A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

TBR Challenge: Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuel

(Content note for book: Depictions of anti-semitism, rape and murder. Not very graphic, but extremely disturbing.)

 

The theme: Book in a series, but I’m going off-theme because I really need to double-dip for the #RippedBodiceBingo.

Why This One: All the other Medieval books in my TBR seem to be exactly the same tired “cruel lord/feisty lady” story. This is Romeo and Juliet — with much of the bleakness of the original.

Rica and Solomon could hardly be in a worse time or place to fall in love than Strassburg in 1348. Rica is the daughter of a lord, Catholic, and (unbeknownst to her) already betrothed. Solomon is Jewish. Love between them is a sin that could mean death for both. But the attraction between them is only strengthened by their similarity — the adventurous spirits and intellectual curiosity that causes them both to seek out Helga, the local midwife, for instruction in medicine.

Like many forbidden lovers, Rica and Solomon grapple with the disconnect between what they’ve always believed and what they feel:

Encircled by the mist, in the holy silence of the day, Rica did not care so much now for kissing him and feeling his naked flesh against her own. All those sensual vision paled in comparison to the solidity of his arms wrapped around her, to the simple glory of being next to him. She felt dizzy, as if she were standing in the center of the world and all else would slip into harmony as long as Solomon held her.

He rocked her silently, holding her almost painfully close. “It does not seem an evil thing,” he said with quiet wonder. “It seems as if I have held you this for all of time, that I should go on doing so forever.”

But too many outside forces batter their still center. Rica’s betrothed, a repressed religious fanatic who’s also the beloved of her severely traumatized twin sister. The threat of plague. And the growing likelihood of mob violence against the Jewish people of Strassburg, the convenient scapegoat.

There’s no way all of this could end well, and it mostly doesn’t. But Solomon and Rica, supported by their own love and the love of their parents, manage to find what they need.

This is a wonderfully immersive book, a look at the past that manages to feel both believably alien and completely relevant. (There are some echoes of The Sleeping Night, a later Samuel book about forbidden love much closer to our time.) The treatment of religion is one of the most interesting parts of the book: it’s respectful, but doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects people can find. I don’t think the overtones in the above quote… holy, glory, wonder… are accidental. Rica and Solomon don’t reject God; they simply embrace the sacredness of love.

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The Rest of the Story: Jo Baker’s Longbourn

(Reprinted from “Heoes and Heartbreakers,” because I just recommend the book to my mother.)

Pride and Prejudice may have inspired more spin-offs, rewrites, imitations, and alternate versions than any other work of fiction—did the world really need another one? When it’s as compelling and enlightening as Longbourn, most certainly. Longbourn is not an attempt to imitate Austen’s style or plot; instead it jumps off from the well-known story to show us what else was happening in the world that Austen very consciously kept small and contained, that famous “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.”

The story is told through the other people in the Bennet household, the ones who merit only a mention or two in the original.  If we scour the book, we find them: there’s a Sarah and another unnamed housemaid, a Mrs. Hill, a footman, and a butler. In Longbourn, Sarah is a young woman struggling with the brutal fact that her entire life is spent taking care of other young women who have everything she naturally desires. The second housemaid Polly is very young and naive, still fairly happy as long as she can shirk her work and filch some sugar. The kindhearted housekeeper Mrs. Hill has suffered enough heartache to feel grateful for her relatively privileged position, though occasionally spares a thought about the unfairness of life, particularly when the security of the servant hall is threatened by Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins:

“What it is to be young and lovely and very well aware of it. What it is to know that you will only settle for the keenest love, the most perfect match.”

At first, Longbourn follows the basic structure of Pride and Prejudice, down to being broken into three volumes.  (And everything that happens in the story, the author notes, is based on the exact events in the original—every note brought by a footman, every dinner.) It begins with the arrival of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy at Netherfield, which is paralleled by the arrival of two new men in the lives of the Longbourn servants: a new footman named James Smith, and one of Mr. Bingley’s footmen, Ptolemy Bingley, a frequent deliverer of notes. The Netherfield footman is here revealed to be a former slave on the sugar plantation of Mr. Bingley’s father—and quite possibly Mr. Bingley’s half-brother. James also seems to have an unrevealed connection to the Bennet family.

