Thursday, 31 March 2016

Night's Black Agents

Earlier this year (about two months ago) I started running a monthly game of Night's Black Agents.
It's a game I'd wanted to try for a while, hitting most of my interests, spies, vampires, crazy stuff, and so on in a single game. It's flexible enough to adapt to different groups and the encouragement to iron out details with your group fits my gaming philosophy of sharing ideas with the players; essentially treating gaming as a creative group project rather than a way for GM and players to oppose each other. The game offers four modes of play, each emphasising a different aspect of being a spy. A game based on Bond is as valid as Bourne epic, or a Smileyesque Wilderness of Mirrors. The vampires too are based on a number of different types, from the classics like Dracula, strange experiments that produce mutants, or alien stones (channelling Tim Powers' novels, The Stress of Her Regard and Hide me Among the Graves), and reaching back to pre-Christian times, and supernatural vampires from before Christianity which is where my game rests. For those in the know, we have supernatural vampires and the Stakes mode of play, though my conspiracy is still a work in progress.

I'm drawing on Carmilla, Lamia, and Christabel for my conspiracy, tying it to a specific vampire type... which I don't really want to touch on here in case any of the players read this - let's just say I'm also including Melusine and that snakes are more than a metaphor. I have plans around Romantic Poets, girls schools and Romanian orphanages and so on, the game is providing a surprisingly rich seam for ideas, which is another thing I love.

So far we've played through the (S)entries adventure in the main book and I'm currently running the Zalozhniy Sanction from the Zalozhniy Quartet, and intend to finish running it before I even think about putting together my own adventures, even as I flesh out the world by dropping clues everywhere. Basically I'd like to get the PCs to a point where the players can decide where they want to go by the time they finish the Quartet adventures, because even though I love the Gumshoe system it looks like a bit of a bear to write for.

As we speak the characters are on the outskirts of Romania, ready to run towards Vienna and safety. Or rather 'safety'; this is a horror game after all. We're playing on Sunday so hopefully there'll be a nice lot of things they learn and they won't lose too many Stability points.

System wise the things I like is how easy the system seems to be to use. The investigation skills work smoothly, and there's only been a couple of times when I've had to remind people not to roll for using them. The idea that you spend points and roll a dice for more active skills has gone down well. Combat, which I generally hate, feels fast and intuitive, clicking along through small firefights that last only moments rather than half an hour or more. It's one of the few games I've played in a long while where I've felt the pace was good, moving along without being too fast.

Lastly, the players have been wonderful, throwing ideas about like crazy, learning a system that's new to all of us, and pretty novel in the realm of RPGs. They've taken to the game's premise like ducks to water and a couple of them have quite happily thrown ideas into the hat for future plots. It helps that we're all spy fans, that a couple of them pretty much breathe tradecraft. We have a couple of things in place to help everyone keep track of the game, a prototype version of a virtual corkboard (we're actually looking for one that will do pictures so if you know any please let me know), and a session round up that gets emailed to everyone so there's an easy to hand reference to what happened last session.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A Quote

One of the things that I tell beginning writers is this: If you describe a landscape, or a cityscape, or a seascape, always be sure to put a human figure somewhere in the scene. Why? Because readers are human beings, mostly interested in human beings. People are humanists. Most of them are humanists, that is.

Kurt Vonnegut

Monday, 21 March 2016

Aspects of Identity

Who are you? Who am I? 

Simple questions, but not ones I'm convinced have a straightforward answer. On the surface, they can be answered by stock answers, our names, our sexes, genders and so on. Dig in a little further and we may find something else waiting for us. It's akin to taking a chair and simply saying that that's what it is, without considering the style of the design, the wood used to make it, the presence of a maker's mark etc. Similarly our identities are composed of our sex, gender, class, sexual orientation, and many other factors. Add to this that we commonly wear masks, adapting who we are to our circumstances; I am not the same person with friends that I am with my family, or the same person at the doctors that I am at work. These masks may be so fine I don't notice the difference but they're still there.

