Has Romance Fiction Been Struck by Lightning? A conversation with author Cecilia Tan

Talking with award-winning author and RT lifetime achievement nominee Cecilia Tan about reading, romance, power, submission, feminism, and fantasy

Released on Tuesday, SLOW SEDUCTION is Book 2 of Cecilia Tan’s Struck by Lightning BDSM erotic romance trilogy that opened last year with SLOW SURRENDER.

Although I haven’t blogged much about this genre, I’ve read enough to have opinions about the difference between a book that, well… seduces me, past my preconceptions and maybe even past my comfort zone, and a book that ends up on my DNF list. SLOW SURRENDER was definitely one of the former. When I got to the end I was hooked, both by the story and by the manner in which it’s told. I heard on Twitter that Book 2 was coming out soon and I was curious to learn more about the author. Among other things, I was intrigued by her use of art history and of specific images (super-smexy mythological paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones). The more I learned about Cecilia Tan, the more I realized how interesting it’d be to ask her some questions about genre, fiction, and fantasy. She’s not a new author — she has a distinguished career in publishing as well as genre fiction —  yet with this trilogy she also becomes part of the “new” erotica trend that seems to be scorching its way across the romance genre.

Cecilia writes erotic fantasy and paranormal erotic romance and is the founder and editor of Circlet Press. SLOW SURRENDER, published by Hachette/Grand Central (Forever), has been nominated for RT’s 2013 Best Erotic Romance award, along with Cecilia’s nomination for a Lifetime Achievement Award. And she also writes serious, award-winning non-fiction about my favorite pro sport – baseball.

I asked Cecilia to pick and choose from among my many questions, and she has been incredibly gracious and responded to ALL of my (long-ass!) questions and musings.  I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the conversation, and I learned even more than I had hoped.  (Spoiler notice: slight spoilers regarding the ending of the first book, but nothing spoiler-ish from SLOW SEDUCTION here!)

Pamela: I’m a longtime romance reader (since my teens), and while I read quite widely in the genre, my preference is usually for historical romance, or sometimes paranormals. I rarely read contemporary romance. Yet something about Slow Surrender really grabbed me, and I’ve been trying to puzzle out what it was. What set this novel apart from formulaic BDSM “billionaire romances,” for me, was the depth of characterization of James and Karina. I was surprised to find myself returning to a perennial touchstone: Jane Eyre. Am I crazy, or is there a way to read the slow intense build between Karina and James — his steady advances and unnerving yet welcomed commands and encroachments —  as akin to the deepening emotional entanglement between determined, self-possessed Jane and mysterious, domineering, yet vulnerable Rochester? Who or what were your inspirations for Karina and James? 

Cecilia Tan: I love you forever for making the Jane Eyre comparison! I dreamt up James first, daydreaming on a young David Bowie: stylish, sexy, but distant and mysterious. These days I know Robert Pattinson is the thing, but the desperately sensual movie vampire of my teen years was David Bowie in The Hunger. Karina came into focus the second I sat down to write that opening scene where they meet, though. The perfect foil for James needed to be smart but not jaded, accomplished but not content, and sexually unrepressed but not fulfilled. Karina is not like any character I’ve ever written before.

Pamela: I do tend to see Jane all over the place! I especially thought of her risky fierceness and insistence on receiving her due, at the end of SLOW SURRENDER, when Karina seizes control by demanding from James a form of recognition in accordance with her authentic feelings of love and self-worth. And it was something that was very difficult for him to give up, and then he couldn’t live with it. It was hard to reach the end of the book and not see them together following the revelation of his identity, but – obviously – their story will be told in three novels. Do you think such stories are too big to be contained in one large novel, or is the serial telling of the story, with enforced waits between the books (for those who read as they are published) becoming part of the erotic romance format and reading experience? In other romance subgenres, a trilogy or series often tells the story of a different relationship in each linked book. This is largely because of the heretofore definitive convention that a romance novel must have an HEA, or a least a Happy For Now. Does the serially published format for erotic romance serve the story by structuring a seduction of the reader that is itself a slow surrender? 

Cecilia Tan: You hit the nail on the head here. I originally pitched just a standalone novel to publishers, but in the wake of 50 Shades all they were interested in was trilogies. Like “50” what they wanted was one long, complex story that goes for the length of three books. Having that much bigger canvas to paint on, I was able to do so many more things with their characters and with the way their love develops than I would have in a single novel. In a single novel it would have been more of a quickie “fairy tale” and honestly it would have been less realistic. By taking the time to develop the characters and the relationship I could put in what I felt was a more realistic and believable BDSM arc, too. I know BDSM is popular these days, but I wanted, myself, to have a chance to seduce the reader gradually and draw them in to more and more intense situations, just as James draws Karina into more and more complex bondage and sex games. It’s not just about more spanking or deeper submission. It’s about Karina’s growing awareness of how the give and take of power works between dominant and submissive partners. Hopefully any reader who is new to BDSM relationships will also have their awareness growing right along with her!

Pamela: You’ve received many awards across multiple genres, including career achievement awards. Is there anything that feels new or special about having SLOW SURRENDER nominated by RT for best erotic romance of the year?

