[Review] Sunstone Volume 4

written by Brandon Moore and Kate Spencer

Things start to get sticky in Volume 4 of Sunstone, and not in the good way. Hopefully Kate Spencer and Brandon Moore can make some sense of things.

SPOILER WARNINGS ARE IN EFFECT
NSFW WARNING IS IN EFFECT


KATE
In this volume, there are nothing but happy things! Harper is going to ask Tanya to marry him, Alan has a date, people get tattoos and piercings, Anne discovers she likes kink, Anne and Lisa become closer friends, and Lisa moves in with Ally. Yep, nothing but happy things. Happy. HAPPY.

*curls up in a ball*

Before my heart gets completely ripped out by Sunstone Volume 4, let’s talk about what really stuck out to me. At this point in the story, both Ally and Lisa have reached the point where they’re going out of their way to do everything they can to tell the other that they love them…short of actually saying “I love you.” It’s a funny little dance they do each time, and under a lesser writer it might get annoying in that “will they/won’t they?” sort of way. It never gets annoying or tired and actually stays pretty cute and only the tiniest bit infuriating – but in a good way. One scene in particular sticks in my mind. Ally has Lisa strapped to a saddle-like thing, vibrator buzzing away, her arms raised above her head, wearing a blindfold and headphones so she’s locked in pleasure and completely unaware of the world around her while Ally sits on the bed nearby, “enjoying” her work…*ahem* Okay, look, it may not be my thing, but something about that scenario is…O.O Also the mutual trust, intimacy, and knowing Ally wouldn’t really leave Lisa alone like that is sweet. And it ends in hilarity when narrator Lisa spares the reader the shrieking and then swearing that ensued after Ally startled her from a sensory deprivation with a touch. That sort of encapsulates Sunstone: hot, sweet, and funny – sometimes all at once.

While Lisa is in her sensory-deprived state, Ally attempts to tell her she loves her, knowing she can’t hear her. She also has Lisa move in with her because Lisa is paying too much rent, not at all because she’s falling in love and wants to keep her around constantly. Nope! On the other side, Lisa gets her nipples pierced as a “gift” for Ally, and whenever anyone questions her motives, she sternly tells them that Ally is only a friend. Argh, look Lisa, Ally’s got what you need and you say she’s just a friend? You say she’s just a friend? I think the best part of this isn’t the same tired “coming out” trope of every other lesbian romance story, it’s that neither wants to ruin their current arrangement and friendship by making the first move. Instead they keep throwing out signals that the other is misinterpreting.

The great irony of the story is that the two have excellent communication when they’re playing their game. Both communicate their desires well enough that they know what the other does and doesn’t like. Ally can read Lisa’s body language so well that even while gagged, Lisa’s tells can clue Ally in when something is too much. Throughout the story we’re told how important communication is to BDSM, but when it comes down to it, neither character is that great at expressing their feelings or recognizing when someone else has the same feelings. Which isn’t that uncommon – there are a lot of relationships where physical intimacy comes much easier than emotional intimacy. Carnal desire is easier to write off as a function of biology, but emotional desire can leave us feeling much more vulnerable. The human brain is weird.

Lisa has a website where she posts stories and has a little tip jar to earn some extra cash on the side. When Anne is pointed to these stories, she reads them out of morbid curiosity and then starts asking Lisa about BDSM because she’s “trying to figure her out”. Mmm-hmm. Lisa is a good friend and helps Anne make sense of it all. At the same time, we’re introduced to the characters of Lisa’s stories – Lisbeth, Allison, and Sarah. Shockingly, Lisbeth is based on Lisa and Allison is based on Ally. *gasp* Sarah is Allison’s second sub who Lisa put in the story as an inexperienced sub in order to explore the one domme/two subs dynamic. For the “inexperienced sub” or BDSM newbie, Anne serves that purpose for us as readers. She pointedly asks the questions that either characters in the story or narrator Lisa can answer, and serves as a bridge for the uninitiated.

I like Anne for a few reasons, but mainly because I can see something of myself in her. It took me a long time to figure out my own sexuality, just like Anne took a while to figure out all of her kinks. We both had friends who helped us make sense of everything along the way. Lisa does this by retconning Sarah (a character Anne already imagined herself as) to be Anne in a story she writes as payment for Anne tattooing her. It becomes the catalyst to Volume 4’s heartbreaking ending, but as much as Anne seems like the spanner in the works, she might just be the kick in the butt that the lovebirds need.