For Sarah, the arrival of both men brings a potential for more than her current existence of endless drudgery, which keeps her “so entirely at the mercy of other people’s whims and fancies.” Tol is ambitious and resourceful; she can tell that he’ll raise himself up to a better position someday. But though it’s not as sensible a choice, she’s more drawn to the quiet, hardworking, secretive James. When James’s secrets catch up with him, Sarah must decide how important love is compared to security, a far harder decision in her case than in Elizabeth’s. In the end, she must give up all hope of help from her “betters,” who can never recognize that she has needs and desires of her own, and make her own way towards happiness.

It’s fascinating to see the Bennets through the eyes of their servants. From their own perspectives their life is one of frugality and even deprivation; to Sarah, with her never-ending chilblains, it’s one of comfort and extravagance beyond imagining. Even when Elizabeth is miserable, Sarah envies her: “she would have loved to have the luxury of tears and headaches: the darkened parlour, a cool cloth for the forehead…”  And while Mrs. Bennet endlessly laments the unfairness of her daughters not being able to inherit their father’s estate, she never realizes that an even more blatant example of unfairness is right under her nose.

Longbourn gives importance and understanding not just to the servants, but to other neglected characters in the story. Sarah has some fellow feeling for the despised Mr. Collins: “He could not help where he had come from, or what chances nature and upbringing had given, or failed to give, him.” And Mary is seen as a pathetic girl full of dreams of being needed, not “just the plain, awkward, overlooked middle child.” The other characters are recognizably themselves, but have a darker side from this perspective. Jane is still sweet; Elizabeth is still charming, and even carelessly kind to Sarah. But she never considers how her choices affect Sarah—her carefree walks creating massive amounts of nasty work for those who must wash her muddied petticoats, her visits taking Sarah away from home.

In many ways, the story extends the characters to their logical extremes, showing what else might have happened to a Mr. Bennet who’s thoughtlessly susceptible to attractive women and a Wickham who would callously run off with a fifteen-year-old girl… and an Elizabeth who’s forced to check her natural vivacity. If you love the original, it can be painful to see the characters in this light—but it feels like an equal truth rather than a contradiction of the original text.

Longbourn brings history to a book in which it is notably absent. Austen felt no need to go into what exactly the militia was doing in Merryton, or anywhere else, but to a young man like James, it’s of tremendous importance. The third volume of the book breaks with the previous structure for an extended flashback about James’ horrific experiences in the army, making us hope even more for a happy ending for him and Sarah.  

Pride and Prejudice is complete, even perfect, in its own right; it does everything it sets out to do. But this gritty yet very humane novel reveals that there was more to class issues in Austen’s time than just what was happening between the middle and ruling classes. It’s powerful reading for anyone who wants to truly understand the world our beloved characters inhabited. And ultimately, Longbourn upholds the basic premise of Pride and Prejudice — that some compromises cost too much, that it is better to choose love.

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Love in Disguise

(A Reprint from Heroes and Heartbreakers)

“In a life singular for its lack of attachments, to become obsessed with two women at once was lunacy.”
—Connie Brockway, All Through the Night

“There was no graceful way to collapse a bifurcated existence into a single, uncomplicated one.”
—Sherry Thomas, Beguiling the Beauty

Love triangles have become common in romantic fiction, though for some they’re exciting, while for others a reason to throw the book at a wall. But there’s one kind that’s fun without all the baggage: the love triangle which is really between only two people. Whether the story lies in the realm of masks and disguises, or the secrets and suspense are hidden behind the anonymity of a computer screen, these plots gleefully complicate falling in love— both for the characters uncomfortably having feelings for two people at the same time, and for the characters who know the bizarre truth.

For the person in disguise, jealousy is a common, albeit perverse, reaction. In Jacquie D’Alessandro’s The Bride Thief, the Earl of Wesley has a secret life rescuing women about to be forced into unwanted marriages. His dashing alter ego makes a strong impression on Samantha Briggeham, the woman his everyday self is trying to resist:

Needing to touch her, he reached out, took her hand, and entwined their fingers. Warmth eased up his arm at her touch, and it required a great deal of willpower not to simply yank her against him and consign his bloody conscience to the devil.

