Café Reads: A review of Dancing with Cupid by Jennifer Stevenson
One of the pleasures of belonging to our cooperative publishing group is the opportunity to read our members’ novels in genres I may not have checked out before. When I discovered Jennifer’s Slacker Demons series of paranormal romantic comedy novels, I became a fan. Beginning with It’s Raining Men, the novels create a wildly imaginative scenario of hunky sex demons who live together in a funky “man lair” and serve to liberate women who have suffered from repression of their natural sexual power. The demons also happen to be “slackers” who have been kicked out of Hell, possibly for being too nice (my interpretation). They range in age from thousands of years to only a hundred for the “youngster,” and represent different cultures and racial heritages. They set to work liberating women of every body type and culture, as well, so right off the bat they won my approval.
Not that there is anything heavy-handed about the equality and liberation promoted by these stories. For one thing, there is the hotness factor of these hunky demons, and the wonderfully free and lusty enjoyment of sex that I find missing so often in novels these days. And I find myself laughing out loud at the predicaments of the characters both demons and “clients,” as they face Hell’s deadlines, punishments, and other twists of fate.
In Dancing with Cupid, slacker demon Kamadeva is a 6,000-year-old Hindu love god who was burnt to a crisp for shooting the arrows of love into Shiva. Now living in the Chicago sex demon lair, he meets young attorney Rathi Raani Singh, who doesn’t realize that she is the reincarnation of a goddess herself. Her name means “Desire Queen Warrior,” and Kama determines that he will restore this uptight, repressed young woman to her full sexual glory. The first scene that made me laugh is when Rathi’s suppressed chakra energy has been released, and she doesn’t realize what’s happened. In an important meeting with a judge, she has to flee to the women’s restroom as her panties are literally so hot they are ready to burst into flames. She perches in a water-filled sink, steam rising around her, and wonders WTF is happening.
Many more delights and twists are in store, including a finale in India that is begging for a Bollywood film rendition, complete with elephant god.
But, during all these romps and sexual escapades, I never lost sight of the real emotions and quirks that brought these characters to life. I cared about them, and rooted for their liberation. I hope you will join me.
A brief conversation with Jennifer Stevenson:
Sara: Jen, can you give us a notion of how this complex “history” and organization of slacker demons sprang into being? What seeded the story ideas?
Jen: The whole series started from the phrase “slacker demons,” while I was at a writers’ conference, after I’d spent several days binge-watching Judd Apatow’s movies and TV shows about his pleasant idiot slacker-boy characters and their lifestyles. My head was in guyspace. How about a series of romcoms from the guys’ viewpoints, about sex demons who are so lazy, they’re this close to getting kicked out of hell? The fun of focusing on their feelings as they are dragged kicking and screaming into love!
From there I just had to add my usual pagan geekery, magic- and religious-history geekery, sex, and humor, and stir.
Sara: I’m fascinated with Kama’s mission in Dancing with Cupid, and his retelling of the history of the Kama Sutra, including the worldwide suppression of women’s power. Can you share your source for this feminist view? I want it to be true!
Jen: I read a lot about the Kama Sutra (literally “love book”) when I wrote this. It was composed of about a dozen or more documents cobbled together over centuries. Then in about 1550 AD it was rewritten to be titledThe Ananga Ranga, and I forget what that means, by a courtier in the (then) Islamic court of Delhi, northern capital of Islamic India. The rewrite removed all the bits where men were taught exactly how to please their wives in bed, and added a lot of advice to husbands about how to control their wives by cutting them off from their families, forcing them to stay married by raping them (because strait-laced Hindus and Muslims wouldn’t take their daughters back if they were sullied), seizing their money and property rights, reducing or eliminating their education, yadda. Charming. You can see why Rathi hit the ceiling over it. (That last is my fictional contribution. What Rathi thought about this, as the priestess says in my story, nobody records.)
