Never Say Die: Speaking Up for Badass Regencies

I have to say I am loving all this talk about historical romance over the past couple of weeks. Last week I tossed around my own musings on the provocative yet substantive discussion launched by the influential All About Romance and Dear Author blogs. This week finds historical romance “troubles” cropping up again at Risky Regencies, which I think is great.  Sick of the Regency? Well maybe, but….

Sharpe-sean-bean-22356711-885-1280

As many have pointed out, readers have had a decades-long love affair with Regency-set historical romance for good reason, and if there is a real or perceived Regency Fatigue among readers, the candid discussion we’ve all been having stems mainly from deeply rooted affection for this Heyer- and Austen-inspired world. In re-examining my own sentiments this week, I realized I’m probably slightly ambivalent.  I’ve confessed to suffering a mild disenchantment with Regencies that feel too wall-paperish or insubstantial.  I do actively hunt out historicals with settings based on American history, and the erstwhile art historian in me still wishes there were more badass romances set in southern Europe during the Renaissance (and not yet another Tudor- or Borgia-inspired historical novel with romantic elements).

PDVD_415But I’ve read hundreds, probably thousands, of Regencies, and there are so many on my DIK shelf that it’s overflowing. Also, there really are badass Regency heroes /heroines who aren’t dukes, earls, or even the slightest bit aristocratic — through they’re frequently noble, in the best sense of the word. There’s an element of truth in the suggestion that some Regencies offer a fairytale version of England which is devoid of politics, or gritty social and economic realities.  sharpeBut it’s equally true that some Regencies offer well-researched military and/or social history, plots that center on wartime or post-war conflict, and even themes of class conflict, industrialization, domestic violence, and addiction — though I don’t claim to know how Regencies that touch on these darker themes stack up to their frothier siblings in terms of sales figures.

I thought it would be fun to take a few manic Monday minutes to list a few of my all-time favorite Badass Regencies.  If there’s a thread running through this list, it’s my love for intricately connected books, especially a series structured around a plausible group of badass heroes. I am probably repeating something I’ve said elsewhere, but I am drawn to fiction that explores themes like loyalty, honor, kinship, friendship, bravery, and family. Romances against such a backdrop are especially powerful, and it’s a big part of my devotion to historicals.

kinopoisk.ruI’m also a sucker for the band of brothers trope, if it’s done well, with careful and well-researched world-building. Hell, even if it’s a barely plausible Saving England From the Forces of Evil Secret Spy Ring, if it has compelling characters, a strong story and finely honed dialogue, I’m willing to suspend disbelief.

What are your favorite Really Good Regencies??  Today’s list is heavily weighted towards uber alphas, with a lot of war heroes and spies.  I haven’t even mentioned Loretta Chase once yet (!). I’ll return at some point to come up with my list of top badass Regencies where the heroes fight their battles in ballrooms, drawing rooms, and gaming hells, and there are plenty I still haven’t yet read, so please help me out and let me know who you’d add!

Badass Regencies That Won’t. Back. Down

Joanna Bourne, the Spymaster series / Darkly exquisite; French and English spies from all rungs of the social ladder. Words fail me.  If anything, these books just keep getting better and better.  The heroines are as badass as the heroes. Adrian’s story (The Black Hawk) was one of the best books I read in 2012.

Stephanie Laurens, the early Cynster books / Lush and nostalgic; curiously addictive. This family operates like a clan of badass white knights, reminding me both of Scottish medievals and, oddly, of “fixers” like Olivia Pope and her band of gladiators in suits.

Jo Beverley, the Company of Rogues series / Richly satisfying; wonderful secondary characters and friendships; some middle class protagonists. This series is wonderful and only suffers the tiniest bit from probably being constantly compared to the (Georgian-set) Malloren series.

Laurel McKee, Daughters of Erin series / Fiery and pretty political; there are riots and revolutionaries. Broadly speaking, these qualify as Regency-era historicals, but set in Ireland during and following the 1798 rebellion. I loved the theme of SISTERhood in this series, and the history is woven in seamlessly.

