Review time! with ‘Sunstone’ volumes 1-5

“Crawl over to me on your stomach, more, baby, more”

Sunstone is Stjepan Šejić’s epic ode to BDSM, and recently, the fifth and final volume came out, so I thought I’d actually sit down and read them all and review them. Good times! This is published by Image and Top Cow, and each volume is $14.99 despite the fact that they get progressively longer over the course of the series. So that’s nice. Image is selling a new hardcover combining the first three volumes (which I didn’t think made much sense, but looking at all of them, it’s clear that the first three are about the same amount of pages as the next two), so you can get that if you decide you like reading a romance between two very attractive women who enjoy some kinkiness in their sex.

Let’s get that part out of the way: if you are a heterosexual man or a gay woman, Sunstone will probably make you uncomfortable (in a good way) in some parts of your body. There is … a lot of nudity, and almost all of it the female variety (there are, I think, two panels where we just a glimpse of a penis), and there’s a lot of writing that deals with what the women are feeling as they’re having sex, even if the sex itself is fairly softcore … if you can get past the fetish gear and such, which you really should. I mean, there’s no drawings of penetration by anything, in other words, although Lisa, the point-of-view character, does write about the amazing orgasms she’s having quite a bit. So you’ll just have to deal with that, won’t you? I’m sure you can handle it.

This project started for Sejic (I’m going to skip the Croatian spelling of his name from now on, if you don’t mind) on DeviantArt, as a way to deal with burn-out and have some fun with young women wearing fetish gear. Then it became popular, and he found that he enjoyed it, so he started doing comic strips about the characters and building a world around them. Then he decided to actually create a long-form story about the characters, so he did. And now, he claims that five volumes is not enough, and while this particular story is done, the other characters who interact with Lisa and Ally have stories of their own that he’d like to tell! Well, good luck with that – I’d certainly read them – but for now, let’s concentrate on Lisa and Ally.

The hilarious thing about Sunstone is that so much of it is NOT about the dominatrix/submissive relationship between Ally and Lisa. They meet on-line when Lisa ventures into chat rooms and finds Ally, where they realize that they might actually be perfect for each other. Lisa is a true submissive, but she doesn’t know how to bring this up in her serious relationships, while Ally is a dominatrix who has never been able to find a submissive to match her. Sejic does a very interesting and crucial thing in the first volume – he separates love from sex. Too often in romances, the sex is all that matters, which, to anyone who has actually fallen in love, is ridiculous. Sure, sex is important, but it’s not the only thing. Lisa and Ally meet so they can have fulfilling sex – but that’s all it’s supposed to be. He goes a step further by never taking the sex too seriously – when Lisa first shows up at Ally’s house, she has to pee, so that’s the first thing she says to her. It’s supposed to be goofy, and it is, but that’s kind of the point, says Sejic – sex is great and all, but real life often gets in the way, and when you have to pee, you have to pee! They have amazing sex, sure, but they also realize they get along, so they become friends. It’s a clever way to defuse the sexual tension that wrecks so many romances – they meet solely to have sex, and so they can move ahead with their relationship without worrying whether or not they’re sexually compatible.

Sejic explores the world of somewhat kinky sex rather well, as he introduces several characters that connect to Ally and Lisa and, in their own ways, show the many facets of sex. Ally’s first serious lover, Alan, is also a dominating partner, so their relationship was poisoned from the start, and Sejic does a nice job explaining how they were able to get past it and remain friends (not without some problems, of course). Alan designs Ally’s sex gear for her, and he does that for others, too, including the owner of a fetish club, Crimson, where the group spends some time. His business partner, Chris, is not kinky in any way, but Chris’s sister, Cassie, and her husband, Tom, have gotten kinkier since Cassie met Alan and got some ideas from him. Cassie is getting a tattoo from Anne, who becomes more and more interested in the group’s sexual fetishes even though she claims she doesn’t want to try anything. It’s fairly clever that Sejic brings in all these other characters, because it means that Ally and Lisa can talk to others about what they’re doing (especially Lisa, who has a lot to learn) and we can see various different romances play out. As I noted, the sex is fairly softcore, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of it, and not only between Ally and Lisa. Sejic has a lot of fun showing the way different people can have different sex lives, and that’s perfectly fine. But, of course, the sex isn’t the important part of the book.