If I were to dissect myself I would say that my various aspects are as follows:

  • Male
  • White
  • Middle Class
  • Husband
  • Man? 
  • Christian background.
  • Quiet (Introvert?)
Grabbing these first, these are the immutable apects I suppose, as they relate to my body, which is undeniably male, and how I was raised. There's also no denying the colour of my skin, even if in my case it's further complicated by the knowledge that I'm a true mongrel, with Prussian and Spanish ancestors cropping up in the Victorian period, and that I am third generation Middle Class on the last part of the 'shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves'. Despite that, I still went to a private school (a Catholic school no less) and then to university, so an immutable fact is that I had that sort of background. 

I got married about eight years ago, so I am a husband, and by implication straight. That's actually a difficult area for me, so I'm going to leave it undisturbed...

You'll note that I've put a question mark after 'man': I consider it to be a political term, It holds an ideological value of what a man is, and I'm not comfortable with it (I feel that it too often refers to certain types of behaviour that I'm uncomfortable with, especially when put with the word 'real' - there is nothing as pernicious as the 'real man' in my opinion). As things stand I'm not sure I want to be considered a 'man' because of this. In a similar fashion, I put Christian background because while my parents are devout, to the extent that my father is a Methodist lay preacher and my mother used to run the baptisms group when they went to the local Church of England church, I lost any faith I had in my teens. In pat that was probably because I was going to a Roman Candle school, but I'd say it was just as much to do with reading books on Paganism, and Terry Pratchett). 

This is where I start from, the basic parts of my identity, the bits I can't escape. None of us really escapes our childhoods, especially as they're the part of our lives we have no control over. We can only move on from what happens there, embracing or rejecting 

Onto other facets:

  • Goth
  • Writer, poet, 
  • Folklore enthusiast
  • Roleplayer
  • Feminist
  • Critic
  • Politics graduate
  • Would be PhD student
  • History lover
  • Geek (though I'm not sure about this label so much any more, I find I'm growing tired of geek things more and more).
  • Theory nerd
  • Pagan?
  • Agnostic/Soft Atheist?
  • Fantasy fan
  • Science Fiction fan
  • Horrorist
  • Squeamish person who can't handle basic biology
  • Socialist
  • Green Person
This collection of labels, seems to be what I've gathered over the course of my life, Some, like my feeling that socialism is the right creed for me, or my concern with green issues began in my early teens, others like my love of Fantasy find their roots right back in childhood, a love of mythology was fostered by my Grampy and grew from there. It's only now, as an adult, that I look at the genres I steeped myself in with a more critical eye, looking for something new; which often seems to not be there.  Despite that, I'm taken with the amount of language based things on the list. I don't believe in inborn personalities and I'm unconvinced there's a genetic tendency towards profession in any of us (though there are various things out there that claim the Redgraves, for example, are genetically disposed towards being actors). However, I did grow up surrounded by books, with a father who read constantly and my Grandfathers both encouraging me to read. Language has always been a big part of my life. I suspect my parents also influenced my interest in politics, albeit indirectly. The news was always on at home, be it on the radio or the telly, and I remember both the Falklands War and the Miner's Strike, and how they shaped my view of the world. Childhood shaped my view of Feminism too (and has left me wondering why we're still debating the same old things, surely the pay gap, housework etc, should be sorted out by now?)

My love of History grew out of just being interested, and therefore quite good, at the subject, whilst my squeamishness over how my body functions not only makes going to the Doctor a pain, but was something I didn't factor in, I only found out about it during a Science lesson where we covered some aspect or another of human biology and I was nearly sick. 

And so it goes on - I don't want to go into it all exhaustively, as I imagine most of you are bored by now. There's only so much 'swimming in lake you' that you can do before you get sick of it. But the aspects I've listed somehow fit together to make me... And there are days when I'm truly confused by that, and times when I honestly have to question some of the parts I see in myself - when I'm rabbiting on like a nutter about nothing, how can I see myself as quiet or introverted?  Never mind the fact that there are days when I hate myself, because I don't live up to some mythical archetype of a writer, or a man, or whatever. The fact is that all these pieces, and some I haven't mentioned, are all relevant; all part of me. I just decide which parts you get to see, or let them slip through by accident. 

