Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency

In which a Duke is Deceitful and the Badass Hero is a Spinster

The Badass:  Katherine (Kit) Sutherland, spinster sister of a countess and niece of an earl; fraying at the seams trying to keep her family’s manor home from going under, she’s a cynical, brusque, brooding hero who just wants to be left alone to take care of her family in the wake of her father’s ruinous gambling and emotional manipulations.

Falls For: Jude, His Grace the Duke of Darlington. Who is also Lady Rose, Darlington’s cousin. A cross-dressing Duke who follows Kit home to beard the badass in her den. They bond over painful childhood memories.

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Likes: Country ways, simple gowns, seeing her mother smile, reading her brother’s books. Oh, and wooing her sister’s eccentric, ducal lover.

Dislikes: Actually, she’s not really a negative person. She’s unhappy/tormented for a lot of the book, and under duress, but she struck me as having a pretty good attitude. She even notes that if not for her intensely protective possessiveness about Jude, she’d admire and respect the actions of her nemesis, Lady Marmotte.

Brought To You By: Anna Cowan, in Untamed

(2013 debut release ebook from Penguin Books Australia, which I obtained by purchasing it.)

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Outspoken and opinionated, Katherine Sutherland is ill at ease amongst the fine ladies of Regency London. She is more familiar with farmers and her blunt opinions and rough manners offend polite society. Yet when she hears the scandalous rumours involving her sister and the seductive Duke of Darlington, the fiercely loyal Katherine vows to save her sister’s marriage – whatever the cost.

Intrigued by Katherine’s interference in his affairs, the manipulative Duke is soon fascinated. He engages in a daring deception and follows her back to her country home. Here, their intense connection shocks them both. But the Duke’s games have dangerous consequences, and the potential to throw both their lives into chaos…

The Setting: Regency London & the Sutherland country manor and pig farm.

The Tropes: Genteel Poverty, Ruinous Gambling, Animal Husbandry, Long Suffering Elder Sister, Selfish Titled Younger Sister, Rakish Duke with Hellish Childhood, Eccentric Uninvited Female Houseguest, Vengeful Discarded Mistress, Loyal Well-Dressed Friend Group including GBF (Gay Best Friend) Sidekick, Traveling Under Assumed Identity

Badass Hero Moment: Liverpool’s Ball.  Can’t say more, there be spoilers here, but it is a big bold badass moment that reminded me of favorite ballroom declaration scenes. This may have been the point in the book where I began to feel emotionally engaged with Kit and Jude as a couple. As satisfying and heartstoppingly romantic as Colin and Penelope at the ball near the end of Julia Quinn’s near-incomparable Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, and in a weird way not unlike those thrilling Queer Eye big reveals at the end of that late, lamented, gone-but-not-forgotten makeover show.

Badass Annoying Moment: Tough call, because as is by now evident, I liked this unforgiving and relentless character. I can concede that the sequence of events and her eventual embrace and triumph among the political and social elite of London may require more suspension of disbelief than some readers are able to muster.

(too) Frequently Described As: Unattractive.  Some careful readers have objected to the language Cowan employs to convey Kit’s rough exterior and lack of feminine graces. I’m not sure her broken nose and unkempt hair are unfortunate signifiers or not, but I rather like this view of Kit coming in from a downpour, from Darlington’s POV:

Miss Sutherland… looked nothing like a kitten. Her dress and smock clung to her, and the hair was slick beside her face. She was pared back – all that might have been floss or sugar about her had melted away and left the hard, uncompromising core. Only her lashes became poetic when wet, conceding some relationship to stars.

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) as photographed by Mert and Marcus for Love #8, Autumn/Winter 2012, via The English Group

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) as photographed by Mert and Marcus for Love #8, Autumn/Winter 2012, via The English Group

Casting:  For him, I’m really not sure, but I just kept thinking Johnny Depp.  Probably way too obvious. But possibly Jude-like: clever, funny, smoldering when he wants to be, master of ironic self-deprecation. Not averse to an I Feel Pretty moment. A friend, however, has suggested James Callis, from Battlestar Galactica, and I think she might have the right of it here.

For her, I’m going with Jessica Brown Findlay/Lady Sybil Crawley. Something about the stubborn stare.

