Book Review: “The Siren and the Sword” by Celia Tan

January 29, 2018

I took the opportunity to review this book free on Kindle through the NetGalley website, even though, as a matter of policy, I avoid books that are hidden behind the “adults only” wall at Fantastic Fiction. Pretty much everything by Cecilia Tan is, though. I’m told she’s a leading name in erotic fiction and LGBT literature. It’s the fact that her Magic University series riffs on the Harry Potter “school of magic” theme that caught my interest.

In an afterword to this book, Tan admits she was inspired by Harry Potter. At its weaker moments, it reads like a piece of erotic fanfiction, with the difference that the characters are original and the setting is Veritas, a hidden college of magic within Harvard University. Like at Hogwarts, the students at Veritas are divided into houses, and the professors veer rapidly from seeming whimsically odd to dark and menacing. Instead of a shrimpy orphan with messy hair who has been raised by relatives who deliberately tried to squash the magic out of him, the main character is a studly scholarship student named Kyle Wadsworth, who stumbles on Veritas during a visit to the Harvard campus during his senior year in high school. His ability even to see the Veritas buildings proves he has talent, but since he grew up knowing nothing about magic, nobody knows what his talent is.

This book comprises Kyle’s first of four years at Veritas, learning his place in the magical world. While he takes ordinary poetry classes and some classes on basic magical theory, he develops relationships with other students and gets involved in a creepy mystery involving a creature that preys on students who sneak into the library at night. He also starts to understand where his particular gifts lie, and that his unique gifts may be what it takes to save a fellow student from the deadly effects of the siren in the library.

As for shipping, this variant leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination. Every time the story builds up a nice momentum of magical mystery laced with unique fantasy concepts, Kyle suddenly takes his clothes off and, either alone or with another student, engages in scenes that broke the needle on my Adult Content meter. We’re talking naughty body parts, detailed play-by-plays, and lots of vividly described bodily fluids. This isn’t just an Adult Content Advisory, it’s a Pornography Warning.

Other books in the Magic University series include The Tower and the Tears, The Incubus and the Angel, The Poet and the Prophecy, and the short story collection Spellbinding. After writing that her other works frequently combine fantasy tropes with romance, graphic sex, and kinky elements like fetishes and BDSM, I kind of want to wash my hands. Tan is obviously an expert on this kind of thing, and I frankly admit I was titillated. Yet I also thought the explicit-sex parts of this book strangely lacked the originality and lyricism of the rest. There was a weird disjointedness in it, where distinctively excellent passages ran straight into sections where blue writing served in the place of good writing. I was pleasantly surprised that it rose to a level above slash fanfic – but even without sacrificing eroticism, I think it could have risen higher.

Interested? Buy a copy here.