On the surface I appear to be just me, Steve... scratch the surface and I'm still me but I'm more complicated, there's less about me that's straightforwards... 

And the same is true of you. 

Monday, 14 March 2016

On Bronze Wings

She clings to the top of the building, letting it take the weight of her wings as she rests. She sags, lifting the harness from her shoulders; freeing them from the contraption’s embrace for a little while. The wings are heavy, the delight flight brings is tempered by the fear they will drag her from the air. Below, London seethes with life, passion and all the things those bring, hot pinpricks that crackle across her senses, alerting her to potential sins.

She misses the cool zephyrs of home, Third Heaven, so different to the scratchy, fetid air here. She misses flight, real flight, rather than the gliding approximation the crude bronze wings allow. She chafes at the goggles and mask that keep the city’s pollution at bay: London air is too dirty to fly without such constraints.

It is over a year since the man in the smoked glasses and the purple suit captured her, dragged her out of Third Heaven in his strange machine. He butchered her wings with an obsidian knife. For auction, he said: there was money to be made, he said.

Afterwards he dumped her on the street. Bleeding, white feathered angel’s wings apparently worth more than a whole, healthy angel; a screwed up logic she refuses even trying to contemplate.

The Maker and his friends found her soon after. She had huddled into a Tube station, to keep away the cold November night when they came slipping past. One girl wore a pair of huge goggles, with huge, bulging fish eye lenses. She froze as she looked at the angel, eyes fixed on her. Later the Maker told the angel the Kirlian goggles showed her as soulless: and that had frightened the girl.

She did not tell him it was true: souls are for mortals, what use would she have for one?

The Maker offered her somewhere to rest; she accepted without knowing why. He built the harness she wears, taking her to scrapyards and markets to find the pieces of metal he needed, crafted feather after feather from tarnished, unwanted metal until there were enough to lace together. He made a mechanism to make them more than ornaments; transforming them into wings. Even after a year, she does not know why; he just seemed to enjoy the challenge.

Over time they became friends, though her relationship with his fellows is cooler: she does not fit somehow. It is to his home, his eyrie rooftop, that she returns for the little food and rest she requires. She tells him of her travels, of the things she sees in his city. Perhaps she loves him, but she doubts it. Love too, is for mortals.

She rises to her feet; wincing a little as the weight of the harness settles anew onto her shoulders. The wings whir as they open, their cogs grinding together delicately. At the building’s edge she dives, trusting the wind to bear her: it is time to go home.

The Face of History

Recently I posted a question on Facebook, asking what emotion lay at the heart of Steampunk. Punk and Goth, and even Hippy I can understand; but when I look at Steampunk and it's gewgaws and thingamajigs, I don't understand the emotion that lies at the heart of it. One of the people who responded made a point of saying that Steampunks dressed like Victorians, but did not think like them.

I confess this comment stopped me in my tracks, because on one level it suggests we are a different people, almost a different species to our Victorian ancestors. Quite apart from the hubris that suggests, and the rather sweeping statement that captures over six decades of thought and declares 'we're different to all of that' (seriously, all of it? a period that gave us minds as diverse as Karl Marx, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Emmeline Pankhurst and many, many more? Truly we live in an age of luminaries to be able to make such a judgement).

I was slightly staggered by the lack of thought that went into the statement. Humans are products of four things: environment, technology, knowledge, and 'hardware' those parts of our brain that govern our instincts whether that be our chromosomes, our reptile brains, or what have you. Three of things can change, as a species we are becoming increasingly urbanised, leaving the country behind for cities and towns. It isn't so long ago that we passed the mark where the majority of the species now lives in the closely packed environs of the urban. Soon I imagine, the countryside will be largely empty, populated only with large farms (and to play doomsayer for a moment as we enter the next stage of Industrialisation with drones and so on, I imagine the countryside will become slowly more inhabited by machines than people). The rush towards urbanisation really began, in Britain, in the 19th Century as the countryside jobs vanished and people were forced to move to cities. So any change we see in our character as a species is at least partly because of that, and the fact that most of us grow up in larger community. That's not say that our 'troupes' are any bigger, science has shown that most of us still know between 80 and 120 people (indicative that we haven't changed that much on an essential level and are still bound by our primate nature).