Ally and Lisa begin to fall in love with each other. The book turns into a grand romance fairly quickly, as they are very nicely matched and Lisa, who tells most of the story, falls hard early on. But they’re also friends, so the book becomes much more traditional as it goes on, which isn’t a bad thing. Sejic isn’t the greatest writer in the world, so his writing can be clunky at times, especially as the characters occasionally lapse into a weird kind of exposition, using dialogue that almost no one has ever said out loud just so they can advance the plot. At other times, however, his dialogue is really good, as characters say things freighted with meaning that they can’t express openly because they fear the consequences. Because the plot becomes a question of whether Lisa and Ally are brave enough to express their love, with the risk that it won’t be reciprocated and their friendship will be wrecked. This is the plot of dozens of romances, but what makes Sunstone better than most is the way Sejic gets there. He uses some standard tropes – Anne seemingly gets in the way of the friendship, but it’s clear that’s it’s all in Lisa’s head – but because he has Lisa explain early on that love makes us do irrational things (which it totally does), we can forgive some of the dumber things she (and Ally, to a lesser degree) do. Lisa is a writer, fairly popular on-line for her softcore porn stories, and she begins to write Anne into her fiction because she wants to repay some of her kindness … but that leads to her believing that fiction is sliding into reality, and it leads to problems. Obviously, all of this could have been solved if Lisa and Ally were braver with each other, but Sejic does a nice job giving us their histories and examining their thoughts (especially Lisa’s) so it’s not as annoying as when it happens in other romances. Yes, we know they should talk to each other, but Sejic shows how much baggage they bring to the relationship, so it becomes much harder for them to break through.

I wrote that Sejic gives the two main characters a lot of others to play off of, and this is another reason why the book works so well. Lisa is shy around new people, especially because of her sexual tastes, and it means she tends to judge people a bit too quickly before realizing it. This is another clever way for Sejic to humanize the people – they make mistakes, but they also learn from their mistakes. Ally pretends to be a cold dominatrix, but she’s a big nerd at heart, which is why Lisa falls in love with her. Alan is kind of a douchebag, but there’s a good reason for it, as we learn later in the story, and he’s still a nice guy, just not as warm as Lisa would like. The friendships that these characters have make the book a lot of fun to read, even as we get annoyed with the two leads for not expressing their feelings or we watch the train wreck when Lisa gets jealous about Anne. Lisa’s scheme to apologize to Ally in volume 5 is painful because it’s so convoluted, but she finally realizes what she really has to do, and because Sejic has done such a nice job with Lisa and Ally, it’s a wonderfully triumphant moment. Sejic even makes sure it’s not overly romantic, because, again, he’s trying to keep it true to life, and circumstances don’t always line up the way you want them to. But that just makes it more beautiful, and Sejic earns the final scenes of the story.

Sejic has always been an interesting artist, mainly because his Top Cow stuff is usually fully painted (digitally, of course), so it looks lush and a bit cool. There’s no denying his talent, however, and for Sunstone, he strips down the art a bit to rough pencils and inks, grounding the material nicely in a realistic world. Obviously, all his people are beautiful and in good shape, so it’s not totally realistic, but the way he has the characters interact non-verbally is a wonderful addition to the story. Lisa’s adorable lip-biting is the most obvious manifestation of this, but Sejic is excellent at showing the full spectrum of emotions in his characters, from unabashed glee to melancholic depths. He’s able to show Ally’s nerdiness very well, even during her sessions with Lisa, but he also is very good at showing the heightened “acting” in their sexual playing, as both of them acknowledge that it’s a role, but one that requires the same commitment as something staged for the public. These are people with regular lives, so when Lisa, Ally, and Anne drunk-call Cassie while she’s having sex with Tom, we get the childlike goofiness from the inebriated ladies and the growing exasperation of Cassie, and it’s very funny. Sejic does some nifty things with the artwork – he colors Lisa’s self-loathing a nauseating blue, he crosses out word balloons when a character tries to find the right thing to say, and he blurs the line between fantasy and reality very well, from Ally’s video games to Lisa’s writing. These things are such a big part of their worlds that it’s not surprising he does it, and it keeps us on our toes, too. Sejic also breaks out the painted style of his art for big moments, usually (but not always) for big romantic moments, either with or without fetish gear (which looks much sleeker when it’s painted), and it’s an interesting shift whenever it happens, as it heightens the fantasy aspects of the story (not that the story is in any way fantastical, just that the role-playing part is a sexual fantasy). Sejic also uses ropes and roses and puzzle pieces as panel borders occasionally, which is another clever device. Despite featuring a LOT of people talking to each other, Sunstone is never boring to look at, and of course, there’s plenty of nudity to get you through.

