be better off avoiding the book. It's complicated, not necessarily because of Tracer's writing, but because these lines can get muddy in real life. You can't please everyone.
I can see why you use the phrase "erotic fantasy". The sex is explicit, in that Tracer fully describes the act from start to finish. It doesn't leave much to the imagination. I tried to think of a non-porn book I've read with so much sex, and the only thing I could think of was Oscar Hijuelos's The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love—a book that is in many ways a love letter to the joys of (heterosexual) sex—but that doesn't go nearly so far in its blow-by-blow descriptions of the mechanics of sex.
Early on, there are similarities in Tracer's descriptions of sex and the trappings of slavery. She is interested in the mechanics of the physical bonds of slavery, and she similarly suggests that it's best to accept one's fate, be that as a slave or as someone being raped. Like you say, Taneh as both a pet and a sexual being acts as a blank slate for the desires and needs of their master.
Tracer drops the comparisons with the bonds of slavery once the point is made, but the sex continues. After a while I accepted it was going to be an ongoing part of the book. Even when Taneh & co are in mortal danger they find time and the emotional headspace for sex. It's obviously a deliberate choice on Tracer's part, and I think that it's supposed to be arousing for the reader. It ends up feeling pretty porny.
The sex writing itself is pretty good. Tracer uses a few cutesy terms like "shaft" and "pucker" that come across (to me) as a bit childish, but maybe that's the furry norm. Furry readers, if nothing else, read a lot of erotica. Tracer's sex writing is certainly better than the few other (published) furries I've read, but certainly worse than the non-furries - think Proulx and Brokeback Mountain or Pynchon and Against The Day.
I didn't read Bonds as an erotic fantasy, and maybe that's why I found this to be a stumbling block. I can't help but feel that putting a primary focus on the sex sections undermines the complexity of Tracer's exploration of gender issues, to say nothing of the fantasy world that drives her plot. I think that there is a lot to like outside of the sexual aspects of Bonds, although I guess I can go into that later on.
Do you think that Tracer got the balance right, or is she trying to serve two masters by combining erotica with her more complex ideas?
My introduction to specifically furry published work, and for many of us I'm sure, was Kyell Gold's Volle, which featured quite a number of detailed erotic scenes. I admit that Tracer's was not as distracting as Gold's. Tracer manages a fantasy novel with kink oriented sex scenes with just enough finesse that it does not become fetishistic or overly objectionable. I would certainly be interested into see how specific kink communities respond to this text because this is difficult subject matter to put out for wide consumption, particularly if Tracer wrote some of those scenes with the intention of appealing to those communities.
I do feel that some of the world building suffered at the benefit of the erotic content. Taneh represents one of those loopholes that allows for limited development. Without a mind of their own, we can't expect the same detail as any of the other characters. In this case, though, I would say, more than likely, the detail was absent to benefit Taneh's characterization rather than an excuse.
Admittedly, from the start I read Bonds as an erotic/fantasy novel simply because of the categorization of the work on online stores. I also recently finished (Catherynne M. Valente’s) Palimpsest, which contained a considerable number of sex scenes. When it comes to word choice I will say "shaft" is a favorite and one I use in my writing, but "pucker" makes me shiver and I don't recall ever using it.
I wanted to see more about the world because so much we didn't get to see because we were trapped by Taneh. As a result I find it difficult to fully understand Taneh's context in the world. Is Taneh and their pet the only two of their kind? How wide spread is alchemy practiced as a magical science? How does slavery fit in with the culture of either province?
Two masters is hard to manage. There is no line distinguishing a well written sex scene and erotica. I have a political investment in proliferation of sex in stories in wider media. Depicting life in any amount of realism depends on sex as that is a truth of existence, no one would be here otherwise. So I would rather see someone serving two masters than serving either one, solely, perfectly.
Like you, I also wanted to see more of Tracer's world. We only see what Taneh experiences, and it did feel like there was a large and well-formed fantasy universe surrounding and informing Taneh's story.
It probably says a lot for the provocative nature of the sex and genderfuckery in Bonds, as we haven't really talked much about the main story. It's linear, in that everything happens in chronological order and very little occurs off-screen. It has a lot of energy as well, it zips along like good stories do, and doesn't ever feel rushed or bogged down. The (apparent) richness of the universe gives Taneh's story breadth.
There are a handful of action set pieces, all of which were well done. I particularly liked the magical hypnotism sequences. It's obvious that Tracer knows what she's on about. It's something that's rarely done well.
Bonds also has real character development. It works two ways: in some cases Taneh learns more about people through their actions, and in others the characters grow over the course of the book. This felt real to me, particularly given the high stakes of the primary conflict, which would put the characters under a lot of personal pressure. The true selves of the characters came out when they were under stress.
However it'd be wrong to say that I liked everything. In my opinion, Bonds has some problems. For starters, Tracer uses inconsistent imagery. To take an example from the first paragraph of the book: "Everyone else walking past gave the entrance a wide berth, as though standing too close invited the attention of the occupants." There is an inconsistency here between "walking past" and "standing".