Gaelen Foley, Knight Miscellany/ A duke, twin heroes of the Peninsular Wars and their other siblings; these books explore sibling rivalry quite intensely, and the war-damaged brothers are heart-stoppingly enigmatic and tormented.

Eileen Dreyer, Drake’s Rakes series / A genuine band of brothers series; they fought and barely survived Waterloo together. The journey home is fraught with perils like amnesia, mistaken identity, deception, treason, abandonment and a disgraced wife.  The depiction of military life, especially the officer’s wives/daughters who traveled with the army made Never a Gentleman my favorite.  This series also reminded me so strongly of Bernard Cornwell’s legendary hero Richard Sharpe, that some of the glory of Sharpe’s Rifles may have rubbed off on Drake’s Rakes.

seanbean

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe, a particular favorite Regency badass who fought his way to being an officer but never a gentleman, before he got involved with Lords or Rings or playing the Game of Thrones.

17 thoughts on “Never Say Die: Speaking Up for Badass Regencies

  1. elisecyr says:

    Love love love anything Joanna Bourne touches. Will have to check out the rest!

  2. JessiRM says:

    I haven’t read these series, though your review makes me want to do so right away! And I will confess up front that my knowledge of Regency romances is minimal. But reading your post makes me wonder if the heightened language of Regencies, a trait that I adore but my students patently did not, works against the genre now.

    I thought my students would love Lord of Scoundrels, and I have a colleague who thought Heyer’s The Grand Sophy would be the hit of the course. We were both wrong. Our students (ages 18 -22) want their romance novels told in simple and direct language, a la J. R. Ward.

    One final question–given the increasingly elastic definition of the romance novel and your emphasis on series, would it be possible to consider Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey & Maturin nautical fiction series as a M/M Regency?

    I just read Alex Beecroft’s M/M romance, False Colors, and it made me think about how the very male world of the Royal Navy could be viewed as a Regency romance…

    • pamela1740 says:

      Your takeaway from the course re. students wanting less formal tone and language, and preferring Black Dagger dialogue over exquisitely clever and sexy banter, suggests that a generation gap of sorts may be part of the decline in sales of historical romances vs. contemporary and paranormal romance. I guess I am assuming the “heightened” language they didn’t like sounds too formal or stuff to them? Would love to hear if it’s that, or some other reason — can you tell how/why it is “too much” for them?
      Pretty fascinating. Is it still true that women “of a certain age” are the largest share of fiction-buying consumers? Or are younger readers starting to buy more fiction, now that it’s so easy to purchase direct-to-device e-books? There is also a lot of talk about the huge expansion in YA romance and fantasy over the last decade or so, with the implication being that people in your students’ age group have developed reading tastes based on a very different sort of teen fiction. And then there’s this whole new(ish) category, in romance anyway — New Adult, or NA (people in their early to mid 20’s; lots of focus on finding one’s passion, identity, etc.).
      Aubrey/Maturin are definitely romantic heroes in my book, though I think their intense and primary relationship is more subliminally m/m than explicitly so, but there are increasing numbers of m/m historicals, and also f/f, which is a smaller market. I haven’t read Alex Beecroft; are you going to add m/m to your syllabus (or is it already in there?)?
      FInally, I have just started reading a gender-bending (though straight m/f) Regency debut novel that is off to a good start and I think the author has written a pretty intriguing and thoughtful post about her motivation: http://dearauthor.com/features/essays/the-cross-dressing-duke-by-anna-cowan/

    • I find the interaction of teenagers with historical novels vis-a-vis the interaction with period dramas interesting. The Downton Abbey fandom in particular is incredibly insightful and gung-ho, and has lots of great discussions about historical accuracy. I’ve yet to see this passion translated to discussing historical fiction. However, a quick browse through Tumblr will reveal assionate outpourings of love and feelings over popular YA fantasy, paranormal, and contemporary novels. What is the source of this disconnect?