Sunstone is departure for Sejic, but it’s a good departure, and if he wants to keep writing about these characters, more power to him. These five volumes (I’m not going to count how many pages there are, so deal with it) give us a wonderful love story, one that’s clichéd in parts but still works because Sejic does such a good job creating the characters, so their occasionally stereotypical behavior isn’t as annoying as it might otherwise be. Sejic not only gives us two wonderful main characters, but he puts them in an entire world populated by interesting characters who help make the story far better. It’s a beautiful book, which probably isn’t surprising, and yes, the nudity of many very attractive female characters is a plus (if you like that sort of thing, I guess), but Sejic does a great job making the nudity simply part of the story – occasionally people are naked because they’re having sex, but then they sit around and talk without any clothes on, which makes perfect sense if you’re in a relationship. It’s a charming, emotional love story, and it’s a lot of fun to read. So go read it! I even provided you with a link to Amazon, where it’s cheaper than cover price!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

14 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    Just because you gave it a glowing (if not lubricating) review, I will FORCE myself to read all 5 issues (against my will)!!!!

    Despite the fact that I’ve watched the lesbian tv series THE L WORD, LIP SERVICE (U.K.) which may have some BDSM in it. Lots of loving tho’ (plus hot sex). 🙂

    I have not watched or read 50 Shades of Grey.

    Still, I will read Sunstone. All because of you.

        1. tomfitz1

          You know, it’s such a sad thing to know someone who has watched Beavis and Butt-Head.

          Now, now I can understand watching The Simpsons, or South Park, but not B & BH.

          You go on and watch your cartoons and eat your carrots. 🙂

  2. Simon

    Good review. And having read the series, I’m now gonna quibble and ramble! (BTW, why not open with The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” or Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant”, since the story is narrated by “the sub”?)

    – “Sunstone is Stjepan Šejić’s epic ode to BDSM”

    Well, there’s that, but then, if you had a love story between baseball fans, would you call it an ode to baseball?

      “We were just friends… […] But I loved her. Many times over, I reiterated what BDSM was all about, using it like a strange mantra. Glorifying the trust we shared sexually… while ironically lacking the same when it came to matters of the heart. Instead of emotional honesty, we kept repeating our pattern of hints and misses. […] To put it in the simplest way, friendzone is playing the ‘She loves me, she loves me not’ game on a flower that has a seemingly infinite number of petals.”

    To me, it’s an ode to love and friendship first, with its kinky milieu a distant second. The latter heightening the former’s issues of trust and insecurities. Or, to quote from Lisa again, “All of the bedroom games, the tops and bottoms, they mean little-to-nothing beyond their natural habitat. Outside of the kink we were two people in love […]”

    – “But, of course, the sex isn’t the important part of the book.”

    Yeah, I’ve not counted but I’d be surprised if 10% was sex, and even half of that would include relationship talk and character development.

    – “on DeviantArt, as a way to deal with burn-out”

    Perhaps coincidentally, Lisa’s arc could echo Sejic’s. She falls in love (he falls into comics), she’s heartbroken (he’s heartbroken by commercial work), they both find solace in posting sexy stories online, they both triumph through it.

    – “the plot becomes a question of whether Lisa and Ally are brave enough to express their love”

    Well, wouldn’t you call it the topic rather than the plot? I mean, plot-wise Sejic gave us the finale from the onset and made the story a narrated flashback with hindsight remarks.

    (So it’s all about their journey, and he had to make it interesting every mile of the way. Classic but hard, the storytelling equivalent of tightrope-walking without the safety net of some artificial suspense to fill the void.)

    – “Lisa’s scheme to apologize to Ally [is] a wonderfully triumphant moment.”