Cecilia Tan: Yes, oh yes, oh yes. RT not only nominated SLOW SURRENDER for best erotic romance, they put me up for Lifetime Achievement in Erotica. I’m completely floored by both. I’m having a complete Sally Field moment over it. I am accustomed to toiling in obscurity, only really known within my niche. But apparently the folks at RT know their stuff and have been paying attention to what’s been going on in my corner of the world! I know it’s a cliche to say “it’s an honor to just be nominated.” But now I understand why people say that! It’s true!

Pamela: We’ve all encountered plenty of super-controlling heroes, in every romance subgenre. What’s interesting to me about the current popularity of erotic BDSM romance, and its acceptance and embrace by more mainstream audiences, is that in many ways the emotional dynamics are similar to what you’d find in a conventional romance with an alpha hero, but they are brought to the surface and made an explicit and sexual part of the fantasy. I know this is a question you must get asked a lot, in various different ways, but what are your thoughts on the enduring appeal of submission fantasies? In a conventional romance there may not always be sexual submission, but many classic and extremely successful novels feature heroes who take charge of the heroine’s life, her insecurities, her problems, in one way or another. Is it, as many have theorized, about a fantasy of letting go and letting a hero — once it’s been established that s/he is “the one” — fix everything? The fantasy of one’s every need being handled?

Cecilia Tan: Let me start by saying that the romance genre has a lot of hero types I would never want to “submit” to in real life: many of them seem like domineering assholes, frankly, and that’s not to even mention subgenres where the hero is an actual rapist. But I also recognize there’s a vast divide between what I think is valuable in a life partner (or play partner) and what works as fantasy fodder for most people. Let me get this out of the way: rape fantasies are okay. Tons of women have them and they shouldn’t feel ashamed or odd about it. There are so many reasons why those fantasies are powerful and rev our libidos. But what I found when I discovered real-life BDSM in my twenties was that there was a way to use role playing to combine that intense energy that comes from the rape fantasy (he’s tying me up and doing wicked things to me!) with a very powerful set of companion emotions, namely the dom being not only the tormentor but also the caretaker, the cherisher. That’s the emotional side of real life BDSM, and also the deeply romantic side! Which is a lot of what I explore in Slow Surrender and Slow Seduction.

Pamela: Right, of course not everyone who reads romance does like controlling heroes, and there’s frequently a tension between the appeal of an alpha badass and distaste for heroes who are domineering jerks, as opposed to dominant good guys. This is one of the most often-discussed themes in romance bloggery – I’m wondering where you see James in the context of the alpha/beta/alphabet soup of romance hero types?

Cecilia Tan: Coming from a real-life BDSM background as I do, and also from an erotica writing background, I approached James as a dom in the sense of he is a man whose sexuality is deeply connected to dominance and submission. This part of his personality is probably also related to the fact he’s something of a control freak, too, but as we learn more about him the reader should come to understand that part of his being a control freak now is making up for the times in his youth where he wasn’t in control. One of the points James makes to Karina is that although he can make the conscious choice to be less controlling, he can’t disconnect the part of his libido that just gets off on being the one in power. Fortunately, no one wants him to do that!

Pamela: In exchange for letting go and letting the hero dominate and protect her (physically, sexually, and/or sometimes financially — as in the feudal and chivalric tradition that says “you are under my protection”), in heteronormative romance the heroine frequently becomes guardian of a sort for the fragile and/or closed-off emotional life of the hero. Early in their relationship, Karina glimpses James’s vulnerability, and she has clear moments of revelation about her power to affect him deeply, to alter his emotional state and intrude upon his very private mental landscape. Is Karina the more powerful person in the relationship? Or is she just more able to live in the moment, less cynical, with less to lose? 

Cecilia Tan: Part of the magic, the alchemy, that makes BDSM partnerships work is that both partners are equally “powerful.” That doesn’t mean the two partners are the same, of course. Within the exchange that goes on between them the ways that power can be exerted are different for each. Karina doesn’t realize how much power she has, nor does she realize how much of what she does have comes from the fact that James follows the same rules of honesty and scrupulous behavior that he holds her to. Mutual respect is a huge piece of what binds them together. But you’re right that Karina being less jaded means she has fewer qualms about exerting force when necessary. She doesn’t realize she has the power to break his heart.

Pamela: At the end of SLOW SURRENDER and beginning of SLOW SEDUCTION, Karina and James are apart and she must search for him. Does Karina’s emotional self-awareness and transparency, in contrast to James’s inability to open himself up, suggest a traditional gender dynamic in terms of who is responsible for doing the emotional work in the relationship? Will we see this shift in book three, when it appears James will have to win her back? I’ve only read the short synopsis of what you have planned for the final book, but the hero as pursuer, ready to grovel to get the heroine back, is a perennially favorite trope!

Cecilia Tan: I cannot wait for everyone to be able to read book three, because that’s where of course all the threads are going to come together. All the lessons that Karina learns, both while she’s with James and while she’s separated from him, are going to be necessary to make it all work out. And it’s important to me to show that James, as a real man who loves, has no reservations about “groveling” if that’s what it takes. In the BDSM community we sometimes get doms who start to believe their own fantasies to the degree that, for example, if they drop something and it goes under the couch, they can’t kneel down to retrieve it, because “doms don’t kneel.” Ahem, pardon me, dude, but you’re not in a scene with the couch or with the TV remote you just dropped. You won’t lose your dom card if you get it yourself, I promise, and you’ll still respect yourself in the morning.

