Kiss of the Snake Woman

By Mica HilsonNovember 16, 2015

Cult of the Serpentari by Micah BlackLight

ON THE SURFACE, the genres of speculative fiction and erotica would seem to make for a natural match. Both have storied traditions of utopianism, where writers build alternate worlds in order to help imagine a more liberated way of living and a more liberal, or libertine, social order; this utopian sensibility is, for instance, a key thread that runs from Samuel Delany’s pornographic writings to his acclaimed science fiction novels. Furthermore, both SF and erotica frequently emphasize textures, describing in detail how things look, sound, smell, taste, and feel in order to sensually immerse the reader in the worlds they construct.

In some ways, Micah BlackLight’s The Cult of the Serpentari admirably illustrates what can be gained by hybridizing SF and erotica, but it also inadvertently reveals why the two genres can be so difficult to successfully crossbreed. BlackLight has a thriving career as an illustrator and painter, and this first novel is filled with his lavish color illustrations. These images arguably represent Blacklight’s most successful attempt at fusing the aesthetics of SF and erotica. The pictures are more sensual than blatantly sexual; although there is plenty of skin on display, it often takes a moment for the sexual scenes to come into focus, as the viewer’s eye keeps getting lost in the pure beauty of Blacklight’s patterned textures and subtle gradations of rich color.


From Cult of the Serpentari

Often reminiscent of batik, the illustrations accentuate the tactile qualities of flesh, but like the best science fiction and fantasy works, they also conjure up a whole strange and alluring world. In the book’s afterword, BlackLight explains how The Cult of the Serpentari was inspired by his frustrations with the conventions of the sci-fi and fantasy novels he reads voraciously, which often spend pages meticulously describing violent battles and wounded bodies but are reluctant to pay the same attention to pleasures of the flesh. With the exception of one jarringly violent scene late in the book, BlackLight effectively inverts this convention, creating a fantasy world where the characters are constantly making love, not war.

I strongly support BlackLight’s creative agenda, but the book’s substitution of sex for violence sometimes reminds me of those vegan cookies that crumble to pieces in one’s hand, lacking the binding agents vital to traditional recipes. In this analogy, the rich yolk that gives SF novels their texture and flavor is not so much violence as conflict; battle scenes are simply an easy way to represent a struggle that has clear stakes, but SF authors can just as easily build a compelling narrative around a character’s inner turmoil or a clash between competing ideologies. The ingredients BlackLight substitutes for battle scenes, however, fail to hold the story together coherently, since sex — or at least the idealized, “cruelty-free” sex conventionally represented in erotica — does not generate sufficient conflict.

The book’s struggle to find the recipe for building narrative momentum is especially frustrating given all the promising ingredients in the first chapter. There, we meet the protagonist, a 17-year-old warrior named Kithiik, who embarks on a quest for glory, seeking to kill a legendary creature, half-snake and half-woman, reputed to live in the tunnels beneath his city. His plans quickly go awry, as she disarms and seduces him, taking the boy’s virginity and injecting him with a poison that transforms Kithiik into her servant. The relationship between Kithiik and this powerful snake-woman (the titular Serpentari) could serve as the basis for a fascinating erotic novel, and it’s therefore unfortunate that she disappears from the novel after this first chapter. However, there are still ample possibilities for narrative conflict at this point; we might witness Kithiik grappling with his sense of shame and violated manhood, or we might see him returning home and growing skeptical of his society’s patriarchal values. Instead, Kithiik awakens from his poison-induced delirium a new man, sex-positive and open to the core ideas of feminism and multiculturalism. Furthermore, every other character he encounters (including the foster father who raised him to be a fierce warrior) appears to espouse roughly the same set of tolerant, cosmopolitan values.

There is a long tradition of readers who pore over erotic fiction for the “good bits,” savoring the sex scenes and skimming the rest. Such readers will probably be the ones who derive the most pleasure from Cult of the Serpentari, as nearly all of the book’s best moments come during the good bits. The erotic scenes contain the deftest expression of the book’s progressive notions about female sexuality, masculinity, and multiracial society. The ebony-skinned Kithiik and his sexual partners acknowledge that they come from different cultures, races, and (in some cases) species, but this awareness of difference serves as a source of erotic fascination rather than a catalyst for discrimination. Furthermore, the sex scenes are less about asserting Kithiik’s potency or physical superiority — the occasional references to his chiseled features, broad shoulders, and sizeable genitals notwithstanding — and more concerned with describing his sensitivity and careful attention to his female partners’ pleasure.

