On the strength of Maggie Boyd’s DIK review, I tried Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I found one of my favorite writing ideas in there: metaphor sex! I’m not talking about sex scenes written with metaphors (“velvet swords” and “moist flowers” and similarly purple terminology). I’m talking about a scene in which the two characters engage in a non-sexual activity as if it were sexual. They might be cooperating in a physical task like climbing, an intellectual one like negotiating, an artistic one like singing, and so forth.

In Uprooted, the male wizard called the Dragon and the heroine Agnieszka have very different approaches to magic. The Dragon’s spells are meticulously crafted, precise and identical each time they are cast. Agnieskza, by contrast, casts organically. Like a cook who doesn’t bother with a recipe, she adjusts everything from ingredients to spell words according to what “feels right.” When the Dragon and Agnieszka go to cast the illusion of a rosebush together, science meets art. The result is not only magically spectacular but physically and emotionally compelling.

“Try and match it,” he said absently, his fingers moving slightly, and by lurching steps we brought our illusions closer together until it was nearly impossible to tell them one from another, and then he said, “Ah,” suddenly, just as I began to glimpse his spell; almost exactly like that strange clockwork on the middle of his table, all shiny moving parts. On an impulse I tried to align our workings: I envisioned his like the water-wheel of a mill, and mine like the rushing stream driving it around. “What are you -” he began, and then abruptly we had only a single rose, and it began to grow.

And not only the rose: vines were climbing up the bookshelves in every direction, twining themselves around ancient tomes and reaching out the window…  Flowers were blooming everywhere… “Is this what you meant?” I asked him: it really wasn’t any more difficult than making the single flower had been. But he was staring at the riot of flowers all around us, as astonished as I was.

There’s so much to love about metaphor sex. The Dragon and Agnieszka, who have been behaving antagonistically and struggling on their own, suddenly run headfirst into the possibility of greatness together. They are intimately exposed to each other without intending to be. Best of all, sexual tension rises and rises, because while there may be some resolution, it isn’t sexual.

Another metaphorical sex scene, one which draws on music instead of magic, is in Elizabeth Lowell’s Eden Burning. (I know this book has a C grade here, but I can’t help adoring it. If you love alpha heroes who act like jerks and really wound the heroine emotionally before getting it together, this is about as guilty a guilty pleasure as you’re likely to find). In addition to their day jobs as botanical illustrator and vulcanologist, respectively, Nicole Ballard dances hula, and Chase Wilcox plays drums. She can dance faster, longer, and harder than any drummer who’s ever played for her – as Lowell phrases it, she “dances them off the stage.”

Enter Chase.

“Staccato rhythms poured out of the drums with renewed speed and potency, taunting her, daring her. Her hips moved in response, matching each beat, answering the male challenge with feminine grace and endurance…

Without hesitation, the drummer matched the increased speed of the dance.

Matched her.

A sense of inevitability, of uncanny rightness, streaked through Nicole like lightning, bringing a new heat it its wake. Here, at last, was a man who was

[her] equal.”

I know a sex scene when I see it, and this is a sex scene. A fully clothed public sex scene in which Nicole and Chase don’t even see each other, let alone touch, but a sex scene nonetheless. The author uses metaphor sex to prove that these two characters are compatible on a level they haven’t even realized yet, and in a way which no other people can compete with. And none of this actually resolves the sexual tension simmering between Nicole and Chase. It just makes things worse – or, from a reader’s standpoint, better.

The hula show shows another use of metaphor sex: it can be titillating, toying with taboos or fantasies without actually having the characters live the fantasy. By setting the dance show in public, the author evokes exhibitionism. Since Nicole doesn’t know that Chase is the drummer, there’s an anonymity fantasy in play. There’s even shades of a threesome, as Nicole and Chase take their combined rhythm to a level a fellow male dancer can’t match, forcing him to drop out while Nicole and Chase finish alone.

So who’s with me on the metaphor sex train? Can you recommend any books with great metaphor sex scenes? Do you like awesomely bad books about hula-dancing botanical illustrators and their mustachioed vulcanologists? My head told me to call these “metaphor sex” but my heart said “metaphucking” – are you relieved or disappointed that I listened to my head? SO MANY QUESTIONS TODAY.

–Caroline Russomanno




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