Technology is one the biggest changers of human behaviour. It shapes our societies without us even thinking about it, consider the way the mobile phone has altered how you work, or communicate with friends. Or how the existence of social media has altered how much you reveal about yourself. With access to so much technology our horizons are different, we can both connect and disassociate ourselves from our fellow humans. I honestly believe that if Westminster genuinely wants strong communities, it'll have to invest in a time machine and prevent the television and motor car being invented. As things stand we're able to contact anyone we choose (provided they have internet access), our sense of community is much looser, defined by interests far more than geography. I can talk to fantasy fans, and goths wherever I wish, or connect with anyone else who shares my passions. This goes hand in hand with knowledge, in the context of history, we know far more about other cultures than our ancestors did. Bear in mind that at one point the village down the road was terra incognita, and a century ago the Far East was still shrouded in mystery. Now, unless there are political blocks in place, juntas, authoritarianism, and so on, it feels as if we can learn anything we want from anywhere. So we come into contact with more people, we have the technology and the kowledge to inform ourselves, and we have had a few events that altered our perceptions of what was proper. The First World War for instance, shook up the views of what women could do, arguably contributing far more to the suffrage movement than the previous years of campaigning and social disruption created by the Suffragists and Suffragettes (doubtless the Russian Revolution also helped). World War Two also assisted, if only because it blackened the name of eugenics as a science so completely that we have never really returned to the subject. It also prompted what has so far been the longest successful experiment in establishing peace in Europe, via the EU (where the levels of bureaucracy the British Government finds so vexing may simply be a mechanism for making sure that you can never rapidly expand your war capacity). Kidding apart, there's a reason why our world is growing progressively less violent, and it could well be because of the amount of data we have forces us to see our fellow humans as just that, rather than othering them all the time and seeing them through the focus of stereotype.

Of course current events in Syria don't reflect that, which is unfortunate, but does need to be seen in the context of the growth of Fortress Europe, the reinforcement of borders and the growth of nationalism: two movements that are linked to globalisation and the fear of losing work, and indeed to the growth of the super rich which threatens to return us to the feudal state just with brand logos instead of heraldry. If this is advancement on any level, I fear the John le Carre novel, Smiley's People, is entirely correct when George Smiley says 'I have seen people hop up and down and call it progress'.

The way we teach history in schools is tied to this ideology, the idea that as time progresses we inexorably move forward into a better tomorrow, an idea which is only being challenged now because for the first time we have a generation that has worse prospects than their parents. In general though we talk about history and progress as if it were the perfect Capitalist economy, forever growing and producing profit. So we grow from the superstitions of the past through the first stumbling steps of scientific discoveries to our own, enlightened, future.

There are two things to discuss here, first that the past was never like that, anymore than it was all run by men all the time, we have evidence of women owned businesses, we know that there were people exploring scientific ideas and that Aristotle's ideas and theories began to make their way up from Moorish Spain from the 12th Century Renaissance onwards. It's just that we find it handy, in retrospect, to anchor a paradigm shift to the later Italian Renaissance and cut our history into neat little packages that way. The Victorians didn't help here, they codified histories for the purposes of teaching it for the first time, and their texts tend to focus on the glorification of Empire, Christianity and the Royal Family. It is from them we get the idea that Richard the Lionheart was a good king (when in reality he was only present in England for something like six weeks in his entire reign, and his ransom beggared the nation), and that the Vikings were terrible raiders with no other interests. It is only subsequent investigations that have revealed the extent of the Norse success story. Likewise, the Victorians had a low view of Queen Elizabeth 1st, despite their own monarch's sex. Probably this was because she reigned alone, without marrying a handsome prince who would take care of the heavy lifting.