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via fancarpet.com

Ten Reasons This Book Is Perfectly Imperfect

  1. This book risks a badass heroine without providing the familiar even-more-badass hero. I’m blurring my language here — I guess I could say she’s a badass heroine, but I’m more inclined to just view her as the hero. Kit is assigned many hero attributes and in effect she’s playing a cross-dressed role in this book much as Jude plays a cross-dressed role when he visits the Sutherlands at the Manor. He’s a beauty, and she’s really kind of a beast – untamed, and possibly untame-able. But not bitchy. Her sister Lydia can be bitchy (she has her reasons).
  2. This Regency hero/ine says “fuck.” And not as a verb. Or being coaxed to talk dirty by her man.
  3. This author takes risks, and so did the publisher. Here’s Anna Cowan’s kick-ass feature post for Dear Author about her motivation for crafting a sort of  ‘social experiment’ of a Regency (my words, not hers). Regardless of Cowan’s motivation, and whether a queering the hetero romance experiment intrigues you, for some readers the construction and artifice of the exercise may be too distracting, and cause a disconnect in place of emotional engagement with the romance and the story.
  4. This experiment demands a strong response — people are either loving it or hating on it, with dueling reviews appearing on release day a few weeks ago, and many, many thoughtful comments. I sat up and listened when Joanna Bourne tweeted a rave; when a writer of her level of badassery points out a good book, I’m THERE.
  5. This novel has flaws. The writing is at times so oblique that I had to re-read passages; more so in the first third of the book, while I was still getting to know the cast of characters. There’s a choppiness when the POV switches unevenly to secondary characters. As others have pointed out, the most damaging flaw, which can sink a novel with lesser compensations, may be that the hero/ine Jude doesn’t exactly come across as charismatic, charming, or desirable though we’re told he is all of these things via Kit’s POV. It’s telling, not showing, yes. But something raw and fresh is going on here, and there are moments of liquid silver when the language is effortlessly exquisite.
  6. This sentence, which I read over at least 8 times before turning the page:  “Mme. Soulier had indulged him as few adults had, managing him with words like pins tucked into the fabric of his wayward nature.” I love the idea of Words Like Pins.
  7. This cross-dressing duke may actually be the least compelling element of the book for me. He’s intellectually intriguing, as an exercise, and I appreciated his take-charge attitude towards addressing the resource constraints at the Manor. But my sense of him as a character in a play got in the way of the emotional connection I look for in a romance read, and it wasn’t until somewhere in the latter half of the book that I felt invested in the HEA for this couple.  He just didn’t get under my skin nearly as much as Kit, or even some of the secondary characters. But I was moved by the recurring theme of people, including Darlington, yearning to be “chosen” — to be seen, understood, and embraced.
  8. The Earl of BenRuin. This secondary hero, the “great Scottish lummox,” nearly overtakes Kit as my favorite character. I know some found him too much of a caricature. I just really fell for him and for damaged Lydia’s eventual repair. Their fragile conversations drew me in completely.
  9. This historical is somehow both detailed enough to beautifully convey domestic period authenticity (pig farming, running out of candles, carrot soup cookery, etc.) and freewheeling enough to rankle the history police (the divorce proceedings, the Corn Laws – neither are accounted for with historical accuracy, but these problems have been sufficiently explicated elsewhere).
  10. This writing has a loose tension and distinct voice that puts me in mind of haiku. At its best, it is sparkling and precise; when it falters, it can be frustrating. Artisanal, yet unruly.

Overall, I’m calling Untamed perfectly IMperfect — by which I mean this debut novel is uneven; flawed in many of the the right ways, and subversive in interesting ways, too. We have a queered “hero” who can be read as a heroine; an “unmanly” version of masculinity who is the object of female desire. A badass heroine who cross-dresses as the hero of the novel; once she fixes her desire on Jude she is as relentless, ruthless, and daring as any alpha (in fact the bold badassery with which she pursues and “wins” her mate reminded me a great deal of a classic alpha-pursuer hero in the Cynster/Laurens mode).

It’s rare to see the female pursuer in a historical romance, and maybe in romance in general, and this book explores female desire without reverting to focus on her desire to be desirable to him. Jude is passive, and fully objectified by her desire. And yet I’m not sure it’s entirely the swapping of roles that makes this book subversive, since one could view this as reinforcing heteronormative archetypes, even if they are “worn” by the opposite gender.

Subversiveness is in the eye of the beholder, and what makes this book most intriguing for me is its willingness to embrace the “same old” Regency tropes and turn them inside out. If a talented new writer like Anna Cowan is applying herself to historical romance, I take it as a welcome sign of vigorous — untamed — growth and life for the genre.

 

14 thoughts on “Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency

  1. Miss Bates says:

    Miss Bates loved reading your super-cool review more than she ever did the book. However, the effect is that she might give the novel another try. She was too hasty in her judgement and you’re very convincing!