    And foreshadowed in lovely ways on the cover.

    – “he strips down the art a bit to rough pencils and inks”

    I find it often looks like anime or manhwa.

    – “both of them acknowledge that it’s a role”

    Why not mention how the eponymous Sunstone is the “safe word” to stop that game?

    – “Sejic is excellent at showing the full spectrum of emotions in his characters”

    And apparently taking some nice cues from Terry Moore. (Including your “SNORE” sample that’d be at home in SiP.) Plus his expressive ballooning, and those hand-made tails that can bend and curl to hint at voice tones.

    – “I’m not going to count how many pages there are, so deal with it”

    Gonna say 750 story pages, so deal with it!

    – “It’s a charming, emotional love story, and it’s a lot of fun to read.”

    And the best adult rom-com with SEX CRIMINALS, for my time. For those who liked Will Allison’s PERVERT CLUB and Naoki Yamamoto’s DANCE TILL TOMORROW, Nicholson Baker’s VOX and THE FERMATA, or Pedro Almodóvar’s TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! and John Cleese’s A FISH NAMED WANDA.

    Will you ever think of “kisses under the mistletoe” the same way again?

    1. Greg Burgas

      Oh, Simon – always with the nit-picking! 🙂

      Good point about the lyrics. I didn’t think of Venus in Furs and I don’t know the Depeche Mode song, so that’s why I went with Prince.

      Well, if baseball were as integral to the plot as bondage, I might!

      I’d still call the love story the plot, even if we know early on how it ends. Yes, it’s the journey, but the plot is still about whether they can break through or not, as I think Sejic does a pretty good job of making it a question even though he gives away the ending early on, as you note.

      I didn’t really delve too much into the role-playing to get to the meaning of sunstone, I thought. The significance of it isn’t really explained (although it’s clear it has some significance to Ally, as Lisa isn’t the first one she uses it with), so I didn’t think it was too important.

      As you might recall, I’m not a fan of Sex Criminals, and I’m not sure if A Fish Called Wanda is in the same ballpark, unless you’re just talking about romances (is there really any BDSM in it?). I’ve heard The Fermata is terrible, but Vox is one of my favorite books ever, so that’s a pretty good comparison!

      1. Simon

        Greg: Yes, I think I was linking A FISH CALLED WANDA more to SEX CRIMINALS for their crime rom-com aspects. (Though you might remember that scene where someone grudgingly apologizes before we realize he’s hanging upside-down from a window. Ain’t that suspension bondage, man?)

        But if you’ve loved VOX, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t like THE FERMATA. Whoever told you it was terrible, did they actually like VOX? I suspect action-based readers would dislike it more than THE FERMATA!

        (I mean, this guy finds out he can stop time, but he doesn’t don a mask to fight crime, he doesn’t run away from an evil billionaire, he doesn’t get snatched by a shadowy organization, and he doesn’t race against time to stop some disaster. Isn’t that liable to have it branded “terrible”?)

        1. Greg Burgas

          Simon: When The Fermata first came out, I remember reading a review that described the narrator as extra-pervy, because he stops time and basically molests people. While I’ve read other reviews since that don’t focus on that, a lot of the reviews tend to agree that Baker is wildly self-indulgent in the book in terms of writing style, trying too hard to be clever while his earlier work flowed more naturally. Since The Fermata came out, I’ve seen that as a common complaint of his work. I don’t disagree with it (The Mezzanine, his first novel, is fairly self-indulgent), and I think Vox works because it’s a conversation rather than one person thinking. To be honest, I lost track of Baker years ago and haven’t dived back into his writing. Perhaps I should …

          1. Simon

            Greg: Don’t you think such reviewers would have also turned you away from the unsympathetic protagonists of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, LOLITA, AMERICAN PSYCHO, V., etc.? Two decades later:

            * “After “The Fermata” was published in 1994, some critics accused Baker of writing about sex without real heart, or branded him an objectifier of women — not surprising, others suggested, given his habit of lavishing his prose on objects more than people. These reactions seemed shortsighted: the book was a funny and moving fable about time and the male psyche that knowingly explored the ugliness and confusion it was accused of harboring ignorantly.” @ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/books/review/house-of-holes-by-nicholson-baker-book-review.html

