Bliss River by Thea Devine
(Kensington, $14.00, NC-17) ISBN 1-57566-801-7
Everyone should have a guilty pleasure. Mine is romance erotica - more specifically Thea Devine. I can always count on her books to be delectably naughty. Like an X-rated soap opera, there are typically backstabbing family members, skeletons in closets and enough sex crammed in between the covers to give my father a stroke.

Charles Elliott has come to Bliss River Valley, South Africa hungry for revenge. His English mother married his Syrian Bedouin prince father, but quickly realized that the lifestyle was not for her. She summoned for help, which quickly arrived in the form of Moreton Estabrook. He slaughtered the entire tribe, spirited away Lydia, and properly married her. Moreton then formed the Bliss River colony allowing settlers to live a decadent lifestyle of sport, food, and oodles of sex. Charles arrives under the pretense of selling Moreton polo ponies.

Georgiana Maitland is a child of the valley. She was raised under the doctrine of decadence and is summoned by Moreton to entertain their new guest. However, sheís in for a rude awakening when Charles not only turns her away, but is unmoved by her glorious body. However, he canít say no to Georgie for long. When a shocking murder occurs, the two soon find themselves forming an uneasy alliance to escape the valley and return to England.

While I have yet to meet a reader who actually reads Devine for the romance, I still feel obligated to say that Bliss River is most definitely not a romance. For one thing, Charles and Georgie donít trust each other at all, and in fact, spend most of the book trying to gain control over the other. How do they go about this? With sex of course.

Thereís also a plot development that appears very early on (page 19 to be exact) that may put more than a few readers off - Georgie and Charles are cousins. Ick. I know. This story does take place in 1898, and it wasnít unheard of for cousins to marry. Still, as a reader sitting in 2002, cousins doing the nasty is straight out of Jerry Springer.

Those reservations aside, I found myself succumbing to Bliss River largely thanks to Georgie. Hereís a heroine who wouldnít know how to simper if someone drew her a map. She is secure in the power of her femininity and better still, realizes the power to be had in the word no. She has survived her valley existence on her terms. When Charles arrives, she finds him threatening her sense of power, but also realizes that he is her only means of escape.

Charles is a more vague character that starts out on shaky ground thanks to his revenge plans. He does become more interesting as he and Georgie make their way to England. Thereís a lot of lonely desert travel time, and they have to relieve the boredom somehow. Naturally Charles quickly becomes enchanted, bordering on obsessed.

As for the sex? In typical Devine fashion itís hot stuff. This time around the author spices things up by prolonging the climax. What is traditionally known as the sex act doesnít occur until very late in the book. So what do poor Charles and Georgie do in the meantime? Foreplay, and lots of it. All those hot, sweaty reindeer games in the desert heat had me reaching for the air conditioning dial.

Bliss River does have problems, and for those who arenít especially keen on the romance-erotica sub genre, there probably isnít enough here to sway opinions. However, for fans looking for trademark, trashy shenanigans, Bliss River is classic Devine. Grab the flashlight, crawl under the covers, and prey that your children and/or parents donít innocently flip through the pages.

--Wendy Crutcher

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