“Ever since my encounter with the Bride Thief,” she said softly, “I’ve been unable to suppress my need for adventure. It’s as if he burst a dam inside me.”

He froze. “The Bride Thief? What has he to do with this?”

“He made me feel… alive. Made me realize how very much I wanted… things.”

[…]

Color rushed into her cheeks, and he gritted his teeth. He hadn’t considered that she might be harboring… loverlike feelings for his alter personality.

“It is unlikely I shall ever see him again,” she said.

Damned unlikely. “And if you did?”

“He did not give me any indication that he… desired me.”

Bloody hell, what did she mean by that? Did she want to experience passion with the Bride Thief? The thought of her wanting another man, regardless of the fact that the other man was in reality him, edged his vision with a red haze.

[…]

Bloody hell, he was losing his mind. He was burning up with jealousy—over himself.

Sophie Beckett is similarly irrational in Julia Quinn‘s An Offer from a Gentleman. 

‘Oh, Sophie,’ he muttered, his voice husky against her lips. ‘I’ve never felt—’

Sophie stiffened, because she was fairly certain he’d intended to say he’d never felt that way before, and she had no idea how she felt about that. On the one hand, it was thrilling to be the one woman who could bring him to his knees, make him dizzy with desire and need.

On the other hand, he’d kissed her before. Hadn’t he felt the same exquisite torture them too?

Dear God, was she jealous of herself?

Benedict Bridgerton, meanwhile, has been painfully torn between his treasured memories of a beautiful stranger he once kissed, and the real woman he now knows:

Did she understand what she’d put him through? How many hours he’d lain awake, feeling that he was betraying the lady in silver — the woman he’d dreamed of marrying — all because he was falling in love with a housemaid?

Why are these heroes and heroines hiding in the first place? Some are fighting for social justice, like the Bride Thief or the Scarlet Pimpernel-ish hero of Truly by Mary Balogh. (Balogh has used the lover in disguise plot several times, including Daring MasqueradeGentle Conquest, and A Masked Deception—the latter two are faux-adultery plots.) The heroines of All Through the Night by Connie Brockway and The Devil to Pay by Liz Carlyle are Robin Hood types. In Cinderella-inspired stories like An Offer from a Gentleman, the truth can just seem too fraught and difficult; the Cinderella in Sherry Thomas’s Delicious saw no future with her prince to begin with, and the passage of time only made things more complicated. (It’s interesting that so many of these stories have their roots in other classic plots.)

Of course, a lover in disguise is the perfect set-up for a revenge story. In Beguiling the Beauty, also by Sherry Thomas, Venetia Easterbrook resolves to seduce and abandon the Duke of Lexington — a “rage-driven, slightly incoherent scheme” — after he publicly denounces her as an example of heartless, untrustworthy beauty. Naturally she’s caught in her own trap, while Christian is horrified at the way he is still susceptible to the incandescent beauty of Mrs. Easterbook, despite now having found a real love, “founded on substance,” with a woman whose face he’s never seen.

The most self-centered reason for a double life is probably found in Judith Ivory’s Beast. Charles is playing a petty game of seduction with his own fiancé, after he discovers she’s aghast to have been betrothed to a much older, ugly “beast” of a man. But he’s also hoist upon his own petard:

He was halted by an odd feeling, that of somehow cuckolding himself. He realized that, if there was tender communion, a once-in-a-lifetime act, he wanted it for himself, his real self. He wanted something for them to share in memory, not something he could never speak aloud.

With its fondness for masks, veils, and blindfolds, noble thieves and highwaymen, this trope is most often found in historical romance, but it’s workable in contemporaries as well. The young adult novel Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley is a classic “Shop Around the Corner” story, although sans pen pals: antagonistic teenagers Ed and Lucy have an all-night adventure searching for the graffiti artist Lucy feels sure is her soulmate — Ed himself.

