Book Review: The Deviant Underground, Elisabeth Roseland (2014)

August 11th, 2014 2:01 pm by Kelly Garbato

The Smutty X-Men

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, trigger warning for discussion of rape.)

Kathryn is a deviant. Along with one half of one percent of the human population, Kathryn shares genetic anomalies with the mentally ill; but instead of causing anxiety or depression, these deviations give her special gifts. Kathryn has the ability to teleport and freeze time, while other deviants can communicate with animals, control water vapor, exercise super-speed, levitate, read minds, even predict the future.

Rather than being hailed as super-heroes, deviants are rounded up, institutionalized and imprisoned, even experimented on and murdered. For this reason, Kathryn lives a life of quiet desperation. In order to keep her secret safe, she has few friends and zero social life. An English professor in St. Louis, Kathryn’s days mainly involve grading student essays and trolling the library stacks. That is, until her one and only friend Susan introduces her to Sam (“Charge”), and the sparks fly – both figuratively and literally.

Unbeknownst to Kathryn, Susan and Charge are also deviants. Members of the Los Angeles deviant underground, their boss Jonathan sent them to St. Louis for the purpose of finding Kathryn and bringing her into the fold. After Kathryn’s initial panic at being “outed” subsides, she finds herself welcoming this strange new family into her life – even as she tries to hold onto the remnants of her old existence in St. Louis. But when Charge – on a trip to NYC to heal the growing rift between the LA and NY deviant factions – goes missing, it’s up to Kathryn and Susan to find and rescue him.

The Deviant Underground has a lot going for it: fun superpowers, a diverse cast of characters, colorful language, and more sex positivity than you can shake a vibrator at. It’s like the Smutty X-Men, but not altogether in a bad way. When Kathryn isn’t having sex – with herself or with others – she’s fantasizing about having sex. She and Charge have a rather active and vibrant sex life, and Kathryn isn’t ashamed about it in the least. Female masturbation is mentioned on several occasions (yay!). Granted, the sex is rather incidental to the story and might turn some readers off, but overall the scenes are well-written and fun. This is definitely a superhero story for the New Adult set.

I had a feeling early on that Kathryn and Susan would hook up – possibly in a polyamorous relationship involving Charge – and was rooting for it to happen all the way. But the way it happened, when it finally did? Super-problematic. Like, rape-problematic.

Susan’s superpower is suggestibility: she’s able to plant ideas in people’s heads and make them see what she wants them to see. A pretty handy sex trick, since she can double herself at will, or change her form – or rather, other peoples’ perception of her form – entirely. Cool if it’s consensual; not so much if it’s done deceptively. I think you can guess where I’m going with this, yes?

One night while Charge is still in NYC, Susan assumes his form and slips into bed with a very naked – and very drunk – Kathryn. Kathryn thinks she’s making love to her boyfriend, but the next morning wakes up next to her best friend Susan. Upon learning that Susan raped her – because that’s exactly what this is, rape – Kathryn’s first reaction isn’t, “Oh my god, how could you betray me like this?,” but rather, “What will Charge say when he finds out that I slept with someone else?” Ugh.

But wait. There’s more.

This isn’t the first time Susan used her power to violate Kathryn. A few weeks prior – and with Charge’s knowledge and help – Susan pretended to be Charge in order to rape Kathryn. While Charge watched from another room. The two then switched places so that the real Charge could have a go.

To recap: Kathryn’s best friend raped her twice, and her boyfriend conspired to help rape her on one of those occasions.

Her reaction? After about 90 seconds of anger, Kathryn succumbs to Susan’s victim-blaming and rape apologism (you’re just so hot, I couldn’t help myself; but you already rejected me once, and this was the only way!) and the two engage in consensual sex. Ugh, ugh, ugh, with a side of hell no.

I have had it up to my eyeballs with writers who normalize rape, even if it’s “just” in a fantasy context. Rape is not sexy, edgy, or cool. Rape is not entertainment. Don’t try to make it anything other than the violation it is. Just don’t.

This was at the 76% point, and I damn near stopped reading right then and there. Since I still had some time to kill before bed, I powered through to 92% before retiring for the night. After that, I just couldn’t bring myself to finish. This is my very first DNF (did not finish) – although, to be fair, I think it says less about the quality of the book than my dwindling patience for books I don’t love (or at least like), books that haven’t earned my time, books that just don’t deserve to be read over the hundreds of others languishing in my to-read pile.

While the uber-problematic rape scene was the last straw, the truth is that the story was already dragging for me before the rape-that-shall-not-be-named transpired. (The word “rape” doesn’t appear once in the entirety of the book.) Charge doesn’t even go missing until 3/4 of the way into the story; up until that point, it’s mostly drinking, fucking, clubbing, fucking, practicing, and fucking. The story really drags in the middle third, and I just didn’t care enough about the characters to find out what happened in that last 8%.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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