Still not springing for Starz: my vacation interlude with an Outlandish old flame

More about summer reading, and my vacation interlude with Jamie & Claire

I watched one episode of the new Outlander television series while vacationing on Cape Cod last week. Originally, I had hoped to watch the first episode (which Starz has made available to stream for free anywhere you can get online) together with my local Outlander posse – a small band of IRL reader friends and wicked smart ladies I met first in a fan forum – but we couldn’t make the timing work. Truthfully, I was more inclined to engage with this whole thing as a group activity, given the weird ambivalence I’ve been experiencing (and posting about), in having the object of such an intense personal reading and fan experience (nearly a decade ago now) become such a mainstream pop culture phenomenon.

I don’t pay for premium cable channels and I wasn’t going to change that policy, even for Outlander. I usually wait for a whole season of something good (Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire) to become available some other way, and felt prepared to do this for Outlander, even though it means putting blinders on for 4 months of weekly new episode buzz and reactions taking over my tweetstream.

photo (96)And – it was late August on the Cape in a wonderful rambling beach house with rooms to spare and comfy reading furniture, rope swings, and a cranberry bog down the lane. It was the classic unplugged vacation. No tv, and no wi fi in the house. I didn’t tell the girls I had season 1 of Black Sails (Arrrggh, perfect for vacationing in a historic area known as “the sea captain’s town”) on my laptop, nor that when I ran out of those episodes (watched late at night after they were asleep – it was OK, mostly because maniacal Toby Stephens is kind of fun) I would on a whim decide to use my 3G iPhone to stream the free Outlander premiere.

But this was the extent of my tv watching, and mostly I read, as did they. All of us reading together, for hours and hours, between walks on the flats in the Bay, flying kites, crafty tie dye projects and bike rides to the general store. The weather was gorgeous – like early fall, dry and mild, not even hot enough to make us want to swim all that much, and other than a gigantic bee sting that made my leg swell up, gout-like, it was idyllic and relaxing. The first such sojourn in a long time that evoked family vacations during my own adolescence, where my novel reading consumed huge chunks of the day, without comment or consequence.

So –  one of the hefty books I read was the newest installment in Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander series, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, dubbed “MOBY” in the Gabaldon fan canon for some inexplicable reason that also evokes a seafaring New England industry and accompanying literary tradition. More about my take on the new book in a future post, I hope. I think if not for the chance to read this new Jamie and Claire material over a fairly condensed and uninterrupted 4-5 day period, I might not have re-connected with the Frasers and Mackenzies sufficient to compel me to watch one episode of the show as a standalone. But I’ll admit, when I finished MOBY, I experienced a faint echo of the old “I need more!” that so intensely colored my original reading experience of the first 6 books, back in 2004-05. Where to turn? Starz.com of course.

Outlander S1E1: Sassenach  @RomanceProf asked me what I liked and didn’t like about the one hour of Outlander that I watched. And I realize now that while it feels like I liked it, overall, when I try to articulate anything specific, there are more things I didn’t like. So here’s my impressionistic summary – of both, likes and dislikes. Just one longtime Outlander reader, well past the first blush of intense obsession, possibly also past the unfortunate tipping point towards cynicism, but fairly well steeped in The Books, reacting to the first episode.

outlander-premiere-caitriona-balfe-vases-scene-starzOn Claire: Liked I loved the sequence with Claire and the vase in the shop window, with the voiceover exposition about her peripatetic, rootless childhood.  I don’t remember the bit about the vase from the book, but it was used effectively here, and I kept flashing forward in the story, to the numerous times she is displaced and forced to take up housekeeping again from scratch. Her comments about the vase reminded me of how I always felt about owning an ironing board. Once you did, you must be a settled grown-up.

Didn’t Like If only I didn’t feel like Caitriona Balfe as 1940’s Claire was playing the role as if playing Cate-Blanchett-Playing-Claire-Randall. There was a studied quality to her manner and movements that didn’t seem authentic. I’ve heard it gets better when she’s 1740’s Claire. As many have noted, she may have ClaireHair, but her physical presence is far more vintage Hollywood than ‘fine wide arse’.

On Sex and the Combat Nurse:  Liked I agree with early reviewers who commended the show for presenting an epic fantasy drama with a central female protagonist, where the sex is about female gratification and not yet another boobalicious vehicle for pleasuring the male gaze.

Outlander-Frank-Claire-Castle-Leoch

outlander-claire-frank-flashbacks-starzDidn’t Like But did there really have to be three un-sexy Claire/Frank sex scenes in the first 25 minutes?? Truth is, while the unique and compelling bawdiness of the books is definitely a Gabaldon hallmark, and perhaps the most immediately marketable element in translating to a cable series, I honestly don’t remember feeling like the sex was center stage all the time in the novel. I can’t decide whether the ick factor for me with watching Balfe and Tobias Menzies is just residual Jamie obsession annihilating any chance for the show to make Frank seem sexy, or if the show itself is (over)using these painfully awkward interludes to deflect/cushion the blow of Claire’s time traveling “adultery” for viewers new to the story.