The “Shop Around the Corner” plot is now especially workable for contemporary romance because of online relationships — and it offers the interesting twist that sometimes neither character is immediately aware of the connection. Mary Ann River’s novella Snowfall is narrated by Jenny, who’s been having hot online chats with “C” using the pseudonym “Lincoln.” C is very open to meeting Lincoln face-to-face, but Jenny is also going through a major life crisis, as she gradually loses her vision. “I’m not ready for real,” she thinks. As she discovers her capacity to adapt to her new situation, she becomes open to both the attraction she feels for her formerly despised physical therapist Evan and to the possibility of forming something offline with C.

C, of course, is also Evan, and not knowing the incredibly serendipity of the situation — does that make it a love quadrangle? — he’s been struggling with feelings of disloyalty and ambivalence:

You were real as soon as you walked into my office, so intelligent and angry. More and more, you made Lincoln less real, and that worried me. I had a relationship with her that had started to mean something to me. It’s why I wanted to meet her. Needed to meet Lincoln. I had been working through my feelings with you for longer, trying to be honest with myself, then I met Lincoln online. It was confusing. Absolutely everything I was feeling. Meeting Lincoln was important to understand how I felt about both of you.

Snowfall is one of the most carefully constructed uses of this plot, with meticulous attention paid to how both characters would feel and what the emotional possibilities of the situation are.

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TBR Challenge – DNF: The Mermaid’s Song by Marianne Willman

The theme: A comfort read

Why this one: I planned on an easily digestible historical. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind… but I needed a Mermaid book for the #RippedBodiceBingo card. Score! Or not so much, since I didn’t finish.

A heroine on the lam is not exactly comforting, and the book only gets darker from there. Flora is in hiding from the Bow Street Runners after a conman seduced her, robbed and murdered her employer, and then claimed Flora was an accomplice. Just when she fears she’s been found, she receives an offer to be a convenient wife to the brooding uncle of one of her pupils, who has removed the young lady from school. You can guess the rest of the story — or can you? I skimmed around and read the end, and it gets pretty wild.

I have no particular quibble with the book; it’s just not really my thing anymore, and I didn’t feel like slogging through. If you enjoy older, darker historical romance, it’s at Open Library.

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The Almack’s Scene in Pam Rosenthals’s Almost a Gentleman

(A reblog from Heroes and Heartbreakers)

It’s a strange alchemy that makes a trope that’s tiresome in one writer’s hands a winner in another’s. “Chicks in pants” is high on my list of instant turn-off tropes, but Almost a Gentleman has joined my (very) short list—The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer, The Lady’s Secret by Joanna Chambers—of favorites.

Widower David, Lord Linseley, is on the watch for a suitable wife at Almack’s. It’s quite a shock to him to be hit with lust—or even perhaps love—at first sight:

He roused himself from his reverie to watch a particularly graceful couple glide by. Yes, that’s how it should be done, he thought. There was a purity, a concentration to the young man’s swift steps, a perfection to the set of his hips and shoulders, joy of movement elevated to art through intense control and mastery. The lady held herself very upright, but one could feel a tiny shudder of surrender in her posture, a willingness to be led. One could see it in the arch at the small of her back, the confidence with which she entrusted her balance to her partner’s gloved hand at her waist.

Of course that’s how it’s done, Linseley thought. It was how all the important things in life were done—from the body’s center. It was how you guided a horse over a gate, heaved a forkful of hay onto a wagon, took a woman to bed. This new dance led one’s thought to lovemaking: no wonder there had been such consternation in fashionable circles when the waltz was introduced. The couple whirled back into the crowd; losing sight of them, Lord Linseley stared at the space they’d occupied, astonished and rather shaken by the feelings that had seized him.

He’s even more shaken when he meets the young man’s—really, of course, a young woman’s—eyes.

Ridiculous, Linseley thought helplessly. Impossible. He wasn’t the sort of man for an exotic passion. But there was no denying that he’d felt something—a bolt of strange cold lightning had flashed through him when he’d returned the young man’s gaze.