    • Caz says:

      I thought my students would love Lord of Scoundrels, and I have a colleague who thought Heyer’s The Grand Sophy would be the hit of the course. We were both wrong. Our students (ages 18 -22) want their romance novels told in simple and direct language, a la J. R. Ward.

      This is a fascinating comment – and something that has occurred to me, too. My (almost) 14 year old daughter wants to study history at university and loves to read historical fiction. Initially, I was thinking how lucky she is to have a whole range of YA titles available because when I was her age, they just didn’t exist, so I cut my HF teeth on Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton etc. at the age of 11 or 12. But I gave her an ‘easy’ Heyer last year (Friday’s Child) and although she quite liked it, I suspect she found it hard going because she’s not yet “attuned” to the period, the language and conventions (whoever said reading romance is easy? Hah!)
      I review a lot of books, and in many of the titles – including one I’m reading now – I’m finding myself repeatedly pointing out the simplistic nature of much of the writing. Short sentences, lack of introspection, shallow characterisation, and I’m now starting to wonder – and worry – that it’s not just a case of poor writing/editing, but whether it’s a case of newer writers never having ‘graduated’ beyond the YA style of writing.

  3. A lot of my favorite Regencies tend to be the comedy of manners types usually found in trads. :)

    My favorite war-time Regency is Marjorie Farrell’s Red, Red Rose. My heart breaks every time I read it.

  4. Mary Jo Putney and Mary Balogh both wrote some great regencies that were originally category books and very tightly plotted and written. Most of the Putneys I think were expanded to be re-released as front list titles and aren’t as tight and compelling in that form. For that matter the Sharpe books are slim, tight volumes themselves.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thanks so much for visiting my new blog! Sometimes I wish I could have the experience of reading and watching Sharpe all over again for the first time. I do think the books were tighter, and quite romantic, though satisfying a different storytelling need than romance does.

  5. MacPudel says:

    @Caz, I couldn’t let your comment about newer writers failing to graduate from a YA style of writing pass without comment. Good writing is good writing, no matter the audience. Have you read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green? There are some really well-written YA books, romances and otherwise. It’s a shame sloppy writing is foisted off on younger readers as each trend comes along (vampires come to mind), but it’s not endemic to the YA category.

    @JessiRM, Aubrey/Maturin as M/M? To my mind, only in the world of “slash” fanfic where Kirk and Spock are lovers, and Harry Potter and Snape are involved in some twisted relationship.

    @Pamela, What a great list of books that I have not read! When was on the road this week and desperate for a book. I noticed that all the romances in the store in Oklahoma were contemporary romances set in the West. That made me wonder if there’s regional tastes in romances. Is it time for your blog to take on a hot cowboy?

    • Dr. M says:

      Hi MacPudel–You’re right, of course, about Aubrey & Maturin. I’m being wacky on purpose. :-) Those two do not have an intimate relationship, as they do in the slash fiction written about them. But they do love one another in the sense that they practically live as a couple, make sacrifices for one another, and treat each other with respect and admiration. I guess you could say they have the perfect Regency “bromance.”

      I proposed the Aubrey & Maturin series as Regencies just to test the limits of the genre. If we use Pamela Regis’ eight elements of the romance novel (Society Defined, Meeting, Attraction, Barrier, Point of Ritual Death, Recognition, Declaration, and Betrothal), this series contains all of them if we remove the requirement for physical desire and the focus on the heroine. Some of these elements recur, such as the barrier and point of ritual death, as they would in any series. I just finished reading Silent in the Grave, based on pamela1740’s review of that book in this blog, and I can see that this series would have a similar round of barriers and points of ritual death. It has one of those “happy for now” rather than “happily ever after” endings, which is one way for romance writers to remain within the genre conventions but have the hero and heroine recur in a series.