            * “While working on the book, Baker interviewed people, asking what they would do if they had the ability to stop time, and found that the responses divided pretty evenly between something sexual and stealing money. One man said the first thing he would do was head for the locker room of a women’s basketball team. “The Fermata” sold less well than “Vox,” which spent several weeks on the Times best-seller list. Its protagonist, Arno Strine, is less likable than Jim, the male partner in “Vox,” and some readers complained that the book allowed him to get away with some fairly creepy behavior. But “The Fermata” is actually a better book, or a better-written one, than “Vox,” and it supplies an important clue to Baker’s work and even his life. His preservationist impulses, his hoarding of books and newspapers; that microscopic, slow-motion style, filling an instant with cascades of thought and remembrance; even his way of writing about sex, which in “House of Holes,” a raunchier and less leisurely book than “Vox” or “The Fermata,” is still more about foreplay than climax — what are they but ways of arresting time, of preserving the moment and staving off the end?” @ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/magazine/nicholson-bakers-dirty-mind.html

            * “This is not a book I recommend without some misgiving. But Baker’s subversive humor and mastery of language is worth every cringe. His descriptions of sights, sounds, textures and the patter of stray thoughts are as polished as his character’s impulses are crude. It is like finding a Penthouse centerfold reproduced in miniature inside a Faberge egg. You’d be crazy not to look.” @ http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133623405/three-racy-reads-for-a-sexier-valentines-day

            (Besides, with “controversial” satires, aren’t you often better served verifying for yourself?)

  3. Greg Burgas

    Simon: Huh, there’s no “reply” button at the bottom of your comment, so I can’t directly reply to you. Weird.

    Anyway, I loathe A Clockwork Orange (the movie; I’ve never read the book), so that’s not a good argument! And Evey is the protagonist of V, and she’s certainly sympathetic, unless you’re talking about the awesome mini-series where the lizard aliens try to take over the planet, in which case Marc Singer was also quite sympathetic! 🙂

    I didn’t get The Fermata originally because it just didn’t sound like something I’d be all that interested in, and as I noted, I kind of lost track of Baker over the years. Now I might have to go read it!

    1. Simon

      Greg: I meant V. by Pynchon. (For comics, I’d never think of V FOR VENDETTA there. Rather BLACK HOLE or THE DEATH RAY, as interesting books with mostly unsympathetic characters.) Still, Pynchon blew young Alan Moore’s mind, and his own V is no coincidence!

      Well, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE is a satire of the Right that also savages the Left, a satire of family and of fascism, a satire of religion that leaves one priest the least rotten in the room — so it’s going to make everybody react for dissing “their team” one way or another. Meaning it can also make you think, and works splendidly at that. (Like clockwork, you might say!)

      As for THE FERMATA, it may not be on the same plateau, but it’s not unlike LOLITA or AMERICAN PSYCHO in putting you in the head of the creep to see his self-justifications from the inside, like a profiler. (And he’s orders of magnitude less unredeemable than them!)

      And yes, the site disables the reply button at 4 levels deep. (It’s intended to avoid cumulative indentations compressing replies into narrow columns, but it’s probably set too low here.) When it happens, I use the Reply button a higher-level comments from the same person. (To keep it in the same thread, and trigger that person’s “Notify me of follow-up comment” in case they used that instead of RSS.)

      1. Greg Burgas

        How dare they stop the reply nesting!!!!!

        I see about the Pynchon. Well, I haven’t read that, either, because I suck.

        I don’t know about A Clockwork Orange making me think (the movie, at least). I just thought it was stupid. But I was younger then; maybe I’ll think it’s more stupid now! 🙂 I’m a bad movie watcher – I just saw Blow-Up last week and hated that, too, so I’m probably not cool enough for these hip movies!

        1. Simon

          Greg: Oh, V. is rarely recommended. CRYING OF LOT 49 and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW are the common gateways. (And getaways, heh.)

          Aren’t “hip movies” kinda like an art museum? You’re never going to like everything, so the important is to appreciate some areas. And to go there in the first place.

          Can one really go wrong watching a Kubrick again, though? Just as Von Braun aimed for the Moon and hit London, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is what we could be and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE what we may become.

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