Harlot is an erotica western historical romance, so any of my more straight-laced friends are going to want to exit stage right, for the rest of you pervs, read on.
If someone were to ask me to describe this story in only five words (hey, it could happen) I would say "truth bombs and butt sex".
The basis of the story is that Caleb and Jessica were childhood sweethearts. Caleb left to go make his fortune so he could feel worthy of Jessica but in the two years he was gone, Jessica's father died leaving her in debt. Caleb's step-father conned Jessica into selling him her virginity and trapping her into a never ending cycle of being forced to sleep with him for money and security. Caleb finally comes home and finds his beloved, who he put on a pedestal, a whore. The meat of the story is Caleb and Jessica fighting against Puritan indoctrination ideals about sex, gender, and a person's value.
And whatever a whore did, there was a man doing it right there with them. "They're people's husbands, though," Jessica whispered, afraid to have this conversation even in the middle of a rocky field that was supposed to be a farm. "They're fathers and husbands, and we let them---"
"Aren't you somebody's daughter?" Melisande snapped. "Aren't I?"
Our heroine Jessica had fully drunk the Kool-Aid on how women in her position should be treated, self-hatred it's a tough one. It takes another woman living with her to drop some truth bombs on her about how society is messed up and how she still matters. Jessica's shame and guilt is felt but there were also times where the character came off a bit wooden. Her transition from scarlet letter to I am woman hear me roar comes about a little quickly but yet not fully as she still sees herself as not quite worthy of Caleb.
"That doesn't make it right to sell your body, Jess."
"It doesn't make it right for you to buy it either, but you've done that, haven't you?"
"Men have needs," he snapped, but she cut him off with a furious slash of her hand.
The anger was bubbling in her now, boiling up, overflowing. "Men have needs," she sneered. "The need for pleasure and debauchery. Do you know what a woman's needs are? Food and shelter and a bed. You want me to be ashamed? Me? I did it for money, but you'll soil yourself for the sheer sin of it, and you say you can't forgive me?"
In the beginning, our hero Caleb is not so heroic and he will make you cringe with how he feels about Jessica being what he calls a whore; if only we were all born enlightened and able to fight the good fight. I wish Caleb could have been all Joan Jett and not given a damn about bad reputations but there is something to be said about his transitional growth, too. His love for Jessica and her dropping a couple truth bombs his way, help him get the gears grinding on women's value and will for survival.
His stepfather coughed and wheezed. "She had a choice," he managed to say.
"You had a choice." Caleb let go of the man's throat just so he could slam his head against the wall. Hard. "You had a choice, and you chose to violate a girl who needed your help."
As always with novellas, the story feels a bit rushed and characters not fully fleshed out, I thought Caleb was the best and wanted more from Jessica; her story was what truly mattered to me. The villainous step-father was the catalyst for Jessica's situation but he was only really heard from the corners of the room, I guess I wanted to know him better so I could hate him even more. The historical time period wasn't really felt outside of the clothing descriptions and our Harlot not being accepted in town.
Now, on to what you all have been waiting for, the butt sex part of my description. As this is an erotic, there is a more sexual bent to the story. All the sexual scenes, except for one, are between the hero and the heroine. (The one scene not, is a brief rape scene between Jessica and the step-father with a minister thrown in that felt very unnecessary. The scene, characters, and connotations didn't have enough pages and emotional depth to be emotionally played out right and made it feel lewdly added.) As this is a Victoria Dahl story, the sex scenes were hot but Caleb and Jessica also had an emotional element of punishment. Caleb is angry that Jessica slept with other men and Jessica thinks she should be punished for sleeping with another. Caleb is never physically abusive with Jessica but he uses a few shamming words and thinks about how he never would have tried these sexual things with her if she wasn't a whore. This is where I think Jessica disappeared a little; she's lost a little in these scenes and seems to blindly go along with them. She starts to become sexually awakened and I would have liked to have seen more emotional growth/strife here. The butt sex scene felt completely thrown in, didn't feel natural to the character demeanors and added for a current trend bite, but also quite memorable.
Overall, reading the sex scenes felt fun, hot, and a bit uncomfortable with the emotional punishment aspects, while societal demands and strictures on sex and gender were very thought provoking. If someone were to ask me to describe this story in only five six words (hey, it could happen this will never happen) I would say "salacious smile and raised feminist fist ".