Sunstone, like any good story, has high points and low points, and this was definitely the lowest point. Volume 4 doesn’t even end with a cute flashforward like Volume 2 did after its sad scene; it just ends on a downer with one tiny little spark of hope. We’ve seen hints of the future, we know where the story eventually goes, but it doesn’t take away from the emotional impact. I’ve talked about the art and the writing before, but they flow together so well. In addition to beautifully expressive characters, Sejic has an eye for backgrounds as well, along with knowing when to highlight them and when to tone them down. On the last page of Volume 4, Ally breaks down alone in the house and the background dissolves away panel by panel until all that’s left is a white background, Ally, the cat, and Lisa’s note. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and part of why I love comics as a medium because you can do things like this that you just can’t do on film.

One more volume to go. As much as I don’t want it to end, this story needs a happy ending. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go read Volume 5 again as a pick-me-up.


BRANDON
If Volume 3 of Sunstone was the one that set up the dominos, Volume 4 is the one that blasts them all to dust with a nuke.

Before the tragedy, though, Volume 4 of Sunstone takes a few moments to touch on subjects that I appreciated. While we’ve long had the story of how our submissive Lisa discovered and explored her interest in BDSM, it’s time we learned how the dominant Ally found herself on this kinky road. Being attracted to the theatricality and sense of power is something I can relate to. We also spend some time watching our naughty neophyte, Anne, realize maybe she’s interested in the whole scene as well. But what does that say about her?! Gasp! Well, nothing really, as she learns that kinky people are still people and trying new things in bed doesn’t have to define her worldview. Both of these were welcome story points told with Sejic’s usual visual grace and witty script.

But the real thrust of this volume revolves around the troubles that can arise when mixing friends and sex, especially when you drop the ball on one of the most important aspects of any relationship, BDSM or otherwise: communication. At this point in the story, it’s clear to the reader that Ally and Lisa are totes in love. Unfortunately, neither of them have been able to admit it to the other, so they continue to circle the unspoken truth in a miasma of tension and insecure feelings. The relationship continues to escalate as Lisa moves in, yet they still doubt the depth of that relationship. This is not the best situation in which to introduce a wild card like Anne. For the first time in this series, our main characters are showing us how not to do things.

Let’s talk a little about open relationships and having sex with friends, shall we? Believe it or not, it is entirely possible to have a sexual relationship with someone who is only a friend. Much of modern society says that sex is reserved for people you love with a capital L, and most often it’s for the one person you love. But what do you do when you and your friend are into the same things and you’re both smokin’ hot? Why not enjoy yourselves? A physical relationship does not have to equal an emotional betrayal of your significant other. For that matter, a romantic relationship does not have to equal an emotional betrayal, but then we’re getting into polyamory, which is a whole other level of discussion. The point is that having a physically intimate relationship, sexual or not, with people other than your partner is not uncommon in the BDSM scene. It’s certainly not a prerequisite, however, and Sunstone has an entirely monogamous couple to highlight this point. But once you open yourself up to one taboo, more come easier.

However, if you don’t want this to blow up in your face and have enough hurt feelings to go around, you have to have clear communication. Ally and Lisa aren’t communicating their true feelings to each other. This makes them unclear on the nature of their relationship. When Anne enters the picture, the waters muddy even more. Anne is an unwitting catalyst who sets off all of their insecurities. Off-hand comments sting when imbued with incorrect meaning. Doubt takes root. Ultimately, the circling around the truth that Ally and Lisa have been doing becomes so misunderstood that they angrily fly apart instead of coming together. All because they couldn’t communicate.

In this respect, these two are being dumbasses. Despite this disastrous turn of events, why do I think the message is still that “bringing in a third” is possible if done correctly? Sejic drops not-so-subtle hints that everything actually turns out all right, and I have my fingers crossed that this means all three of them are good with each other and they also still have kinky fun together. However, that promise doesn’t stop this volume from being a heartbreaker. We are firmly in the part of the romantic comedy where the two lovers have a fight and separate until one of them makes a grand gesture to fix things. But that comes next time…

I love how Sejic has created exactly that, a classic love story, which just so happens to have a kinky bent to it. Using a tried and true formula along with such endearing characters takes the taboo off of the BDSM and continues to frame it as something that can be enjoyed by healthy – I dare say even normal – people. He is also starting to have fun building a Marvel-esque interconnected universe, as it becomes obvious that there are more stories hiding in the wings, waiting to be told. Even as I wait for Volume 5, I can’t wait to see what else is in store.

Oh, and a special shout-out to how Sejic draws his characters playing video games as literally fighting dragons in ridiculous fantasy armor. He knows that we all have grandiose dramatic versions of our gaming exploits in our heads. This guy gets it.

*brofist*

Sunstone can be found in bookstores, comic shops, on Amazon, digitally on Comixology, and entirely free on deviantArt. Kate can be found on Twitter at @WearyKatie, and Brandon at @BluThundur.

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