      The Aubrey & Maturin series has “happy for now” endings, too. It also fits many of the criteria for a Regency romance. It’s set during the Regency Period and centers each plot on some aspect of the Napoleonic Wars, just like the Sharpe series. The society in which the action occurs functions like a character in the book. Nelson’s Navy had very distinct class divisions and behaviors that defined those divisions. Life within those “wooden walls” became the center of the universe, as if it were a floating London during the season. The way the characters talk–the witty banter and historically accurate expressions are there. In fact, the language in these books is what sets them apart from a great many other works of nautical fiction set in the same period.

      So I guess I’m wondering how the “bromance” fits into an understanding of the romance novel. It takes away the focus on the heroine’s view of the courtship, and the courtship itself is purged of any sexual desire. But it is the story of a relationship that is about as intimate as one can get without the sex. The romance community includes M/M, F/F, and BDSM romance. Is it ready to accept the “bromance?” Would doing so undercut what has for decades been a female dominated readership?

      • pamela1740 says:

        @Caz, I think I do know what you mean about the very simple sentence structure and sort of a lack of depth to the writing, in some YA fiction. Although of course there is powerful and beautiful YA writing, I do notice that books with long complicated sentences and lots of lyrical descriptive passages end up being passed over by my daughters, in favor of newer titles where the language, and especially the pacing, is snappier.

        @MacPudel, I think you’re right, and it may be time to Cowboy Up! In fact, I read a bunch of Elizabeth Lowell’s old school westerns this year, and have been wanting to post about them. That’s so interesting about the westerns you saw in Oklahoma – I guess that would support the argument that historicals of any period are in decline as far as the broad national market, since they were contemporary westerns as opposed to historical westerns. I realize of course it’s very likely any western I have familiarity with is going to be a historical. :-)

        @Dr. M/ Jessie – I think women fans (of tv and books) are fascinated by the bromance, so the focus on this kind of relationship might not lead to a shift in readership… While I do read romance for the actual romance, I know that I am especially drawn in when there are also strong and compelling secondary relationships, and even more especially when they are brothers/friends with the hero.
        In terms of the reception of the bromance by romance readers: Heroes and Heartbreakers includes posts like this one http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2013/04/justified-raylan-boyd-bromance-lives-on?WT_mc.id=1
        (Raylan and Boyd from Justified) about various hot bromances, especially from television, and this blog is a major online force in the romance reading community.
        But until your wonderful post here about Aubrey and Maturin, I have to say I really had missed the connection between my favorite ‘band of brothers’ trope, and the current popularity of the bromance. Thank you! And I think now I have more homework to do!

  6. pamela1740 says:

    P.S. on the bromance topic:
    Sean Bean and Daragh O’Malley as Sharpe and Harper remind me of a rough around the edges version of your Aubrey and Maturin. Theirs is a relationship of deep love and loyalty stemming from being comrades in arms. But they also fight and spat. And they “meet cute” by having a huge brawl to demonstrate how badass they are, followed of course by getting drunk and “falling in love” with each other’s badassery.

  7. Nicola O. says:

    I’m glad Donna mentioned Mary Jo Putney! I think of her as a kind of pioneer of the “band of brothers” with her Fallen Angels group. And I loved the Cynsters and the Bastion novels early on — I think Laurens was one of the first (at least to me) authors to bring some really lusty sensuality to Regency romance.

    Personally, I think AnimeJune had the best description of “Dude Groups” EVAH in this review: http://gossamerobsessions.blogspot.com/2010/03/immortal-warrior-by-lisa-hendrix.html .

  8. You nailed all of my favorite authors! I love this genre and it is one of really guilty pleasures when I just want to get away from the world!

  9. […] such clarity or elegance!) that I feel compelled to investigate further. I am a great admirer of Bourne’s beautiful Spymaster series and if MissB is calling my spies out with this polite yet clear challenge, I need to see […]

  10. […] Never Say Die – ostensibly about Regency romance novels but really an excuse to post a lot of pictures of Sean Bean as Sharpe […]

  11. […] I’ve said in other posts, I don’t think the historical romance is dead or dying…but with most trends over time there are cycles. […]

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