Title of Book: Spice and Smoke Author: Suleikha Snyder Publisher:Samhain Length: 37k Primary Relationship(s): M/F, M/M Category or Genre: contemporary, Bollywood Does this Review contain spoilers?: No Did you own this already, or was a review copy provided to you? Owned already.
Spice and Smoke is unlike anything I've ever read. It's ambitious, sprawling, brawling, bitchy (in the very best way), flashy, poly and queer. I loved it, and I don't even watch Bollywood movies.
If you don't like genres mixed, this is not the book for you. It's absolutely not an [insert genre] book plus Bollywood. It's its own thing. While the story has certain flaws that I'm going to discuss in some detail, even those flaws are interesting, and when it fails, it doesn't fail in a boring way.
I read pretty widely, and I've always had a soft spot for what I call "trashy classics", or epics packed full of sex and shenanigans: Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins. Sadly, genres today seem to have no room for the crazy shit that went on back in the heyday of these bestsellers. Now romances are way too moralistic, and thrillers aren't as sexual. The closest I've come to the fun, gossipy breathlessness of those books is E. Lynn Harris, who also writes bisexuals! Spice and Smoke squeezes into this category of seductive epic, although it's much more towards the romantic end of the scale than the cynical. The relationships in this story do get happy endings, although I won't give away exactly how.
In a nutshell (I was going to make a pun about betel nuts but it turns out they're actually called areca nuts and at that point I gave up) Spice and Smoke is about a group of people who are the stars of an epic Bollywood movie. They have histories with each other that stretch back for decades. There's Avi and Trishna, who are in an open marriage. Michael, gay and single and looking for monogamy. Harsh, who is straight and pining for Trishna. And then there are these two other dudes who… well, I'll get to them in the "flaws" section. As they shoot their epic movie together—it's all about the history of India, and their roles comment on the love roles they play off screen—they mope and pine and fight and fuck and declare eternal love and so on, all in big sweeping ways using big sweeping metaphors.
The language is over the top, as it should be. The sex is pretty hot and super emotional. The dialogue is chatty, witty, and lots of fun. "Relax, yaar. It’s cool. In queer years you are nearly ready to get a dog and move in together." There's a lot of meta stuff going on about performance and movies, but the book takes itself seriously enough too: it's not so self-reflexive as to be cloying. This book is heavily linked to cinematic iconography, so there's a lot of visual detail, but I also remember lovely descriptions of other sense impressions: rich smells, pounding music, the feel of warm rain...
The stylistic excellence wasn't entirely consistent. I encountered a few clichés—the dreaded "her slick folds"; someone is starving and his lover is "a buffet"—and some of the sentences I couldn't decide whether I loved or hated. Here's an example that stuck out: "At fourteen, Jaidev was better than any overpriced counselor telling him that smoking was a short walk to hash and a donkey cart ride down the rocky path back to coke." Whoah nelly!
And moving into flaws, I was unhappy with a certain translation decision about Hindi phrases. Many of them seemed translated in dialogue, or doubled, which is incredibly artificial and irritating. I don't know Hindi, and there's a chance I'm totally wrong about this, but I didn't like that decision at all. I do speak Spanish, and no one, including Spanglish speakers, talks like, "Hola hello mi amigo my friend que onda what's up". I know it's hard to reproduce speech patterns while pleasing foreign-language-phobic English readers, but I would have much preferred a) leaving Hindi phrases untranslated b) translating everything except a few interjections.
The structure is the greatest flaw. I had no idea what this book would be about. I jumped into it pleasantly free of preconceptions. It seemed like Avi would be the key character, since we start with him, and Avi and Trishna would be the key pairing. Cool. Then, halfway through the story, two other dudes parachute in: Sam, who's a druggie gone clean, he did drugs, he had a drug problem, ok ok ok, and Vikram his personality-free love interest. The characters from the initial story drop all their relationship development and serve as Sam/Vikram matchmakers, only to reappear near the end.
It's easy to structurally balance a monogamous romance arc; the hard part becomes conflict, not structure. But when you have multiple characters with multiple romance arcs, balance is crucial. Triple structures are great for balance; I remember Valley of the Dolls being structured around the storylines of three women. Spice and Smoke has a lopsided dual structure: it feels like a great story that was sawed off most of the way through to have a second story glued onto it. This book would have been MIND-BLOWING as a truly sprawling epic of 100-200k words that has ten major characters and more external conflict… and more sex of course! Currently, it left unanswered some major questions I had about the first story, like what exactly the psychological appeal of the arrangement was for Harsh.
However, the second story—which is more of a straight-up m/m romance—wasn't unenjoyable. In fact, it might appeal to some readers more than the first one. And wanting to get back to the first story so badly is very telling of how compelling these characters and relationships are.
As a menage book, this is not what I call a happy sandwich book. And that's a good thing. Despite the focus on glamor and the presence of so many larger-than-life characters, the relationship issues are surprisingly down to earth. The relationships are not about conforming to a social ideal. The future of these romances is not free of danger. But they are based on love and worked out by people who love each other deeply even when they're not having sex with each other. That was the biggest surprise for me: that so much of this book was about love without sex, not sex without love.
I want to read more bisexual Bollywood books now! More more more. I highly recommend this, and I wish more authors had the passion and daring to write this sort of genre-bending romance. Hint: buy their books! Including this one!