Second, that what we take from history is as much a reflection of the society we live in and the Zeitgeist we experience as anything fictional. In a celebrity obsessed culture, which has been immersed in war for over a decade, and where opinions politics, economics and faith have all sort of slumped down into a quagmire of disgust and despair, it is perhaps no surprise that we have moved from the West Wing to the Game of Thrones. We don't trust people in authority*, the idea that they're all a shower of bastards fits today's narrative perfectly, just as it ties into our simplistic view of the Medieval Period of being one infested with  lives that were 'nasty, brutish and short' to quote Hobbes' Leviathan. We cannot know the truth, so we make it up for ourselves, rendering history as fictional as anything else (and in my opinion, most of what we 'know' is fiction supported by numbers and theories). The danger here is that we think its real, that we ignore the fact that we are just cherry picking historical facts because they're interesting to us, they're exciting. Nobody wants to imagine themselves as a nobody, even though most of us are, so we live vicariously through the exciting events of the past, even when those are transposed into a fictional world. It would be stupid to deny that it was rougher in the past, and while the oft stated life expectancy of 30 is a bit of an exaggeration**, lives were certainly shorter. However it's a sensationalist view that misses the fact that, in the main, most people's lives weren't actually any different to our own. Growing up, playing, falling in love, having children, following a trade; all these things are the meat and drink of human life and they don't change. We are not a different species, just one that's got prettier toys that have changed the way we live, ever so slightly. Cut away the external trappings and we're still just the ape that got lucky. And truly, it would be as valid to write a fantasy West Wing novel as it is to write Game of Thrones, or to emphasise another aspect of Medieval life.

Each generation thinks they discover sex, each thinks it discovers history as well and, while we draw on the knowledge of the previous generation's discoveries, it is natural to interpret things through the lens of our own experiences and societies. Hence the rise of the 'crusade' against Islam and the increasing militarisation of American Christianity, from fear that somehow the world will be swamped by a new Ummah.

This returns to the 'hardware', the central processes in our brains that govern our unthinking behaviour, our instincts and so on. This has not changed through all of history. It is the part of us that governs our feelings about so much, from sexuality, to what's good to eat, even to what spaces are safe to travel through. It is the part of us that stops us taking the last cookie from the plate because we fear the disapproval of our peers, or dictates that women must be wooed. This is the fact of our existence.

I cannot tell you not to like something, only to ask you to think about what you see and read and to make up your own minds about it. The past is more complex than we care to admit, and the reason it's complex is because it was made by humans, and we're a damned difficult species.

* Something that also drives the Zombie Apocalypse genre.
** William the Conqueror's son Robert lived to the age of 80, but that might be because he spent a large period of his life in custody in a monastery.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Review: The Bloody Chamber and Other Storiers

A selection of fairy tales by Angela Carter, the Bloody Chamber returns the form to an older time,
drawing on the folk tales as they were before the Grimms began the trend of infantilising them. This produces a stew of tales that are at once more adult, more Gothic and more dangerous than the callow versions most of us read as children. Carter's willingness to put a feminist spin on the tales she reinterprets makes them punchier, more dangerous and she inevitably crosses into taboos subjects: sex is hardly a stranger in these stories, and carries a political significance all of its own.

The protagonists of each tale are, by and large women, with only Puss in Boots stepping outside that decison, providing the reader with a cat's eye view of the proceedings. This decision, to rely either on the perspective of men, or animals, others men in many respects, and men are depicted in a variety of ways. On the one hand they are shown as separate from nature, and the world in direct contrast to the heroines who are immersed in life and the hustle and bustle of human activity. The Bloody Chamber itself depicts its villain as not only master of all he surveys but a sadistic brute, suggesting that control and power feeds sadism rather than sating it, while the Erl-King likewise suggests that men cannot abandon power but must use it to taint every relationship. As a result the stories do serve as much as a warning about male power, just as traditional tales often cautioned against allowing women to wield authority. Where men avoid this fate it is because they cease to be 'men', in the political sense. They remain male but they either abandon their authority, or never possessed any to begin with. As a result the blind piano tuner becomes an unlikely hero, unable to subject the heroine of the Bloody Chamber to the indignities of the male gaze, to reduce her to a simple object for his pleasure. His inability to see means that he cannot become a man in the sense that Carter employs the term, he is not corrupted by sight and therefore is immune to the harmful effects of pornography, either written or visual. The Courtship of Mr Lyon, similarly redeems the male protagonist when he abandons his wild power for love, submitting to the will of woman.