Pamela: I appreciated how SLOW SURRENDER blends romance conventions with the erotic BDSM content in a way that amplifies the impact of the emotional storytelling. James has a hold on Karina which she expresses through allowing him the use of her body, while Karina’s hold on James is mysterious and interior, but equally powerful. In fact, at the end of Book 1, James is more devastated by the impact of their bond than she is. The explicit kink is emotionally authentic. He’s very inaccessible to her, and to the reader, while she is nearly entirely open and available, to us as well as to James. Many romances today offer both hero and heroine POV – what influenced your decision to let this romance be told entirely in Karina’s voice?

Cecilia Tan: Well, we have the problem that if I told people what was going on in James’s head, it’d give away the mystery too soon. I wanted to keep him mysterious. Karina falls for him despite not knowing a lot about him and I wanted the reader to be on that rollercoaster ride with her instead of watching from the sidelines because they know more than she does. It’s more fun if the reader knows exactly what Karina knows. I did have a little fun after the book was done, though. I wrote a bonus scene from James’s point of view and sent it to readers who helped promo the book, who tweeted me photos of seeing it in stores or recommended it to their friends. James’s head is a very interesting place to be.

Pamela: And what about feminism? Again, a question that gets asked a lot. But I think it’s very interesting that BDSM novels I’ve read seem often to address feminist questions directly. In the case of SLOW SURRENDER, measured exploration of the heroine’s thought process and agency in choosing/discovering a sexually submissive role occurs throughout, in first-person reflection and in conversations Karina has with her friend and roommate as well as with James. I was impressed with how these reflections were woven into the story organically, rather than tossed in to assure the reader that the kinky sex she’s having is consensual, and that she’s not a complete doormat. How important did you feel it was to explicate these distinctions? Was the horrible art history professor who sexually harassed female students including Karina, in exchange for academic advancement, a foil or exemplar of the abuse of an unequal power dynamic?

Cecilia Tan: Oh the art history professor is definitely there to be a contrast to consensual BDSM. He’s a lecherous snake who has been abusing his students for decades. Every time I turn around I feel like I see another newspaper article about someone like him being exposed, too. And the thing is he’s so obvious, but what’s less obvious is all the injustices Karina, just for being female, has to put up with all the time. Everything from catcalls as a waitress to her mother’s expectations for her demeanor and dress to the way her ex-boyfriends assumed she would act for them. It turns out the only place she feels valued and appreciated for being female and a unique human being is in the back of James’s limousine. It’s like James warps reality around him, because when she’s alone with James all of society’s unwritten rules go out the window and James’s rules take over. It takes her a while to wrap her head around that: the guy who ties her up and does wicked things to her is the person who values, rather than devalues, her the most? How can that be? It can only be true in a world where feminism that supports a woman’s right to sexuality is ascendant.

Pamela: Karina’s a struggling grad student, in a field that’s not exactly lucrative, so getting involved with an older man who’s wealthy and well positioned has the potential to provide obvious advantages. But here’s where I found myself tripping up a little. I recently realized that I find myself more bothered by the ways in which billionaire doms always seem to take it upon themselves to make sure the heroine meets the right people or gets the right breaks, to ensure her successful career, than by gratuitous acts of sexual dominance (OK, gratuitous sex in a book is never a good thing either, but this other thing is more bothersome, in a way!). James introduces Karina to the director of the Tate Museum, a move that both impresses her and provides a material career advantage. She arrives at their meeting expecting to be sexually dominated but instead (or in addition) she is presented with a professional networking opportunity. My own feeling is that letting the hero tie her up becomes a more feminist act than letting the hero step in and whisk away professional, financial or legal problems (which happens a lot in historical romance, for example).  Do you think these interventions are part of the story in order to demonstrate that the hero has respect for her work and her role in the world apart from him? Or do they undermine autonomy and represent another form of control? Perhaps both, or something else entirely? 

Cecilia Tan: What’s so interesting about your question is that the almost coincidental introduction of Karina to the curator in SLOW SURRENDER becomes the jumping off point for the sequel, and exactly how much influence James has, or doesn’t, on her career prospects becomes a big issue by the end of the book. Karina herself struggles explicitly with being unsure whether she has done things on her own merits or whether James has rigged the game for her, and she’s angry at him when she thinks he does.

Pamela: While on the topic of Karina’s career, I’m so interested to know what influenced your choice of art history as her professional field? Your use of the Burne-Jones painting in SLOW SURRENDER provides an intriguing image for exploring the power dynamics of a relationship between a “king” and a “beggar maid,” where she is both available and exalted, and he is both mighty and humbled (just to suggest one of any number of possible interpretations!)…

Edward Burne-Jones - King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid - Google Art Project.jpgCecilia Tan: I picked Karina’s thesis topic completely on a whim. “Pre-Raphaelite Art, sure, sounds smart!” I only knew the slightest stuff about the Pre-Raphs myself. The main thing was when I was making the notes for her character and for the book I basically thought to myself, okay, the characters have to have at least one thing they can talk about when they are not having sex or processing the relationship, one subject they can discuss which is neither sex nor their relationship. Art seemed like a natural thing to choose. And the Pre-Raphs, I just pulled that out of thin air. I had no idea that I was going to find all these fantastic parallels between Karina and James’s BDSM relationship and Pre-Raph paintings. So that was coincidence number one. And then number two I went to England for a conference, I had a single day in London on my way through, and what turned out to be on display at Tate Britain? First ever giant retrospective collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. I had already written the beginning of Slow Seduction, where Karina gets hired to work a special exhibition. To arrive there and discover it was real and actually happening? Blew my mind.