What’s gorgeous about this scene is the attraction isn’t based on mere physical allure. David recognizes in the stranger, Phizz Marston, a form of exquisite excellence—someone who is utterly committed and simply smashing at what they do. When that’s combined with beautiful, forceful eyes staring into yours… who could help but fall in love?

Thankfully, the masquerade is not spun out for very long: this isn’t a story about David’s fears and then his relief. Indeed, there’s a lot of other plot going on—secrets, mysteries, past anguish, hidden villains. But the heart of the story is love strengthened with admiration and respect, because David continues to appreciate Phizz—Phoebe—for her courage and competence, even after her metaphorical mask comes off. His ability to recognize her special qualities in a man, and then continue to value them in a woman, make him a hero worthy of her.

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Now That’s What I’m Talking About

I’m reading a book in a series heavy on family drama and secrets, and based on the previous history, I started to get an uncomfortable feeling it was going to turn into one of those horrible romances where it looks for a while like the couple is related. And I’d barely thought that when the author inserted a line to make it clear that no, it was not. I appreciated it so much

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You Never Forget Your First

CW: Violence

(Since we’re talking about romance gateways on Twitter today, here’s a reprint from H&H about my first romance.)

The internet helped me locate the very first genre romance I ever read as an adolescent, a book that made such a strong impression on me, I still can’t use the word “chiffon” in a crossword puzzle without thinking of it. (You never forget your first heroine’s dress with usefully inconvenient tiny buttons down the back…)

The book was The Romantic Spirit by Glenna Finley, a prolific author in the ’70s and ’80s who is now pretty obscure. I’ve never seen a mention of her in the last eight years or so I’ve hung out in online Romancelandia; her GoodReads ratings are high, yet there are only two short reviews. Rereading this book now, it doesn’t seem surprising that her books haven’t lasted: it is very much a product of its time, yet in a way that already seemed dated to me when I first read it, around a year after it was published. With its superficial descriptions of the counter-culture, coupled with the heroine’s extreme prudishness about sex, it reads like the last gasp of a fading world; the main character is a wide-eyed tourist, not just in California, but in society at large:

Maggie shook her head wonderingly as they passed a teen-aged twosome where the coloring of the girl’s tie-dyed jeans resembled the many-shaded bleach job in her hair. Her escort had his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail as he strode along in a garment that looked like a Moroccan caftan except for the Wild West fringe on the bottom.

‘If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was a “Come as you are” party,’ Maggie murmured to John.

Yet it’s not a bad book. Local color was Finley’s big selling point and it’s well done, even if I had to snort when the heroine finds a convenient parking spot in San Francisco. The writing is crisp and professional, the description are vivid, and the banter can be charming:

‘We simply went to another woman and had our fortunes told in tea leaves.’

John chuckled. ‘A real scientific approach.

‘Absolutely. She said I’d meet someone interesting in the water, so I started hanging around the swimming pool on campus.’

‘Nothing?’ he prompted.

‘Nothing. Since I was in the girls’ gym swimming pool, it wasn’t surprising, but I didn’t figure that out for several weeks.’

I was curious about how my memories of the book would hold up. I discovered with my reread of Anne Mather’s The Waterfalls of the Moon, another early favorite, that I had remembered the dramatic highlights of the plot, but got most of the details completely wrong. In this case, I largely remembered dialogue, and was intrigued to find that I had in fact got much of it word for word. What stuck with me was the meet-cute when Maggie drops a wrench on John’s foot (complete with his curse, “God damn it to hell!) and their angsty moment involving the difficult chiffon dress.  

But I completely forgot the plot, the suspenseful and vaguely paranormal elements, and the pun in the title. There’s a vivid scene in which Maggie is attacked, and it startles me that none of it stuck in my memory:

Frantically she tried to fight back but her resistance was hopeless against the other’s superior strength. Her startled, painful whimper was [unreadable] off ruthlessly when his fingers tightened their grip. Only her labored breathing rasped in the silence as she writhed in that suffocating grasp.

The agony was prolonged for an instant that seemed like a lifetime and her lungs were at the bursting point before darkness mercifully shuttered her senses. She was totally unconscious by the time her attacker released his grip and callously dumped her limp body on the floor.