This last reflects the tradition in fairy tale that holds women as the keepers of civilisation, tying into the idea of the animal bridegroom. Carter's stories certainly touch on this more closely in some of the tales than in others. Typically, she twists the endings in these stories. Famously, The Company of Wolves uses sex as a way not to continue old patterns of the civilising female but to make the point that there is a beast in woman too; one that is awakened by copulation, as does The Tiger's Bride. There is an implicit suggestion that sexual fulfillment for women is a wholesome thing, shorn of the unpleasant undercurrent that frequently effects male sexuality. This is linked purely to human sexuality, Puss, here called Figaro, shows carnal desires are shown as lusty, but natural, untainted by the clutter of humanity.

A direct opposite to this is The Lady in the House of Love, where female sexuality, and longing, becomes the focus and it is suggested that they can become as twisted as their male counterparts. The scene once the eponymous Lady has seduced and bedded her heroic virgin reveals her bed chamber in the light of morning as tawdry and cheap, a comment on the thinness of artificial sexuality perhaps, or of poses we adopt to make ourselves desirable; or even on the Gothic itself. I don't know if Carter was aware of the Goth scene, it seems unlikely as the collection was published in 1979, just as the subculture was emerging, but she probably was aware of strange black clad youths who were obsessed with old Victorian novels and the like: it may be a comment upon that.

The arresting thing about the Lady is that though she is a Queen of the vampires, she is powerless and a prisoner, just as the Countess in The Snow Child, is ultimately powerless. Both appear to have power, but are dependent upon others to exercise it. The 'It bites' at the end of Snow Child is emblematic of the hollowness of female power, when it is contained in a male paradigm. Carter's message is clear, it is only by rejecting the structure of patriarchy that women can prosper. As the focus here is largely carnal, primal, the prism Carter explores is that of desire and its dehumanising elements.

Where these stories differ from the traditional fairy tale is that they hesitate to return their protagonists to the loving bosom of male power, and work against that ideal, which looms so large in Gothic and fairy tale. Instead the heroines are either depicted as the mistresses of their own destiny, casting off the shackles of their sex to be the equal of their male lovers; the implication being that through sex they are transformed and in possession of their own power, or able to live independently. They are not the vassals of male power, even in the bleakest of tales.

Each story is masterfully crafted, grounded in the genres it inhabits. Carter's language is sensual in places, and always wielded with precision. Her tales are caught between the domestic and the fantastic, fancy has its roots firmly in the known world be that the modern day or history. As is the case with much of the early Gothic, and virtually all fairy tale many of the stories exhibit a pleasing timelessness, The Bloody Chamber for example makes reference to the trappings of the modern world , telephones, cars and so on, without ever truly acknowledging the effects they have on society (that single phone call that summons the protagonist's mother aside). The Courtship of Mr Lyon is similar, the setting is modern but the actual important aspects of the story are not technology dependent. The message that Mr Lyon is ill is brought, ultimately, by his spaniel.

I would urge fans of the Gothic, and of fairy tales in general to read this. It truly is a masterpiece of storytelling and reflects so much about the basic concerns of human existence. If I were given to stars or ratings, I'd give this at least four out of five... possibly more.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Book Review: Radical Ecstasy

A book by Greenery Press, Radical Ecstasy concerns sex magic. To be precise it looks at BDSM and
spirituality and how the two interconnect, drawing parallels between BDSM, Tantra and the sort of Shamanic ritual practiced by Fakir Musafa.