Pamela: I’m kind of making a hash of this line of questioning, with that art historical side trip, but I guess what it boils down to is — do post-feminist readers need to be assured, and frequently re-assured throughout the text, that the heroine in a BDSM novel is an intelligent, rational, independent woman, in order to engage with the fantasy of submission? Do we require her to have a professional identity which expresses her agency and independence? It’s interesting that many heroines seem to have creative jobs like filmmaking or poetry, which don’t require them to have a mundane 9-5 work schedule that might interfere with availability for a partner’s needs. If we look for a strong female protagonist with a professional identity, then why do we so frequently find someone whose career is either nascent or floundering until her lover intervenes?

Cecilia Tan: I don’t think this is especially BDSM romance novels, though there is sometimes a higher pitch of moral panic over them than other romances. But I think even bog standard vanilla romances struggle with the paradox. We want a heroine who doesn’t NEED a man so that when she decides she WANTS a man, the love can be seen as pure and not crassly motivated.

Pamela: With erotic romance gaining more mainstream readership, are there aspects of the way you tell stories that have changed? 

Cecilia Tan: Honestly, I never thought I would be writing Romance with a Capital R. The romances I attempted to read in the early 1980s put me off the genre so thoroughly I thought I would always be too feminist, too explicitly sexual, and too kinky for the romance genre to handle. And in fact that’s what I was told by publisher after publisher throughout the last 20 years. Then “50 Shades” happened and all the publishers went, “wait, what? how did this totally weird thing come out of the blue?? how did we miss it?” Well, they missed it because every time an author like me had come knocking previously, they’d slammed the door in our faces. Even when all the major houses suddenly launched “erotic” imprints about ten years ago, when Spice, and Avon Red, and half a dozen others came along? My agent had meetings with all of them and then came back to me and said, “Well, this one says they want something that pushes the envelope… but they think threesomes are too weird. This other one thinks maybe a threesome would be okay, but BDSM would be beyond the pale.” And so on. They had no idea what they were doing or what women wanted to read in erotica, so they all pretty much failed. Harlequin shuttered the Spice line because they thought the erotica fad was “over.” Not even two years later, “50 Shades” arrived. So the thing that has changed the most for me is that the doorway to mainstream romance is suddenly wide open. I used to write a lot of erotic short stories. Short stories are like one night stands, though, while a novel is a whole affair and a trilogy is a whole relationship!

17727475Pamela: With this second book of the trilogy, a rival for Karina’s affections and obedience is introduced. The string of pearls is broken apart on the cover of the book! This also reminds me of Jane Eyre – who spends a large section of that novel ‘in the wilderness’ and almost marries another. Is Karina’s journey in SLOW SEDUCTION primarily a quest to locate James, or is it, as Jane’s was, also a voyage of self-discovery? (With the Red Glove Society training program in place of the school where Jane worked on the moor…?)

Cecilia Tan: It gets to be both! Karina gets to explore her sexuality more, and explore BDSM in a way that will make her a more confident and competent partner if and when she and James get together again. But she wouldn’t have likely jumped into the situation she does with the BDSM society if it weren’t an opportunity to search for James. As James tells Karina again and again in the book, forget about “or.” Embrace “and.” Both things are true.

Pamela: Finally – a question about baseball. Do you keep these aspects of your writing career very compartmentalized? Does your distinguished career and expertise in writing about a professional sport inform your fiction writing in any way? I just knew there was great crossover appeal between romance fiction and baseball, and you are living proof. I know you are from New York, but you live in the Boston area, so, hey, how about those 2013 Sox and their horrible beards?!

Cecilia Tan: I keep the baseball nonfiction pretty separate, not because I think the baseball people can’t handle my erotic writing but because it’s such a wholly separate world and a completely separate career. I did write one baseball-themed romance, The Hot Streak, a few years back, which brought it all together, though! As for the Red Sox, they’re more fun when they’re losing, honestly. They’re a great source of drama. Baseball is supposed to be like a soap opera: it’s on every day. When everything is going right for the Red Sox, they stop being interesting!

Pamela: I like it when the Sox win! But it’s true, when I first moved to the Boston area back in the 80s, the era of the Curse, all the drama and heartache were what pulled me in.  Thank you for bearing with all my questions and visiting with Badass Romance during your release week. I can’t wait to read SLOW SATISFACTION and find out how you’re going to pull everything together!

SLOW SURRENDER and SLOW SEDUCTION are available in the usual formats and places. I received an e-ARC of SLOW SEDUCTION from the publisher via NetGalley. I purchased SLOW SURRENDER as an e-book.

