Book Review: Sunstone (Volume 1), by Stjepan Šejić (Mature Content/NSFW)

***This Review Contains Mature Content***
(Not safe for viewing in the workplace)

People who have read Sunstone might be very excited or might be trying to hide their screen because they don’t want to chance naked bodies popping up (don’t worry – there is no nudity in this post, but the cover art probably shouldn’t be seen on your work computer). But here’s the thing – I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable or shameful for knowing of, reading, and/or liking this graphic novel series that happens to be about two women in a BDSM relationship, because it is so much more than that! 

When I was gearing up to launch the Queerblr I went on an online ordering frenzy because the Alaskan town that I was living in at the time had a very limited selection of queer media readily available and no road out to go on a shopping spree in a different city. It got to the point that the internet started recommending Sunstone by Stjepan Šejić to me on the various sites I was using to order media. At first glance, I completely dismissed the graphic novel because the cover art made me think it would simply be porn and when I saw it was written by a man, I thought that it would simply be fan service for male readers, which definitely doesn’t interest me.

After several months of being prompted by the internet gremlins running the ads that show up on the various websites I frequented telling me that I should buy Sunstone, I finally relented and said “Fine! I’ll buy it and I’ll hate it and I’ll prove my point!” Who I was proving my point too, I have no idea; but I bought Sunstone and it sat on my bookshelf for several weeks before I finally read it. As I sat down to read it, I grumbled that I wasn’t going to like it, but I’d spent money on it and did buy it to ultimately do a review on, so I started reading.

I couldn’t have been more wrong with my preconceived notions of what the graphic novel might be. I devoured the first volume once I got into it and immediately ordered the other volumes. Unable to simply wait for the physical books to arrive in the mail, I found Šejić’s DeviantArt page and read the drafts that he had posted. The story hooked me from the moment I realized it was so much more than I had originally given it credit for. It reminded me to literally never judge a book by its cover or the written summary on the back.

sunstone cover

Lisa’s tastes were always…unique. Longing to be restrained, without restraint. Lisa always felt like something was missing from her love life – until she met Ally. Ally was implacably ordinary – successful job, nice house, an average childhood – except for her preference for bedroom domination.

Sunstone is many things, and like I said, despite it being about a BDSM (dom/sub) relationship between two women, it isn’t actually porn or pornographic! The graphic novel starts as Lisa is sitting down trying to figure out how to write her and Ally’s story because she made a promise to her friends that she’d write it. The reader is then launched from the present into the past for a very quick explanation of how Lisa and Ally met online to their first encounter in the real world together. It starts the series off well and also shows you, from the very beginning, that the two ultimately have a happily ever after, but also gives the reader a hint that they are in for an emotionally bumpy ride with Lisa and Ally’s relationship.

Lisa and Ally meet through an online forum due to their shared interest in BDSM and decide to meet in person to have sex. To have a very specific kind of sex. Sex that they haven’t been able to have with previous partners for various reasons. You might be asking that if their whole first meeting is about them having hot steamy sex, how is it not porn? I’m glad you asked! The graphic novel (and even the later volumes of the series) never actually show the act of sex:

Orgasmstext.jpg
Picture of Ally lying on top of Lisa, kissing through a gag. “And then… after realizing the fun potentials of a spider gag… my memories kinda sorta fade to black. Don’t get me wrong, all joking aside, there are two reasons why I am stopping my descriptions at certain points, and neither of them are embarrassment. Reason one: pretty much every description of an orgasm has been written already… so I will just skip the whole opening of my inner flower, cresting the tides of pleasure crap. And reason two: my memories past a certain point usually devolve to “ASDFGAFFGSDASDDADADSADSA”… What can I say? Ally knew what she was doing, and what she didn’t know, she learned fast. Ally was a true domme. My Mistress.”

Sure, the book shows plenty of naked bodies, kissing, and various BDSM attire and contraptions, but there are no scenes of actual sex occurring (i.e., no penetration of any sort, no splayed leg vaginal shots, not even panels of oral being performed, nor do you see either character climaxing). It’s the lead up to and then the aftermath. You see lipstick marks where mouths have been, you see messy hair, happy kisses, and playful banter about second-guessing something that had happened during. This, in my personal opinion, is a great way to do this story. The story is ultimately about their relationship and not the type of sex they have. The type of sex they have is what brought them together; the story is about what keeps them together.

