Former British black ops spy Maddie Cooper works the major crimes unit at Homewell, a fictional private investigation firm. She´s recently returned from an assignment in China that went sideways; she´s hesitant to get into too many details about this disaster, and just wants to make a fresh start, get her life back on track. Whether on a case or at the gym, Maddie approaches her work with discipline and control. She doesn´t tolerate sloppiness, and refuses to be considered weaker or less competent than some of her (male) peers. She will prove to everyone, as well as herself, that she is in charge.
When her boss gives her the unusual assignment to team up with an inexperienced agent named McCullough to investigate a fraud case, Maddie takes it in stride. She thinks it is just routine, an open and shut kind of case--that is, until the case quickly shifts from suspicious to dangerous. Before she knows it, McCullough is killed, and Maddie is the prime suspect. To clear her name and avenge her partner´s death, she joins the powerful military-grade intelligence company BlackWater, a pivotal decision which also means yielding to the company´s ruthlessly handsome CEO, Cole Black.
Such is the premise forSkin in the Game, the first in a series of novels by British author Ellie Sanders. This first instalment in the BlackWater trilogy combines elements both of the espionage thriller with that of steamy Dominant/submissive erotica. It´s a clever idea, as both genres tend to increase the heart rate of the reader.
Within the "spy" world of the novel, there are a number of action and suspense episodes that fans of espionage fiction will enjoy. Undercover agents talk into hidden devices, and there are more than a few top secret meetings in windowless rooms at BlackWater headquarters, where Cooper and her team gaze at multiple screens as tactical teams infiltrate an enemy stronghold somewhere. Cole and his cousin, Brandon Black (the head of BlackWater securities) frequently discover classified intel about something called the Omega Project, something which they talk about extremely obliquely, to the point where it can be challenging to know what it is even all about, or what is at stake within the story. It´s one thing for Maddie or some of the other characters to not know all of the details, but when the reader doesn´t quite know within a 445-page novel, it can feel a bit frustrating. Who is the enemy? What are the heroes at BlackWater trying to do?
Whatever the Omega Project is, we are told regularly by the Black cousins that it is of the greatest importance, that many lives are at risk. Somehow, Maddie herself is at the center of it, though no one knows why (is this key fact revealed in Book Two or Three?). We do see Maddie frequently put into harm´s way while investigating this case; for an agent working for one of the world´s top security firms, whose reputation is one of exceptional ability and resources, they seem to regularly be caught with their pants down. Maddie is kidnapped and tortured twice in Skin in the Game, and the solution seems to involve revealing personal secrets to her colleagues at BlackWater--about China, about her family, about her struggles with drug addiction. How this ties in with the Omega Project is unclear, but to move forward, Maddie has to confront some demons from her past. To be free (and safe), she must let go.
If the details of the Omega Project case seem elusive, brief, even vague, the erotic episodes in Sanders´ novel are extended and explicit. Cole is completely sexually dominant over Maddie, viewing her as a wild animal that needs to be tamed through his words, as well as through a variety of toys. He´s also an ultra-rich and powerful CEO, and she is his employee. Whether having sex in the kitchen counter-top or in his home´s dungeon (complete with whips and metal shackles), these sex scenes are highly charged and intense. Cole is determined to completely control Maddie through sex, to eliminate her belief that she has agency or freedom of choice; sometimes, he even takes her away from working on the all-important-case of uncovering the secrets of the Omega Project to have sex in his office. Despite the talk about how "urgent" this case is, Cole and Maddie (as well as Becky and Aidan, a couple of other agents on the BlackWater team) seem to spend much of their time in the office talking about sex, distracted by sex, or having sex, before going home to have more sex. Is it any wonder that the adversaries of BlackWater tend to always take them by surprise?
Maybe I am being too critical of the narrative structure of Skin in the Game. Some readers may argue that the espionage and suspense landscape is just a backdrop, set dressing for the primary erotic scenes which make up the core of Sanders´ novel (and presumably the rest of the series). And it is true, that Sanders´ sex scenes will appeal to those seeking BDSM erotica. For me, however, I feel like the book could have done more to ground the reality of the story--the Omega Project, BlackWater, Maddie´s past in China, et al--so that those chapters were just as richly drawn as the more intimate moments between her and Cole. Or maybe my hopes for more depth in this regard is just an expression of my own control issues, as both a reader and as a writer?