The Burne-Jones paintings included in the post are two sections of the Perseus Cycle/Perseus and Andromeda (1885 & 1888) and King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid (1884).

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Of Marriages and Mallorens: A Backhanded Look at Jo Beverley’s Feminist Brides (and still more violence)

AN UNWILLING BRIDE and SEDUCTION IN SILK: forced marriages, feminist rhetoric, and another violent hero

I’m a huge Jo Beverley fan. Beverley has pretty much everything I’m looking for in historical romance: characters with depth and humor, solid and convincing historical settings with just the right amount of intriguing trivia concerning manners and material culture, intricate world-building and interrelated stories across multiple books, richly imagined and not-too-cheesy dude groups, a dash of bromance, strong well-read heroines, a lovely long backlist to explore, and a willingness to test the conventions of the genre. Beverley’s novels can be fun, and funny, but they are not light. I could go on and on but there’s already a wonderful summary of the best of Beverley here @ Janet Webb’s “Jo Beverley Appreciation” for Heroes & Heartbreakers.

I thought I had read pretty much her entire backlist, or at least all the Rogues (Regency-era) and Malloren (Georgian-set) novels, but a funny thing happened last October right after I read Seduction in Silk, which is the newest book set in the glittering Georgian world of the Mallorens. I was pondering this novel’s explicit discussion of feminist issues regarding marriage, property rights, and the legal status of women, when Liz @ Something More blogged about throwaway uses of the word feminist in romance fiction, and wondered about a “strain of resistance” to the appearance of feminist language, or principles, in the genre. ErinSatie identified a counter-example drawn from the historical romance subgenre — Beverley’s An Unwilling Bride:

…the entire novel is straight-up structured to question the appeal of alpha men from the perspective of a feminist heroine who has to deal with the worst flaws of one.

It’s not the most emotional romance novel, but it’s tight, well-structured, thoughtful. A romance writer at the top of her game grappling with a troubling aspect of her own work and profession.

At that point, I jumped in with an incoherent comment, and subsequently realized either I’d somehow skipped book #2 in the Company of Rogues series, which was 1992’s An Unwilling Bride, or I wasn’t remembering it very well. It turns out I was confusing it with the first in the series, An Arranged Marriage (1991). Of course I was excited to uncover a ‘hidden’ treasure – a heretofore unread novel from the Beverley canon. I read Unwilling Bride last week, and it compelled me to revisit Seduction in Silk.

Love, Honor, and Obedience Both these books contain a similar forced marriage premise, and feature somewhat unlikeable and rigid spinster heroines who read Wollstonecraft and/or make use of feminist rhetoric to mask the unsettling realization that the hero’s appearance in her life has revealed she may actually have emotional, romantic, and sexual needs. Which of course this man, whose presence has been thrust upon her, can and will meet.

In each case the emotional journey of the couple involves actual conversations with each other (and each of them with various friends and relations) about the meaning of matrimony and the effort involved in the crafting of domestic harmony. Beverley’s characters explicitly discuss how to arrange their lives together to allow mutual interests and individual identities to thrive and prosper. She is masterful at weaving such conversations (not just in these two books) into the narrative and giving voice to feminist concerns about the marital state, property rights, masterful husbands, and the appeal of the badass alpha, without breaking the character of her Georgian and Regency period settings. This is partly accomplished through the liberal use of bluestocking heroines who read Wollstonecraft, but is also due to careful research and excellent dialogue.

From Seduction in Silk:

“There is no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to Miss Mallow.”

“That is for her to judge.”

“Unreasonable woman! There’s no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to her, because I’ve promised that after the vows are said I will leave her completely to her own devices.”

Genova cocked her head. “That does remove many objections. However, before the law you would still be her master.”

“As Ashart is yours.”

“A factor that weighed with me, I assure you. Love is the very devil.”

Keeping Her In Line  Both these books were absorbing, satisfying reads — the kind of reading experience where you find yourself musing about the characters and their interactions or conflicts when you’re not actually reading. Yet my satisfaction with the two HEAs was decidedly dissimilar. Seduction in Silk left me pleased and content, but was more memorable for its strange subplots than for the actual relationship, which ended up being rather bland in spite of a rather explosive beginning.

An Unwilling Bride left me unsettled and (almost) unwilling or unable to believe in the HEA.  Yet in a way I love this book more for its edginess and willingness to more deeply interrogate the historical romance enterprise itself — what does it mean (both for the heroine and for the reader) when the HEA involves submitting to marriage with no legal protections? How to balance the pleasures of a period setting with the tolerances and interests of contemporary romance readers in the post-feminist era? Some historicals leave legal matters offscreen except when needed as plot device, but Beverley’s characters directly converse about essential everyday questions related to the status of women.

From An Unwilling Bride:

“How do you keep her in line, then?”

…. “In what line?”

It was a challenge and Lucien reacted by stiffening. “Within the line of appropriate behavior.”

Nicholas’s warm brown eyes became remarkably cold. “I’ve never stayed within that line myself. Why should I try to impose it on anyone else?

“She’s your wife, damn it.”