Their relationship beyond the bedroom becomes the main focus of the plot in later volumes. It also shows the reader that communication and trust are key components to having safe BDSM relationships. Where most of the conflict in the series comes from is that the two women, although fully capable of communicating their wants and desires when it comes to their sexual relationship, have a breakdown in communication about their mutual wants for a romantic relationship but never having the courage to speak up about it. We see a tiny bit of this conflict thread begin towards the end of this volume when Lisa chastizes herself for calling Ally “my Ally:”

myally.jpg
Panel one: Lisa biting her lip thinking “my Ally.” Panel two: Lisa kissing Ally’s forehead. Panel three: Lisa putting her hand to her forehead as Ally continues to sleeping, thinking “Argh! The fuck? This… Lisa, you are an idiot. She is your friend!”

Now – we can’t talk about a graphic novel without talking about the art style. Šejić has an art style that once you’ve seen his work, you’ll be able to pinpoint his other works without too much of a second glance (he’s done work as an artist and cover artist for DC comics, including titles such as Aquaman, Suicide Squad, and The Justice League, as well as several of his own original works, including Ravine, Witchblade, The Darkness, and First Born). He renders the human figure beautifully and does a great job of making each character unique in their stylization, from their facial expressions, their posture, personal quirks and mannerisms, and their attire. Not only does he draw characters and scenery well, but he also does some ingenious things with speech bubbles:

speechbubble1
Lisa clutching a pillow to her stomach. The speech bubble has curls coming off of it, indicating her nervousness. “That’s… That’s in just three days! Aw, dammit. I feel like I have a storm in my stomach…”
speechbubble2
Ally grabbing her phone. Speech bubble has swirls of a different pattern and more of them, indicating her excitement and anticipation. “Must… Share… News!”
speechbubble3.jpg
Alan being woken up by a phone call and answering it. The speech bubble is a skull indicating his irritation at being woken up. “What?!”

The uniquely drawn speech bubbles paired with the facial expressions that Šejić renders help the reader understand the tone that each character is using whenever they speak. As a reader, I really appreciated this because too often I’ll read a graphic novel and be uncertain how to interpret the emotion of the scene. Šejić makes it easy to fully understand the tone of the conversation and the underlying emotions and feelings of each character.

My only dislike for the graphic novel is that I wish there was a few more pages or panels spent on how Ally and Lisa originally met. It seemed very glossed over and Šejić attempted to expand on it through some dialogue between Ally and her friend Alan, but it wasn’t enough to make me really understand how exactly these two women found each other. In the grand scheme of things, I know it is a minor complaint because the story isn’t about Lisa and Ally meeting, it’s about their relationship and how it grows and develops. In later volumes we do get some more information about how they initially met, but as a first volume, I just wish it had been set up a little bit more before I would be able to fully believe Lisa’s willingness to meet Ally in person, for the first time, for a night of passionate sex.

Overall, Sunstone is a beautiful story and the first volume is the shortest of the five-volume series. And the added bonus? Šejić releases his drafts for Sunstone to his DeviantArt page so you can read it for free if money is tight and you’re interested! There are slight differences between the drafts and the finalized published volumes, however, but the main plot remains the same.

Don’t be like me and ignore this graphic novel because it appears to be about sex (again, if you’re into those types of stories or graphic novels, that’s wonderful and there’s no shame in it and you’ll still enjoy Sunstone if you haven’t already read it!) or because you think it is simply fanservice of women loving women from a male gaze; Sunstone offers so much more than the cover art implies and is a love story like none I’ve read before. You’ll laugh, you’ll get emotional, and most of all, you’ll read a wonderfully crafted story that also happens to have beautifully drawn artwork to go alongside it.

 

Rating: 4.5 rainbows
4.5 out of 5 Rainbows

Recommended Reader: Mature readers who are looking for a good love story with plenty of ups and downs. Even if you’re not into BDSM, you’ll still enjoy Sunstone.

You can find more from Stjepan Šejić on DeviantArt, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and even over at DC Comics!

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