L.S. Hilton
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Buy *Domina* by L.S. Hiltononline

L.S. Hilton
320 pages
July 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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After surviving the events of Maestra and changing her name to Elisabeth Teerlinc, Judith Rashleigh finds herself running an art gallery in Venice and girding her loins after her recent killing spree, events that unfolded when she landed the job at a prestigious London auction house and then worked at the hostess bar Gstaad. She’s relocated to Venice out of practical necessity and to avoid the attentions of Romero da Silva, a certain officious Italian police inspector. Elisabeth has worked hard to make sure people “see what she wants them to see.”

But Judith’s carefully constructed façade is in danger of collapsing around her when she gets an offer to study the art collection of second generation Russian oligarch Pavel Yermolov. The collection has a dubious provenance, the centerpiece of which is a priceless Botticelli sketch. A matter of legend and greedy rumor, Yermolov’s name had been associated with the piece in a murky sale rumored to have taken place a decade ago. No one knows for certain if Yermolov owns the Botticelli. Still, Elisabeth jumps at the opportunity, taking Pavel up on his extraordinarily flattering offer, even when a private evaluation is considered dodgy and not the kind of offer a “respectable girl” should take.

To dig too deeply into the spectacle that is Domina is to approach an almost Sisyphean frustration. I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering how it was that Judith, now a millionaire, can really escape the squalor of her alcoholic mother and the miserable Manchester estate where she grew up. I think we're supposed to suspend disbelief and accept Judith/Elisabeth for who she is: a woman who can be whoever she wants to be while cleverly negotiating the balance between beauty and money. Elisabeth has trained herself to believe that talent and energy and brains will carry her to a real career in a world she has learned to play at its own game.

Yermolov fits the boilerplate of the new-school oligarch. At first, he’s seen as a good fit for Elisabeth, who is free and about to visit him on her own terms as “a professional.” But Elisabeth’s initial elation turns bitter when she realizes that too much can be too good. She’s also not sure why Yermolov would even consider using a solitary unknown gallerist to value works whose beauty feels like a taunt. After turning him down, Elisabeth flies to a house party in Ibiza with its combination of graying men and hungry women. Here Hilton sets up a dramatic clash as Elisabeth becomes convinced that Yermolov knows about her secret past. Ghosts are as much a cliché of Venice as its masks; Elisabeth is convinced that someone knows too much about the fake Stubbs her old boss Rupert tried to flog, and about the enormous lengths she went to in order to silence Cameron Fitzpatrick.

While the sex scenes are graphic and generally well-written, Domina doesn’t feel as fresh or as titillating as Maestra. The novel continues to expand on Hilton’s theme of feminine empowerment and the graphic way that wealthy men view and treat women. We certainly marvel at Elisabeth’s continual sexual dexterity as she tries to beat anyone who presents an obstacle to the great myth she spins around herself. As she is led into a sinister dance with death, I mostly cringe at Hilton’s portrayal of the other female characters, weak and pitiable in the face of assumed male domination.

Hilton attempts to give her story gravitas by inserting passages on art history, specifically on the history of Caravaggio. This affiliation between the famous artist and Elisabeth throws Hilton’s heroine into the mix with Pavel’s estranged ballerina “mad bitch” wife, Elena, and Timothy, a handsome French hustler. Timothy’s older sugar daddy, Edouard, is rumored to be cozying up to Yermolov. Clearly Edouard has been doing very nicely off the back of his Russian connection. Perhaps in an effort to bring some discipline into the random chaos of Timothy’s life, Elisabeth asks to him to help concoct a scheme to discover what Yermolov might do if he really wanted to make trouble. Chapter by chapter, we get a rare glimpse at the passions brewing within Elisabeth's cool exterior as she dons her usual expensive designer attire, exercises her razor-sharp mind, and adopts her “sex is power” mentality to the chagrin of Yermolov, the police, Elena, and the rest of the jaded hipsters she encounters during her race through the glitzy European cities where most of her wealthy, world-weary friends continue to party and play.

The plot eventually circles back to the reasons for Yermolov’s intimidation of Elisabeth and to the whereabouts of the mysterious Caravaggio. All the while, Elisabeth plays her rather proficient, sexually aggressive dominatrix, wielding a designer stiletto while Romero da Silva follows her like an ineffectual Theseus trailing after the minotaur in its labyrinth. The novel finishes with a silly, telegraphed cliffhanger the size of a volcano which hints at the final book to come. At least we will finally get some resolution to the twined circumstances that coil around Elisabeth, this “hissing, rearing Hydra” who never seems to be able to stay quiet.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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