Clare Seven’s most recent novella, Year of the Oar (Her Travail) Book I, is difficult to accurately categorize. It includes a significant amount of voluntary bondage, whipping and related corporal punishment, and subservient sexual activities, but it’s not really a BDSM or erotic book in the traditional sense. Perhaps it would be best if I fleshed out the plot a little and let you decide for yourself.
Justine Laing is a triathlete whose career has just ended due to a sports injury and an aging body. Washed up at 33 with her funding cut off, she comes face-to-face with the reality that she needs to find a way to earn a living, yet she has no real-world job experience or skills. Growing increasingly desperate, the socially awkward Justine accepts an invitation to a party with a guest list comprised mostly of shakers and movers who may be of some assistance in her job search. Partly due to her disdain for social niceties, the evening is a bust on the job front until Joshua comes along and offers her a lucrative challenge: work one year as a galley slave on a replica slave ship in exchange for a million dollars.
Granted, the premise is over the top, but no more so than your average episode of CSI. Once you make the leap, the writing is good enough for the scenario to work. Of course, Justine doesn’t leap at the opportunity; however, she eventually convinces herself that a year of extreme hardship is an acceptable tradeoff for long-term financial security.
Up to this point, the story is fairly engaging and accessible to the average reader. When the reality of Justine’s decision starts to materialize, the story turns progressively grim and difficult to enjoy, despite the high quality of writing. Basically the remainder of the book chronicles the equivalent of life and working conditions onboard a slave ship in antiquity, only with a layer of modern sadism and inhumanity because this is being perpetrated for the enjoyment of perverse power players.
The author does a good job of conveying the atrocious conditions under which the main character and her fellow galley slaves, most of whom are for all practical purposes real slaves, must live. The galley slaves, all naked women, are in 24/7 bondage and whipped if they so much as fall out of their rowing rhythm due to fatigue. For relatively minor offenses, errant slaves are publicly placed on a punishment horse, with buckets of rocks and bricks tied to their big toes in order to add extra torment to their ordeal. To curry favor with the cruel overseers slaves are encouraged to “willingly” offer their mouth.
Although in most respects this book is very well written, I did not find it to be an enjoyable read, and most definitely it did not strike me as being the least bit erotic. Truthfully, I was thankful that book I ended midway through the Year of the Oar. Although I am idly curious about what becomes of Justine, I’ll get over not ever knowing. There’s no way I would choose to subject myself to revisiting that dreadful experience.