As always with Greenery Press, whom I confess I'm very fond of, the book is written in an approachable style, with the authors, Dossie Easton and Janet W Hardy, drawing on their own experiences and providing anecdotes to embellish their points. I like this approach, it makes me feel as if I have two mentors rather than being preached at by someone sat in an ivory tower, even if its not going to be for everyone. It shows me how human the authors are and that they have their own troubles and so on, rather than painting an unbelievable, but very pretty image of their lives as perfect. Tales of relationships ending, of the troubled pasts the characters recount may not leaving their troubles at the door, but does tell you that they are real people, and I feel in this sort of work, dealing as it does with self discovery, that's important.

The meat of the book is dedicated to helping people find ecstasy, not in the drugs sense, but in the manner of letting go of your body and 'flying'. Here we find something interesting about the authors. One, Dossie, is a pagan and practitioner of magic, the other, Janet, is very much more left brained and skeptical, looking for evidence - they're like the Mulder and Scully of kink in many ways. These different perspectives allow them to dive into the spiritual side without getting too 'woo woo' about it all. Despite this there are mentions of chakras, kundalini energy and so on, so if you're seriously allergic to such things, this may not be the book for you.

The book is structured into various chapters, as you might expect, and delves into beliefs, ethics, and where we find love, and indeed what love actually is. This last is interesting, as it discusses what society tells us love is (raising a family, a joint account and so on) and how it clashes with the emotional/hormonal truth of it; the feeling of connection, openness, and  affection with another person. They dive into others subjects from morality play, to how to find your intuition and other matters. All in all, its very grounded and sensible, they don't promise to make you a wizard, or to teach you things that will make all your problems disappear. The frankness of their discussion helps with this, showing that you won't be a yogi by the end of the book but will have a stronger sense of your own spirituality.  There are anecdotes throughout, some of them very personal, there's a real sense of the authors putting themselves on show, often in ways that must have been painful to recount. It is hard not to see the effect that writing the book had on them, especially since they openly discuss it.  They talk about the fears they discovered within themselves, how one feared that everything she wrote was bunk and the other that if she did a workshop that did not go well would become upset. Over the two years it took to write the book, they became closer and shared much of the same headspace, everything became devoted to the book, to the extent that in the closing chapter, Janet admits that she hadn't played without the book in mind during that time. Transformative as the experience obviously was, it also just as obviously took its toll.

Roleplaying (not in the D&D sense) takes up part of the book with a discussion of the various roles you can undertake and how they may work in psycho sexual terms. This delves into areas that many people might find uncomfortable, including animal roleplay and age play. These, obviously, don't connect to anything more significant than playing about with an idea and shouldn't be construed as a tendency to do anything that's not legal and consensual. The appeal seems to lie as much in being able to shuck the responsibilities of the modern adult and to dive into a world of innocence. They also discuss more adult roles, Mistress and slave, sex slaves and so on, taking each in turn to explore them, whilst at the same time making it clear that these are roles, not something you do 24/7 - this isn't a book to prepare the reader for the idea of a formal lifestyle arrangement, and where they do mention it, it is the context of a long term, almost high ritual, role rather than anything else.

One of the later chapters delves into the idea of psychodrama, shadow play - literally dancing with the darker parts of your psyche, possibly brushing up against old wounds that lurk beneath the surface. This might be something from our own lives, a shame, humiliation or trauma we have carried with us, or it might be cultural, something we take for granted as 'normal' but which is troubling, like sexist attitudes or the ideas that go to make up our perceptions of what each sex and gender is about. This reads as if it something for the more advanced practitioner, not something to be undertaken lightly. I feel I am only a novice in BDSM and I would want to gain more experience before attempting it, partly because I would want to be more sure of myself and would also want to know I could trust the person I was playing with absolutely before placing that amount of faith and responsibility in their hands.

I found it rewarding to read and felt that it was very illuminating. It was nice, in part, to read something that explored another side to kink, a deeper side than just whips and chains and rock n roll. As I feel I have neglected my spiritual side I will be using some of what this book imparted in an attempt to find my own path to ecstasy,