Yow! Reading that now, it’s quite terrifying.

Comparing my memories of this book and others from that same first bout of romance reading, I think this book must have been the match set to tinder that was already laid, setting off a passionate love for romantic drama. The relationship is staid by the standards of later books, or even contemporaneous Harlequin Presents: a bit of uncertainty, a bit of jealousy, a bit of kissing, leading directly to marriage. The conflict could not be more dated: Maggie needs help undoing her dress, John thinks she’s coming on to him (which instantly makes her ”a carbon copy of all the other women he had known — charming, superficial and conveniently available“) and Maggie is shocked and outraged.

His voice roughened. ‘Come off your high horse, Maggie. Let’s not play any more games.’ He pulled her close against him suddenly, and she felt his strong fingers on the bare skin at her back. At the same time, his head bent to nuzzle the soft hollow of her shoulder. ‘You had me fooled,” he was murmuring against her satiny skin. ‘I was playing on a different set of rules. I didn’t think you were the type.’

Spoken as softly as they were, his words penetrated Maggie with hurricane force. Her eyes widened with shock. Dear God, he’d though she’d been angling for something like this ever since she’d knocked on his door. It was merely an excuse to fall into his arms.

It may be the nostalgia talking, but I still find that scene pretty hot.  Strong fingers and nuzzling and misunderstandings… it’s the stuff romance is made of.

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What Authors Owe to Their Readers


A big spoiler for the Feed series by Mira Grant. Proceed at your own risk. (But the whole point of this post is that the spoiler should have been known.)


I started Feed for an online buddy read, and I was getting into it. Good world building, interesting characters, sad backstory, fun title pun. I posted about this in the group, and mentioned that I was just a little worried about there eventually being a gross romance. I thought I was being paranoid, but nonetheless my YA-dar was tripped.

The group leader responded — apologizing for not having known this and issued warnings — that they had just learned there is an incestuous element to the series, which is not shown on page in Feed but is revealed in later books. You could argue that it is not technically incest, since the characters, though brought up from birth as twins, are not blood-related. I don’t care.

I particularly don’t care after I went looking for reviews, surprised that people weren’t bugged by this. And I found one in which a reviewer gushes about the beautiful brother-sister relationship in Feed, and how it reminds her so much of her own brother. She even posted pictures of them growing up.

At first I thought this was gruesomely funny, but the more I think about it, the more furious I get. The author of Feed, whether intentionally or not, involved her readers in a taboo sexual situation without their knowledge or consent. That is ethically and morally wrong.

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TBR Challenge: Thai Triangle by Jayne Bauling

 

CW: Racism, Misogyny, Sexual Assault

The theme: Contemporary

Why this one: Pretty much random, though I did think (erroneously) from the title and cover that it was a very rare Harlequin Presents interracial romance.

Thai Triangle was a flabbergasting read. I was reminded of a joke from “Community,” about how Greendale college is thought of as “weird, passionate, and gross” — what they call in marketing, “the Good Belushi.” Thai Triangle has that trifecta down pat.

Just to get this out of the way — of course there is othering and exoticizing of Asian women in the book. (One grieving Thai woman is described as having “slow tears rolling down her passive face.”) There’s also a surprising amount of kink-shaming, because apparently that’s what you do in Thailand. And slut-shaming. Massive, massive amounts of slut-shaming. I’ll get to that.

So. The weird: Nineteen-year-old Romney has sacrificed her entire life to be an unpaid, platonic caretaker for Kit, a spoiled rich boy who’s dying. She cares for him a lot, in the purplest of prose, despite the fact that he’s not only very needy but often very nasty.

Romney wants to help Kit reconcile with his older brother Justin, but Kit refuses to let her tell his secret, and deliberately goes out of his way to cause trouble for her with Justin.

The complicated dynamics between the three is actually somewhat interesting, except the plot really doesn’t do much with them except repeat the same patterns. Justin tries to seduce Romney. Romney refuses, declaring her undying love for Kit — apparently the words “as a friend” aren’t in her vocabulary — even as her will melts into a puddle from Justin’s manly manliness. She’s such a martyr, that’s probably the only thing keeping her from finding a cross and climbing up on it.

