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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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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TBR Challenge: Winterbourne by Susan Carroll

The theme: A recommended read.

Why this one: One of my oldest TBR books; it was mentioned in the paperbackswap forums as an underrated classic. I’ve been intimidated by it — longish scary Medieval! —  but I’ve felt like I have my historical mojo back, so it seemed like the time.

Favorite line: “God’s blood, if this isn’t the last thing I needed to find out today, that I am sire to some half-lunatic Sir Galahad.”

Like many good Medievals, Winterbourne is a story around power. I have a theory that Medievals fell out of favor because many readers want their romance heroes to be at the absolute top of the power chain, and that doesn’t lend itself to stories like this one. Our hero is indeed a rich and mighty warrior… but king John is royally pissed at him, and it really didn’t pay to upset the king. Although he accidentally brings Jaufre and Melyssan together at the start — she pretends to be Jaufre’s wife to escape John’s lascivious attentions — his spite and malice also frequently separates them and causes them great suffering.

There’s also internal conflict to the story, because although Jaufre can take a severe whipping without a sound, he becomes a petulant child when faced with his own emotions. After being betrayed by his first wife, he finds it hard to trust Melyssan, and fears losing his heart again; Diana Palmer-style, his guilt over treating her badly just makes him treat her worse. As old skool epic romance heroes go though, he’s practically a saint — i.e. no rapes, brutality, or infidelity.

I found this easier to read than I expected, though it definitely has some meat on its bones. Jaufre is a bit irritating, but does have a satisfying redemption arc.

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TBR Challenge: Stealing Heaven by Madeline Hunter

The theme: a historical romance. Ha! 90% of my print tbr is historical.

Why this one: Writing about Hunter’s Medieval romances reminded me that this is the only one of her books I’ve never read. Or at least, finished; I’ve started and skimmed it so often, I almost felt like I had read it before. Although I still felt some resistance, it did finally take this time.

Hunter’s Medieval couples are often involved in power struggles, and this may be the longest, toughest battle of them all. Marcus and Nesta are both very intelligent schemers fighting for very high stakes — patriotism/their people — and they spend most of the book at odds, even as they fall in love. Nesta tries hard not to have a physical relationship with him, telling him: “our lack of choices makes this embrace a mockery. A prelude to each of us betraying the other.” But though they do indeed betray each other constantly, they can’t betray their true feelings.

I think as an early romance reader, I found it hard to accept Nesta, who is something of a femme fatale. And truthfully, it’s still not a type I’m all that fond of in romance. But I did grow to appreciate her cleverness, and feel sympathy for the torn loyalties that drive her. Marcus is also not my favorite hero, though it’s harder to put my finger on why. I think perhaps both are written at a bit of a remove… even while in their thoughts, we don’t know everything they’re planning, so we don’t see their best facets until the book is almost over. The focus is largely on their physical attraction for a long time, and I think that’s the heart of my issue: the story goes to a sexy place very early on. Although Hunter is an excellent writer of what AAR calls “luscious” love stories, I tend to enjoy them less when they focus very quickly, very strongly on sex.

But Hunter’s writing is always elegant and if you enjoy this sort of forbidden love — Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk is a good comparison — it’s certainly worth a read. One of the more interesting aspects of it for me was as an example of  “reader consent.” In the course of the book, Marcus does something quite shocking to Nesta: it’s not rape or any form of overt violence, but it is a pretty sick-making form of coercion. But I went from being completely disgusted to reluctantly convinced to accept, if not approve of, his action. Pretty impressive, considering I wasn’t totally attached to the characters to begin with.

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