Nicholas shook his head. “She’s Eleanor. I never wanted to become the guardian of another adult human being and God was good and granted me a wife able to accept freedom…”

Both these novels present heroines facing tough choices and harsh consequences if they refuse to accede to the marriage that’s been arranged. Yet although Claris Mallow, a country rector’s daughter struggling to raise and educate her younger brothers (Seduction in Silk), faces much more precarious economic circumstances and hardship, Beth Armitage’s experience as the titular Unwilling Bride in the earlier novel feels both harsher and more emotionally precarious.

Force vs. Persuasion  The most obvious reason for the different tenor of the two relationships is the contrast between heroes Lucien de Vaux, daredevil rakehell with violent tendencies who treats his unwilling bride with a mixture of hostility and detachment for much of the book (until he suddenly falls in love with her and becomes overprotective and jealous), and Peregrine Perriam, amiable charmer and beta hero who eventually wins his bride over with a combination of practicality, directness, and silken luxuries. Both couples are forced to the altar by external circumstances involving adultery (by parents or other relatives) and inheritance, and much of the eventual romance takes place after each couple has tied the knot.

(Spoilers beyond this point, especially for An Unwilling Bride)

Lucien and Beth are the 1992 Regency couple from An Unwilling Bride. At their best they are swapping erudite quotations and bantering about books, while engaged in a very public show of courtship and endless social events at the very highest level of London society. I loved that they discovered shared enthusiasm for competitive quoting that offers them a safe space for exchanging ideas and genuine opinions.  But at their worst they withhold and dissemble so much that they constantly offend and resent one another, and there is a terrible lack of trust between them which only becomes more disturbing when Lucien’s violence erupts and he strikes Beth.

That’s right — this is a 1992 RITA winner in which the hero backhands the heroine across the face in an uncontrolled jealous rage. I’m still wrestling with my mixed responses to this book, which I was love love loving right up to this point. Beverley dropped clues to Lucien’s barely-contained violence along the way, which I thought were interesting in and of themselves — it’s clear Beth found him physically intimidating but she was also coming to understand and love him. But I wasn’t expecting to spend the final chapters preoccupied, as are both characters, with Beth’s bruised face and whether or not I can believe in (a) Beth’s immediate forgiveness or (b) Lucien’s redemption and vow that it will never happen again.

As for Perry and Claris of last year’s Seduction in Silk, they too must cope with the emotional fallout of a violent episode.  This time, however, the gender dynamic is reversed and it is a pistol-wielding woman who expresses deep rage and frustration by shooting her would-be suitor at point-blank range. Fortunately, trusty maidservant Ellie had loaded the weapon with powder but no shot. Perry is unharmed, but Claris is undone by the realization that she has almost killed a man. And truthfully, the whole episode, indeed the whole novel, is played for laughs to a much greater extent than Lucien and Beth’s story. Where Beth appears clever but helpless, and even makes her own situation worse with several strategic errors that plant the seeds of mistrust, Claris comes off  as wacky but not without resources.

Not all feminist brides are created equal Although they share the same views about the disadvantages inherent in submitting to marriage, Claris and Beth respond differently because their circumstances are so different. Beth, with only a spinster aunt and the school where they teach to call home, capitulates early in the novel and internalizes her anger at being manipulated into marriage, becoming ever more isolated and fragile in her sudden ascendance to the rigors of public life in a ducal household. She does assert her autonomy by choosing to help a downtrodden former student seeking refuge (which secondary plot leads to all manner of mayhem and more violence, including the bloody death of a villain who did terrible things to Nicholas Delaney in the previous book in the series). But overall, she just seems entirely overshadowed by Lucien and his confidence, physical presence, powerful allies, and warm circle of friends.

With my other Beverley couple of the week, it is Claris who overshadows Perry. She’s got a motley household to manage, a warm and quirky assortment of family members, and an agenda — to see her younger brothers educated as gentlemen. The two of them also have a convoluted curse plot to unravel, and a manor house to save. As a younger son, Perry has made his way in the role of diplomat and courtier; he puts others at ease and blends into the background, leaving center stage to pistol-packing Claris and her starchy, self-interested grandmother, Athena. Claris doesn’t want to marry because she fears loss of independence and she has a genuine fear of the risks of child-bearing, but she’s also got strong motivation to marry since it will improve her economic situation sufficiently to ensure her brothers’ futures.

Perry is being forced into the marriage by the terms of an unlikely will, but he sets out to win Claris’s acceptance directly, resulting in a narrative of seduction and pursuit that is tart and tangy and not at all unpleasant. Among other things, he brings her well-chosen gifts including fruit and silk (he’s receiving mentoring from Ashart and Genova, an iconic Malloren-world couple). This is all very witty and charming, and asked the right questions about submission, autonomy, and identity, but it wasn’t nearly as challenging as Lucien and Beth’s story.

Violence in Romance With Lucien and Beth, Beverley forces the reader to look right into the heart of a marriage, which has now become a love match, where the husband has legal authority over his wife, and listen in when he struggles to rationalize his belief system in the context of his abhorrent behavior.

“Yet you threatened to beat me. Twice.” She didn’t mention it, but the blow which marked her face hovered between them.