What is also true, and uncanny, is that in Europe the same thing was happening, but the warlike religious fanatics sweeping across the continent were Christian, not Shaivite Hindu (Shiva-worship-dominant Hindu). Just as on the Indian subcontinent, where Shaivite and Muslim armies rampaged back and forth across the same territories, over and over, so Protestant and Catholic armies scoured Europe, and women’s rights were major casualties, the targets of both sides. Any scholar of history will tell you that women’s rights decreased, not increased, during the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Sara: What are your plans for the series?
Jen: It’s done. If pestered enough, or if I got inspired, I’d write another novella or two about brief visits from failed recruits / temporary roommates of the Slackers, like It’s Raining Angels and Demons. But I was so in love with the Lair, which is set in a building where I worked for 15 years, that I couldn’t bear to leave it empty. Then I thought, how about putting in a team of girl sex demons? Take the idea in a whole new direction? That’s how the Coed Demon Sluts were born.
Sara: How do you handle reader reactions, if any, to your creation of characters from different cultures? I felt your depictions were not only sex-positive, but cultural-diversity-positive.
Jen: I work hard to be accurately and responsibly inclusive: I interview real humans, seek out sensitivity readers (I’m super proud of my cover blurb from Sonali Dev!), and read and talk to historians of diverse culture when there aren’t any living witnesses. I’m too much of a geek not to. And then I sugar-coat the crap out of it, because I personally won’t put up with heavy scholarship and polemics in my fiction, so why should my readers? Angry people don’t change their minds. Make ’em laugh. Humor changes the world.
Sara: What matters to you most about Dancing With Cupid?
Jen: This is one of my favorite novels. I loved working with Indian themes and playing with Hinduism – the parade of wedding guests from the Hindu pantheon, for example, makes me very happy. But the part I loved most was Kama himself. He’s so damned sweet, and he loves her so much, and he knows he’s a bit of an idiot, but he’s also incredibly good at his job, and his job is about making women happy. And he makes the ultimate sacrifice for her: he suffers a terrible death. He doesn’t blame anyone but himself for the bad stuff, and he does the hard things like a hero without in any way coming across like some alpha chest-beater. The seduction-by-picnic where he tries to lure out Rathi’s memories by feeding her Assamese specialties, and ends up seducing himself? And his big grovel, when the roomful of his worshippers summon him naked into her presence and he has to explain to her exactly how right she was, and how wrong he was? Favorite scenes ever. The sex scene with the mangos runs kinda long, but nobody has complained so far.
Sara: What’s different about the Sluts? Are they in the same world? Are they sugar-coated, too?
Jen: Answering in reverse order here … you betcha the Sluts are sugar-coated, because they’re way angrier than the boy-demons.
The Sluts live in the same world as the Slackers, and also Hinky Chicago, my first series. Magic is invading civilization. It’s chaotic. Every person manifests magic differently; there’s no such thing as “internal consistency.” Any magic with enough internal consistency is indistinguishable from technology. Magic should be wonderful. Every series I cook up visits a different corner of this hinky universe.
When I first imagined doing a girls’ version of the Slacker Demons, I thought, this’ll be easy. An exhaustive survey of people I met in bars at science fiction conventions, however, revealed that many women are interested in the demon deal for very different reasons than most men. Of the men I asked, the commonest answer to, “What would make you agree to become a sex demon?” was, “Duh, the sex.” Bent women answered the same way. Straight women? Some thought first of revenge. Some liked the crazy-high pay. Some liked the idea of power over their own lives, power in bed, or just power power. Most were attracted to living forever young, in a body you could redesign at whim: any size, shape, color, yadda. You’d never have to try on a pair of jeans. You’d never have to try on a bra. You’d have to eat 4500 calories a day to stay thin. Sex? That came last. So that series got complicated.
Of course, some people would say that having fun in bed is a serious issue. As you say, Sara, women should be free to have fun with sex. You have to laugh. Because sex is hilarious!