Indeed, the lack of conflict between BlackLight’s characters is in keeping with his utopian vision of sexual contact, which he tends to depict as an egalitarian act, where male and female bodies sync up to experience mutual pleasure. While it depicts several different styles of sexual activity, some more athletic and others more languid, the book is careful to avoid the conventions of phallocentric pornography that represents the penis as a tool of masculine mastery. Instead, the book’s erotic scenes contain richer, more original metaphors; in one paragraph, as Kithiik has sex with a member of an elf-like race, his penis is represented as a communications device that can bridge cultural divides as it is “continually buried within the clutching sheath of a cunt intent on speaking to his soul through the channel of his manhood.”

In sharp contrast to the sometimes-clunky dialogue passages, which teeter between contemporary American idioms and a stilted cod-Tolkien, the erotic scenes demonstrate a high level of writerly craft and linguistic innovation. Given that BlackLight is writing for Ellora’s Cave, currently one of the leading erotica publishers, this suggests that he and his editors have devoted most of their attention to the erotic scenes, which depict fairly ordinary sexual practices, but do not read like mechanical, rote descriptions. Indeed, in much the same way that ice cream aficionados will judge quality by tasting a scoop of vanilla, erotica connoisseurs often rate writers on how much linguistic freshness, richness, and flavor they are able to bring to a vanilla sex scene.

I know that I am relying heavily on food metaphors here, but there are quite a few parallels between cooking and erotic writing, not least of which is the fact that both can be performed by amateurs. Furthermore, each is associated with such visceral pleasures that many consumers will judge by their gut (or groin) reactions; thus, in order to distinguish between the amateur and the professional, a complex critical discourse has emerged around each form, attempting to elevate it into an art. Foodies, however, have been far more successful at getting mainstream culture to understand and accept their critical standards; perhaps if the erotica community had its own nationally televised equivalent of Top Chef, then there would be a greater consensus on what makes for good erotic fiction. As it stands, the professional community of erotica publishers and writers skews toward aesthetic conservatism, not unlike the fine dining establishments of an earlier generation, which privileged technique but operated under a fairly rigid set of genre expectations that allowed only for limited innovation.

Conversely, amateur erotic fiction writers — a group that numbers in the tens of thousands online — have the luxury of writing about sexuality in truly weird ways. These writers typically share their work for free, posting to communities where they might receive positive feedback from readers with similar kinks — the only “repayment” most will receive for their work. The professional erotica market comes with more money, but publishers often expect their writers to follow a set of conventional guidelines; anything too alien would likely alienate their loyal customers. Thus, even if erotica writers are praised for their avoidance of cliché when writing sex scenes, this is not a genre that privileges the “cognitive estrangement” that scholars like Darko Suvin have identified as one of SF’s most sterling qualities. Although a science-fiction reader might expect that, as inhabitants of a world with a “skocean” (sky-ocean) populated by elves and snake-people, BlackLight’s characters might have radically different notions about sex and gender, Ellora’s Cave would not likely publish a book that depicted such a truly alien approach to sexuality.

To a degree, BlackLight finds ways around these creative constraints. Some of the book’s most successful moments come when he draws from familiar erotica or SF tropes, but puts his own twist on these genre conventions. For instance, although the editor’s foreword describes Cult of the Serpentari as an “epic hero’s journey,” it actually subverts many of the conventions of the Campbellian hero’s quest narrative so beloved by fantasy authors and Hollywood screenwriters. Some of these subversions seem quite self-aware, as when Kithiik’s would-be warrior mentor regards the sexually liberated youth as a role model, then the two men hug and weep. However, there are cases where his undermining of the hero’s quest narrative seems more accidental than deliberate. Reaching the final chapter, when Kithiik is told that he has proven himself worthy through the many deeds he has performed on his journey, I was hard-pressed to recall any moments where he faced significant obstacles or drove the narrative action.

A feminist fantasy novel that celebrates its male hero’s passivity and embrace of sensual pleasure would be a welcome addition to the corpus of erotic fiction, but an author has to fully commit to this creative choice — signaling that it is a sure-footed decision and not the stumbling of a beginning novelist. Still, BlackLight deserves clear respect for experimenting with new recipes for erotic fantasy, and he has quality ingredients in the mix. I look forward to sampling his next batch of literary vegan cookies.


Mica Hilson is an assistant professor of English at Francis Marion University, in Florence, South Carolina. His research interests include erotic fiction, queer theory, posthumanism, and representations of the body.

LARB Contributor

Mica Hilson is an assistant professor of English at Francis Marion University, in Florence, South Carolina. His research interests include erotic fiction, queer theory, posthumanism, and representations of the body.


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