They walked a little way in silence before he responded. “I suppose I consider force appropriate on occasions, but I have no excuse or justification for what happened tonight.” Thoughtfully he added, “It worries me considerably.” After a moment he continued, “As for my threats, I threatened to beat you – although I don’t know whether I could do such a thing – when you seemed about to bring scandal into the family. If it helps, I’d threaten to beat a man in the same situation, and be more likely to do it. Does that make you more equal, or less?”

“I don’t know,” said Beth, frowning. “It’s late and I’m tired. That must be why you can justify violence to me. It can’t actually make sense.”  (An Unwilling Bride)

The rest of the novel focuses on Beth and Lucien working together to rescue Clarissa, the imperiled former student, from a forced marriage, along with Lucien’s badass former mistress (she and Beth become friends and allies) and several other Rogues and their wives. There is more violence, and even worse the implied violence and misery of the life Clarissa would have been sentenced to — virtual enslavement to an evil husband who is known to be a sexual sadist and rapist. I think it’s interesting that this secondary plot surfaces quite graphically in the final chapters of the novel. Is Beth so determined to help Clarissa because she wishes someone had done the same for her when she was facing the blackmail threats which resulted in her own unwanted marriage? She had no way of knowing what kind of man Lucien would turn out to be.  Or does she see Clarissa’s situation as completely different from her own, given that by this point in the story she and Lucien have fallen in love and she has succumbed to the physical and intellectual attraction she had for him from the start? Still, on what basis does she trust that his blow was a one-time mistake? I kept wishing that Nicholas and Eleanor had got wind of it, with perhaps some severely man-to-man, and mano a mano, consequences being meted out. And then I can’t believe I’m wishing for more violence to balance the scales!

In the end I almost always prefer a romance novel that makes me think, or even pushes against the limits of my comfort zone. An Unwilling Bride does both these things, and boldly raises many more questions about the appeal of the romance genre, and historical romance in particular, than it answers. Does the HEA justify the means, even if vows are forced?  Where do we draw the line when it comes to an unwilling woman? OK for her to be forced to the altar, an act with far-reaching legal repercussions, as long as the hero doesn’t force her sexually until she consents?  Is she merely reluctant and skittish and ripe for falling in love? Or is the forced marriage trope a common theme because it provides narrative space to explore various ways in which a woman may be taken against her will, from the emotional shock of falling in love, to the social requirement of marriage, to the surrender to desire?

What about the vulnerability of falling in love with someone who will have legal authority over you once you marry him? Seduction in Silk echoes some of these questions, but the sharp edges are blunted — it’s a much more comfortable read. Which begs the further question — was Beverley seeking to make readers uncomfortable with the earlier book? Does having the hero actually hit the heroine force us to examine our own willingness/unwillingness to engage with the badass hero fantasy? Can you believe in the HEA if there has been violence between the hero and heroine? Was this just much more common in the 80’s and early 90’s than I am remembering? Are there any other romances you have enjoyed where the hero strikes the heroine in anger (to distinguish such acts from those in BDSM romance where the violence is consensual and ritualized)?

Seduction in Silk and An Unwilling Bride are available in the usual formats and places. An Unwilling Bride was recently released as an e-book. I purchased both books at my local used paperback shop.

Old Man River of No Return: A Steamy Regency Brought to You by Father Time?

THE RIVER OF NO RETURN by Bee Ridgway: A Regency time travel romance that meditates on time as a river, cultural hegemony, and the flow of history

The reluctant hero Time traveler Nick Davenant, an alpha-hero Regency soldier-aristocrat turned 21st-century dilettante artisanal cheese farmer (Vermont, of course), pop culture junkie, and ladies’ man. He unwittingly escaped death on the battlefield at Salamanca by jumping forward in time, but his story really takes off when he’s asked to go back and resume his life as Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown.

The spinster heroine Powerful time-bender Lady Julia Percy. An orphan, she’s left alone following the death of her beloved grandfather. When his heir arrives she stops time in its tracks to narrowly escape the violent rage of this mad cousin, and then must learn the how and why of her unusual talents.

The setting Mainly London, 1815, but we also get to travel with Nick to 2003 and experience what happens when he first arrives in the 21st century, along with some of his travels in present-day Europe and America.

The tropes Regency lord with badass military experience, and battle trauma; Bluestocking spinster raised by eccentric and intellectual grandfather; Hero & heroine have shared brief yet compelling childhood encounter; Orphaned heroine at the mercy of villainous relative; Hero’s female relations offer heroine refuge and sisterhood, placing her under hero’s protection; Virginal heroine & reformed libertine hero; Heroine & hero as partners and crime-stoppers.

Islands in the Stream A lot of reviews of this book talk about its masterful blend of genres, from science fiction & fantasy, to romance and historical fiction, to adventure/suspense. And they’re right – The River of No Return is one of those books that’s impossible to pigeonhole. It’s a river with many tributaries. Which is one of the things I like most about it. It’s like a literary, tightly structured Outlander with a dash of the Pink Carnation and Amazing Grace (the film). Here’s how I break it down:

Steamy Regency Of course my starting point is the romance genre, and Julia and Blackdown are a couple with just the right amount of conflict, misperceptions and chemistry. We see them together only in the 19th century, but this is after Blackdown has spent a decade in 21st century America, wearing jeans and hooking up in bars. There’s something utterly sublime about the way Ridgway weaves together his two-fold responses to Julia, revealing his struggle to act the proper Regency lord while undoubtedly imagining what she’d look like in jeans or a bikini. But the romance offers an emotionally satisfying journey in its own right, as Julia moves from distrust to transparency and Blackdown learns her secrets. Strong dialogue and good conversation are the surefire way to draw me in to a romance, and I loved the layers of meaning embedded in their repartee.  As for the steamy part, it’s understated and erotic, not terribly explicit. But there is tangible sizzle, and one of the least icky, most effectively sexy recitations of the oft-used Elegy 20 from John Donne I’ve encountered.

