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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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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