  2. I haven’t read this, but like Miss Bates, your review has tempted me to revise my decided it was not for me! ;)

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thank you both, EH and Miss Bates, for sticking with my overly-long post! I think there is much to celebrate with this unusual novel, and I had fun reversing my usual focus on the badass romance hero dude for my review. I know I went on and on and ON, but the book has many aspects and elements worth discussing. And of course I also wanted to address some of the thoughtful and valid critiques articulated in other reviews.
      Was this a DNF for Miss Bates? I do think some readers will find they are not able to be as forgiving regarding the imperfections.

  3. Miss Bates says:

    Sadly, it was a DNF for Miss Bates. It was the prose that did it, I think. I just can’t read something if the writing doesn’t capture me, or at least remain unobtrusive. Its attempt at avant-garde annoyed me & its self-consciousness intruded. But I loved your review, so Miss Bates feels she’s gained something here. She is also prone to the occasional caprice & dismisses something too hastily.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Yes, even as I noted lovely sentences or passages, I was aware that I was too aware of the language and not the story, until I was drawn in well after the halfway point. Who knows – I quite liked the latter section of the book but other reviewers really didn’t. Like AJH, I just found myself unable to not talk about this book, because I reacted to it on at least several levels.

  4. AJH says:

    I find this book endlessly fascinating – even though I didn’t work for me, I can’t stop thinking about it and wanting to talk about it, so I just wanted to say I loved your review. I won’t drag out my reasons for my uncertainty since I’ve done that endlessly elsewhere, though it’s largely related to the queering of the hero, BUT I also see all of the amazing stuff you talk about here – I loved the heroine and I thought the fragile, fucked up relationship between BenRuin and Lydia was fascinating. Heh, it’s testament to something awesome, at least, that I suspect these two could have had their own book. I think because I so desperately to like this, and couldn’t, I really love reading other people’s thoughts. So, yes, thank you for the post :)

    • pamela1740 says:

      You are kind and forbearing, as I made a near-endless post about this book, and I am relieved to know at least a few others find it as fascinating, even if not entirely in a positive way. I thought the cross-dressed heroine (not a comment on her attire, but on how she wears the guise of the romance hero) was much more successful than the queered cross-dressing duke. Totally found myself wishing for Lydia and BenRuin to have their own book. Also know that this book was discussed pretty thoroughly around the “dueling reviews” but could not resist throwing my many equivocal impressions and responses into the mix. I could say I was waiting to give a measured review now that the dust has settled a little, but the truth is it just took longer than I thought because SRL (stupid real life) keeps getting in the way of book blogging. :-) Thrilled that you stopped in to look at my unruly post!

  5. AJH says:

    Pamela, you’ve seen reviews – I do *not* get to complain about anyone else’s verbosity. Besides, I like detail in my book reviews and analysis, tell me ALL THE THOUGHTS :)

    For me Kit was way more successful because I didn’t necessarily think her *activeness* was masculinised if that makes sense. Yes, romance novel heroines can tend towards the passive but that’s a different issues. Whereas I very much felt that Jude’s passivity and general feebleness (sorry, I found him feeble – vulnerability is hot, and, depressingly, subversive, but he’s just bit a pathetic a lot of the time) were unfortunately feminised.

    Weirdly, I wonder if it’s a trying to run in two directions simultaneously problem – because if ONLY Kit had been gender-deconstructured or ONLY Jude, then they might not have come across as being binaries – or rather just a label-swap. Again, just rambling :)

    Very much enjoy your thoughts, in general as well as in this particular instance :)

    • pamela1740 says:

      I still say Thank You for bearing with this lengthy post, and I agree that there is something about queer/not queer gender swap going on with this book that keeps it from totally working.
      I’m looking forward to your next Guest Review!

  6. Nicola O. says:

    OK, a cross-dressing hero kind of turns me off on the face of it– not really what I’m looking for in a romance, but this review makes me want to read it for the subtext. Fantastic review.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Hooray! Happy you liked the review enough to even consider reading this unusual book. The male hero may still not be your thing… he wasn’t really mine, either. A lot of other interesting stuff going on though!

  7. […] who praises Cowan’s strong voice and the loveliness of her prose, someone disagrees. Over at Badass Romance, Pamela says the writing is uneven:  ”At its best, it is sparkling and precise; when it […]

  8. […] A Subversive Regency – long-ass review of one of 2013′s most talked about historical romances […]

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