There are a small handful of typos in the book as well. The worst is in a late, key, action sequence, where a mace's action is mistakenly described as "decent" rather than as a descent.
These sorts of errors are to me the biggest difference between this book and a professional publication. I suspect this has as much to do with the quality of the editing as the writing. I've yet to read a furry book that comes across as a professional-standard product. (I've had similar problems with non-furry books from small publishers.)
Still, there is a lot to like and respect about Bonds and Tracer's style. Like you, I think her willingness to approach sex and kink in such a positive and straightforward way is laudable. And I really like that she starts the book at the moment the story begins, at the door of the Slaver's Guild. Tracer allows Taneh's backstory to come up naturally as it becomes relevant, rather than bogging us down with a scene-setting opening chapter or two. As a reader, I find that a generous move, focussing on what makes a book interesting to read (the action) rather than what makes a book interesting to write (the characters). Bonds is written with the reader in mind.
Of course all that is only one reader's opinion. Camio, what did you think of the story and style? And what about the "furry" content of the book - do the animal people populating the universe of Bonds serve a narrative purpose?
I have a hard time believing that Bonds would be publishable outside of the furry fandom, not as an issue of quality, but in content. The extreme aspects of the content are okay within furry community constraints, but would likely be thrown aside outside of furry. Had this been about human characters, the sex and violence (and violent sex) would be extreme and controversial, particularly mirroring race and conflict. In that sense, I do not see this book working without the "furry" content, which allows for more nuanced readings from the disconnect between human and anthro. In a similar way writing on Japanese anime has addressed the affective power of a medium that has no live human actors.
There is a reason why I have a copy of a Game of Thrones trade paperback from 2006 that remains unread, or why I skipped half of The Two Towers. There is something that makes straightforward narratives like Bonds far easier to consume than other works of fantasy. Flashbacks as backstory, elaborate world building, and overarching grand narratives remove a lot of the tension and immediacy of fast paced, high stakes fiction. I don't place much faith in grammatically perfect manuscripts in part because I tend to miss small things with brain auto-correct. I have stopped reading some things published in the fandom because of the poor grammar and typo problems.
For example, in your walking past/standing example, I understood (or interpreted) the gist to be similar to those beauty stalls in malls with employees that chase people down to try their product. Stand nearby, make eye contact, walk too close or too slowly, and they target you.
My personal hang up with Bonds is I found Taneh's reasoning for entering slavery weak, which is later exacerbated by the appearance of their brother as a guard. The decision felt like the most extreme solution to a problem that had multiple solutions. It just felt jarring, like jumping from point A to point C, skipping B. Like Fantine's descent into prostitution in Les Miserables, she didn't immediately go from gainful employment to prostitution, but sold everything else of value until all she had was her body. This could be a matter of missing something as a reader.
I just felt there needed to be more justification for such a lifelong and severe decision. But that is my personal feeling and not one that impacts the narrative as Taneh starts as not necessarily the brightest or strongest character. Additionally, I had some issues with the gender/sex based humiliation, but I understand that it is part of the approach towards sex in the book and my objections are more politically based, which is possibly why I read the book as kink oriented. Reading the humiliation as kink rather than political removes the problematic nature of gender humiliation.
I was all ready to jump in and complain that Tracer's animal people serve no purpose. As a reader I expect the author to make decisions for a reason that adds to the book. I don't think it's enough to say that a book has furries because it's written by a furry, for a furry audience. I understand that a furry book has to have furries in it... but I still think they need to be justified on some level.
I lost track of the species of many of the characters in Bonds. That didn't affect my understanding or appreciation of the book, so therefore why include animal-people at all?
Yet I've been turned around by your argument. You are spot on that the furriness of the characters does remove them a step or two from humans, which frees Tracer to explore the morals of her universe without being constrained by the real, human world. As you say, she couldn't have done it with humans.
I think we're just about at the point where it's time to wind up this roundtable. We have talked a lot, and there is a lot to talk about with Bonds. It is hefty, in terms of its content, without being overlong or difficult to read.
Still, the combination of furries, a fantasy world, the genderfuckery, and of course the endless extreme, violent sex is an unusual one. That leaves me with a final question: who is this book for? To whom would you recommend it?
Bonds is yet another entry in the expanding stable of fantasy genre furry erotica novels (Cyanni, Kyell, Alflor), but is the first that I am aware of that broadens the sexual experiences depicted. The level of muck and mire contrasts with the more romantic lenses of most other options. I think this books is, first and foremost, for a kink audience. The extreme sex and acts are a far stronger audience marker than the furry content. In the same way Kyell Gold has found some readers from outside the fandom, Bonds feels like a book that would be particularly enjoyed by an audience not limited to the furry fandom. At the same time, I feel it is a book worth reading for more adventurous readers looking for something different, for something beyond the traditional romance, gay or straight.