The passionate: Oh my God, there’s a whole lotta love. And hate. And burning loins.

This, this torrid, pulsing excitement, was what she had been created for, Justin the man she had been born to await unawakened and now find. He brought her to wild, wondrous life, his kisses deepening, becoming searching, in quest of her very soul it seemed. She knew she had never been truly alive until now.

The gross: The set-up in itself is on the gross side, but that’s nothing to where it goes. Justin, who must be in his 30s, is ruthless in his judgement and treatment of a 19 year old girl. And that’s even before Kit convinces him — Kit being so truthful and trustworthy — that Romney is a nymphomaniac and therefore apparently deserving the cruelest possible treatment. Kit also assaults Romney to set her up, because he’s just that wonderful.

It nonetheless all adds up to a somewhat compelling read, primarily because there’s some real drama amidst the angst. Kit’s situation is genuinely pathetic; he’s awful at least partially because he had a raw deal growing up, and he touches the heart a bit like Charlie in Alcott’s Rose in Bloom, for never getting a chance to grow up and be the person he might have been. Twelve year old me would have utterly adored this book. Now me kept on reading it, now matter how awful it got, albeit with a sort of “what in the hell…?!” thought balloon over my head.

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You Belong to Me: Lovers as Property in the Medieval Romance of Madeline Hunter

When authors began leaving the Medieval romance for other  genres, one of the saddest losses was Madeline Hunter. (Though that loss was certainly to the Regency/Victorian novel’s gain.) I don’t know precisely why the Medieval fell into disfavor, but I suspect it may have to do with readers becoming uncomfortable with the extreme power imbalances between class and sex that are inherent in the setting. And that’s exactly why I miss Hunter in the subgenre.

Hunter never went full-on bodice ripper as, for example, Brenda Joyce did in The Conqueror. (A very entertaining book, if you’re not sensitive to the disturbing elements.) Nor did she try to write as if power imbalances didn’t really matter. Instead she used the tension caused by those imbalances to create stories that aren’t only satisfying romance, but thematically fascinating. Two of my favorites explore the effect on love when one person is literally the property of another.

In By Possession, Moira is the illegitimate child of a lord and a serf; her father granted her freedom before his death, but she’s unable to prove it. She’s now the legal possession of Lord Addis de Valance, and to make things more complicated, she’s loved him most of her life. But Moira has no intention of following in her mother’s lonely, shameful footsteps, no matter how strong the temptation.

“Can you say that these hands misuse you, Moira, and that you are not willing?”

She sorrowfully extricated herself from his hold and stepped back. She hitched the blanket back on her shoulders and grasped it closed. “I am weak to the pleasure, but what you offer me will someday bring misery and I will not endure it. I swore when just a girl that I would not be any man’s whore, least of all one to a knight or a lord.”

Gold fires flamed. Dangerous fires, that spoke of more than thwarted desire.

“You say that often, and insult me with it. ‘Tis you who misunderstand, and think the worst of me without cause. Those garments are not meant as a bribe to buy a bedmate for a few nights. I do not seek to make a whore of you.”

She had suspected as much when she saw him at the doorway. Better if he did only want her for brief pleasure. “What you call it will not matter. All others know such women for what they are.”

The story is of two intense personal journeys, as Moira fights constantly against her own feelings in order to gain the secure, respectable life she wants, and Addis tries to convince her that she belongs to him in every way, while also trying to suppress the emotional hold she has over him. As a man born to ultimate privilege, it’s almost impossible for him to appreciate her point of view—until she is ordered to sing to entertain his betrothed, and he begins to see how much her love for him is destroying her.

Tell him that I cannot do it.

Nay, she could not, any more than he could. If someone said that he must watch her daily with another man, he could not do it. Not even if she needed him nearby. Not even in friendship and definitely not in love. Perhaps even while he demanded that she admit the love they shared, he had been counting on her never accepting it. He could ignore the hurt he planned to give her if she kept denying it.