Father Time As time travel Fantasy, The River of No Return is more conceptual than literal, and the world-building is sketched in only as much as necessary to convey the vision of history as a river through which people, via innate powers combined with powerful emotion and occasional talismanic objects, can move both forward and back. I’ve read some time travel romance but not very much SF/F, so I’ll tread carefully here. It seemed to me as I was reading that Ridgway’s construction of the river of time was – appropriately – fluid, and less about a mind-blowing time machine or time travel concept than about what happens when a powerful elite controls access to history and knowledge. There are two opposing time-controlling factions, with strident political differences regarding the use of time-stopping, history-altering powers. Each group has heroes, leaders, intelligence operatives & counter spies. Julia’s grandfather turns out to be a pivotal father figure for the ‘revolutionary’ Ofan, while Nick is embraced and set on his intelligence mission by the leaders of the entrenched and reactionary Guild.

In contrast to time travel romances where either the hero or heroine has traveled to a distant century and spends most of the book having comical reactions to newfangled contraptions or old-fashioned ideas, Ridgway exercises restraint in developing Nick as Blackdown’s 21st century TV-loving persona. Cleverer by far to whisk him to our time at the beginning of the novel, just long enough to be indoctrinated by the Guild, cram his head full of pop culture, and absorb the ironclad rule There Is No Going Back, and then plunge him back into his own 19th century life where he’s not ridiculously out of step but subtly and importantly modernized. Thus most of the novel takes place in Blackdown’s original time, and only at the very end do we learn where, and when, Julia is really from.  As a longtime romance reader I also very much appreciated that the time traveling hero was not a hunky medieval Scotsman, much as I appreciate a man in a kilt. In spite of the comedic restraint, however, there are some hilarious moments when Nick’s devotion to pop culture gets the better of Blackdown and I found myself chortling madly when he and a fellow traveler serenade Julia, on the run in a tumbledown barn in 1815, with Islands in the Stream, complete with fist-up pretend microphones.

Political History  The River of No Return contains a clear and nuanced account, from multiple perspectives, of the political and social upheaval in England after the Napoleonic Wars, when lands were enclosed, factories were on the rise, and the Corn Laws were debated. On the one hand there are Blackdown’s sister Clare and her friend Jem Jemison, attempting to democratize the distribution of land and labor on the family estate, and on the other hand Blackdown’s peers in the House of Lords, unashamedly cooking the books to pass laws that will prop up their own estates at the expense of their laborers. It’s woven into the narrative organically, so it doesn’t feel like an info dump, but it’s like a real-history case study for the larger point the book makes about cultural hegemony and the ruthlessness with which a ruling elite will seek to hold on to power and increase its wealth. Amazinggraceposter.jpgThis is the part that reminded me of Amazing Grace, an amazing film starring Ioann Gruffudd as William Wilberforce, leading a bitterly contested campaign to outlaw the slave trade in Britain. It’s a view of Parliament from a few decades before the Corn Bill debates, but if you haven’t seen it, you should, for all kinds of reasons (did I mention it’s Ioann Gruffudd?).

Good vs. Evil The suspense plot pits the Ofan vs. the Guild, and plays upon the trope of a secret organization bent on world domination while another equally secret, but more democratic and sympathetic, organization tries to keep the playing field level.  There’s a Talisman both groups seek to understand or control, which could be an object, but may actually be a person. My favorite part of this element of the book was the notion that these organizations would choose a particular moment in time — in this case 1815 London — and make of it a sort of safe house and meeting place for operatives and members. I guess I just like the idea of a bunch of people hanging out at Almack’s or Gunter’s, who are really Vikings from 800 AD or disco queens from 1984.

Is There Really No Return? I understand a sequel may be in the works, but I appreciated that The River of No Return offered an HEA for Blackdown and Julia. There was a lot about other characters and their respective roles with the Guild and the Ofan that was left unresolved, and I would be very very intrigued to read a follow-up novel that focused on Clare and mysterious Jem Jemison. For me the most appealing thing about this book was the playful way Ridgway approached the crafting of a literary romance novel. She even gave Nick and Julia – holding hands and jumping into the river of time together – a perfect theme song from the ’80s.

Islands in the stream

That is what we are

No one in between

How can we be wrong

Sail away with me to another world

And we rely on each other… etc.  (@ the Bee Gees, 1983)

I love a book that tosses the poetry of the Bee Gees in with John Donne. And just because it’s so incredibly fabulous, I’m making a second link to the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton video of this song.

The River of No Return is a 2013 release from Dutton; it is available in the usual formats and places. I read a copy borrowed from my local library, but I’m planning on snapping up a copy of the paperback which is due out soon.