Cherise Sinclair's Club Shadowlands is the first in her Masters of the Shadowlands series about a BDSM club. The series was mentioned in nine different online sources that I consulted for 50 Shades readalikes, putting it just out of the top ten. One commenter noted that it "seems to be the fav of the BDSM club scene books for vanilla readers." The book was not available through my library system (although some of Sinclair's books are available through public libraries such as the NYPL), so I chose to purchase an electronic copy, which I think was $3.99. The things I do for this project!
This book starts with a bang with acknowledgments and warnings, such as "Please do not try any new sexual practice, without the guidance of an experienced practitioner. Neither the publisher nor the author will be responsible for any loss, harm, injury, or death resulting from use of the information contained in this book." It continues with a plea from Sinclair to keep sex "safe, sane, and consensual." After that somewhat daunting beginning, Club Shadowlands settles down into a somewhat clichéd narrative opening: Jessica Randall has run her car off the road in a storm, and the nearest place to take refuge happens to be a mysterious private club in a mansion. Given the chance between waiting in the cold lobby in soaking wet clothes and reading and consenting to the club rules and gaining entry, she chooses the latter. Unfortunately, as she's wet and cold, she signs without really reading the document she's given. The Shadowlands owner, Master Z, takes charge, efficiently strips Jessica, and puts her in the shower to warm up and recover from the shock of her accident. He then offers her dry clothes, but no underwear.
After entering the club proper, Jessica is very surprised to find that it's "bondage night," and Zachary (Master Z) ends up taking her under his wing. We begin the second chapter from Zachary's point of view and discover that he can read people's emotions, but that seems to be the only paranormal aspect to the story, and it's something that Jessica takes in stride when she discovers it. Zachary, a child psychologist when he's not running the club, is quite taken with Jessica from the moment she arrives and decides quickly that he will take her to bed if she's amenable. However, it's not clear at the outset whether she really will be submissive. Zachary sets himself to watch and wait. He uses his powers to keep order in the club, primarily to determine if people are truly consenting participants, and he wants the same to be true of Jessica as well: "All the choices needed to be hers, right up until she handed the right to him." He can't help kissing her a few times, however.
Jessica--a conservative accountant who is always in control of herself--is in her mid-to late-twenties. She describes herself as pudgy and feels unattractive, and has the opinion that sex is pretty overrated. Once she gets over her surprise about the nature of the club, she observes and becomes intrigued by the action around her, although she has some trouble resisting championing those that she (wrongly) believes are being injured, earning a punishment per the rules she's unwittingly agreed to. As she slowly comes to understand the dynamics of a dominant/submissive relationship and faces her growing attraction to Master Z, she has to decide whether she's willing to yield to passion and risk involving her heart as well.
This was quite a sweet and good-natured book, given its setting. Jessica and Zachary aren't actively struggling with Shadowed Pasts, and portions of the narrative are almost humorous. The characters are engaging and interesting, and it doesn't venture into truly hardcore territory. Despite not being a virgin, Jessica's naïveté is on par with that of Ana of Fifty Shades of Grey and Regina from The Librarian, which is to say almost unbelievable. Another similarity is, of course, the happy ending--this is an erotic romance through and through. Jessica and Zachary's romance takes place over the course of two nights separated by a week, which may be par for the romance course but always makes me feel skeptical. However, I was able to put that aside and enjoy the book.
I would recommend Club Shadowlands to a patron who was genuinely curious about the dom/sub aspect of relationships that Fifty Shades of Grey only flirts with, as here it is embraced wholeheartedly.
Note: What is this thing that these authors have with heroes with long-ish hair? If I see one more description of a man with hair that the hero can tie back or that "just touches his collar" I am going to wonder if there is some sort of conspiracy. I am putting this character trait alongside my pet name irritation in the growing list of tropes for this genre. Master Z's pet name for Jessica is, appropriately, "pet." And also "little one." And "kitten." SIGH.
However, I am giving Sinclair points for having Zachary describe Jessica as smelling like "vanilla and woman"--finally some equal time after all those heroes who smell like "man."
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