Admitting that left him raw.

Moira fights for her freedom and wins, but Addis’s redemptive realization allows for a true happy ending between them, one based on free choices.

The class aspects are turned around in By Arrangement: Lady Christiana is of noble birth, while David de Abyndon is a wealthy merchant. Neither has any choice when the king orders them to marry,  however… and once David’s wife, Christiana is completely in his power.

David is an intriguingly problematic hero. Unlike the typical Alpha, he’s gentle and considerate, but he controls people by being extremely manipulative. The young and naive Christiana doesn’t have much chance against his ploys initially, and he not only frequently deceives her, but plays her like a violin. However, their class differences give Christiana some weapons of her own. In a powerful and disturbing scene, the usually imperturbable and subtle David gets nasty, believing his wife unfaithful with a lord:

“I feared that you might repulse me, knowing where you had been and what you had been doing the first time I left the city,” he said as his hands moved over her body. He smiled faintly, but she could tell that his anger hadn’t abated at all. “It would be ironic, wouldn’t it? To have paid all that silver for property and then found that I no longer wanted the use of it.”
Her mind clouded with horror at hearing him speak so coldly of their marriage. There had certainly been evidence that he thought of her thus and had even seduced her to lay claim to what was his, but to hear the words bluntly spoken and to have the confirmation thrown into the face of her love sickened her.

“Property…” she gasped.

“Aye. Bought and paid for.”

His blunt words repeated themselves in her head. She grabbed his wrist and stayed his hand. Love or not, she could not delude herself about what was about to happen and why he did it and what it meant to him.

“So, we are down to base reality at last,” she said narrowing her eyes. “How tedious it must have been to have to pretend otherwise with the child whom you married.”

He stared at her. His lack of response and denial turned her anguish to hateful spite. ‘The merchant has need of his property, much as he rides his horse when it suits him? Well, go ahead, husband. Reclaim your rights. Show that you are equal to any baron by using one of their daughters against her will. Will you hurt me, too? To make sure the lesson of your ownership is well learned?“

Still he did not react. Her heart broke with a suffocating pain and she threw out what she could to hurt him, in turn. ”Do not bother with seduction and pleasure, mercer. Soil feels nothing when it is tilled, nor wool when it is cut. I will think about who I am and who you are and feeling nothing, too. But be quick about it so that I can go cleanse myself.“ And then she looked at him and through him…

Both David and Christiana know how to “point the daggers expertly and draw blood from each other’s weaknesses.“ The assault doesn’t end in rape, but it’s a close call. But though the horrified and ashamed David redeems himself somewhat by giving her space and freedom in which to recover, Christiana doesn’t find it easy to forgive or forget his emotional violence against her:

”Even now, as you ask me to come back to you, I know that you just find that you have need of your property and resent being denied it. It may be the way these things always are, but I do not think many women have to hear it as frankly stated and then live with the truth in such a naked way. Perhaps that is the reason for dowries. To give women some value in marriages so that their dignity is preserved.“

This was Hunter’s debut, and it doesn’t have quite the structural perfection of By Possession. In the end, they find a balance and equality between them, helped by Christiana’s insight and her ability to see and bring out the best in David.

”I think you should choose the life that you were born to live, whichever you think it was.“

To the heart of things. Life with her would be fascinating.

”And what about you, Christiana? What about the life that you were born to live?“

She smiled and rested her face against his chest. ”I was born to marry a nobleman, David. And you have always been one of the noblest men I have ever known.”

Hunter wrote six Medievals in all, plus a novella in the anthology Tapestry.  (The novels are linked; they can certainly be read as standalones, but it makes the most sense to read them as two trilogies in this order: By PossessionBy DesignStealing Heaven and By ArrangementThe ProtectorLord of a Thousand Nights.) Although the stories are all quite different, the books share high stakes plots based on true historical events, vivid and immersive settings, wit, meaningful conflicts, and strong characters who are realistically constrained by their roles in life, yet who always find ways to fight for their independence. They give readers a chance to enjoy a rich Medieval setting, while still finding the emotional justice and requited love they want from romance. I wish we had more.

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