On Swashbucklers and Genre:  Liked Again, I am 100% in favor of presenting a swashbuckling adventure drama that’s lusty and violent and heroic, as told via a feminine POV. Of course I wish it wasn’t so unusual as to require calling attention. But I find myself oddly gratified every time I read a positive or optimistic review of the series, especially those from “external” perspectives – anyone with little or no experience of the books. It’s not that I need or care about having my affinity for the books validated by new fans or (especially) highbrow and/or male critics and/or viewers, but the show does need to be considered on its own merits as mainstream entertainment, and I’m surprised to find it satisfying when someone expresses interest or admiration for it. I know I should probably be annoyed that people keep alluding to the book’s “bodice-ripper” elements, or praising the show when they clearly would never have considered reading the book which, for those outside the cultlike Outlander following has for so long been dismissed as romance even as it defies conventional genre categorization. I could and should probably unpack this odd mix of emotional/intellectual responses, but that will take more time and words than I have right now.

Didn’t Like Compared to the kickass title sequences of a show like Game of Thrones, HBO’s Rome (best titles ever, IMO) or even something completely different like Homeland (which also has a female protagonist), the opening titles are a total snooze – it was a great opportunity to do something visually powerful with strong, memorable graphics, and it just felt like a cheesy travel ministry video for Scotland blended with History Channel re-enactments of swordly battles and chick flick misty fairytale romantic images of the central couple, castles, and horses.  The music is too wistful. The whole thing just needed  to be BOLDER, and should have been more creative, to live up to Claire and Jamie as a badass power couple at the center of an epic drama about history, identity, war, loss, family, fealty, and community.

On Book-to-Screen Issues:  Liked The casting of many secondary characters is spot on, from James Fleet’s affable Reverend Wakefield to Tracey Wilkinson as Mrs. Graham the druid housekeeper, with furrowed brow over Claire’s palm revealing bifurcated love and marriage lines. And I know with only one short episode under my belt, there will be many more fun and revelatory “Aha!” moments where a casting choice clicks into place for me. The beauty of screen adaptations of beloved novels lies in such moments where the actors and surrounding visuals somehow inhabit and amplify the characters we’ve been carrying in our hearts and heads, supporting and expanding whatever alchemical connection has happened between individual reader and text. Like so many Outlander fans, I experienced at least passing worry that the casting of Jamie and/or Claire could somehow “ruin” or contaminate my inner view of them, or indeed of the whole narrative and my reading experience. Fortunately, as it turns out I’m already a decade past that first obsessive reading experience and at this distance the intensity of the connection is much diminished. I like Heughan and Balfe fine for the roles, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them together.

Outlander_Cast_Dougal_420x560_v2 Graham-McTavish-headshotDidn’t Like But ooohhh nooooooo, what have they done to Dougal??!? I really hate to find myself experiencing that odd, impotent fan outrage over a screen version of a fictional character. Who can take seriously the sort of whinging along the lines of  “but in the books he’s supposed to be…” that makes people poke fun at Outlander or Westeros fan communities? I must just go on the record with my personal view that Dougal would have looked younger, and that in the books he came alive as a pretty sexy, intense, if morally ambiguous, dude (GerryButler. Just saying.). And I’m not seeing that here. He only needs to be about 20 years older than Jamie, right?

Gabaldon has said, I think, that when she first began to write Outlander she thought the hero would be the leader of the clan’s war band — she gave him the name Dougal, for her husband Doug. But then the wounded young warrior in the corner, fiercely tended by Claire (apart from my issue with the casting — or maybe it’s just the fussy styling? — of Graham MacTavish, this scene was fantastic), took over the story, apparently. Still, I don’t think the show needed to make Dougal such a graybeard — MacTavish could certainly play a younger, sexier badass. In the novel, Dougal’s complexity and deep-rooted ambivalence about Jamie as a potential challenger is one of the real strengths, and it includes a significant dose of sexual magnetism and interest in Claire. I understand a choice to streamline the narrative, but Dougal’s ambiguous magnetism is a loss, in my view, at least in terms of how the dynamics appear in this first episode. And yes, I fully recognize that not everything can fit in the first hour and subsequent episodes may hold promise of more…but for me he just doesn’t feel right for the way I read Dougal and his story.

screen-shot-2014-08-05-at-8-50-08-pmOn Jamie:  Liked  The much-vaunted chemistry between Balfe and Sam Heughan was indeed satisfying, and I loved the scene where he holds her at swordpoint and prevents her escape. This follows a scene in which the villain, British officer Black Jack Randall, assaults Claire with a sword to the neck and near rape. In contrast, Heughan carries off his sword-wielding pursuit with the perfect blend of charm and force, ensuring that Jamie’s gentlemanly yet powerful use of the blade reads as heroic and hot — and of course by now the viewer also understands that in preventing her “escape” he is also rescuing Claire from falling into the clutches of Jack Randall again. The scene worked beautifully to establish the beginnings of his physical awareness of her (“ye don’t appear to weigh too much, I’ll throw ye over my shoulder…”), along with his Red Jamie urge to protect and possess. Also I really liked Claire’s mad face in this scene; their mutual respect and wariness was crystal clear.

Didn’t Like I keep tripping up on the question of whether I’d continue watching this show if I’d come to it as an Outlander virgin. It was sort of measured and dull, lots of exposition (which is the bane of any premiere episode) to set up the characters and plot, and I can’t help thinking that it didn’t do enough to hook someone who hasn’t already been bitten by the Jamie/Claire bug in some way. Some of the scenes with Frank lurking around the ruins and the stones, researching his ancestors, watching the local pagans on Samhain at Craigh na Dun, while loaded with portent if you know what to listen for, just came across as tedious and the stunning visuals of the sunrise ceremony were overplayed. Heughan and Balfe are compelling together but was there enough intriguing detail about who Jamie is and why he and Dougal et al are so bloody desperate?

Yes, the final scene, meant to draw us in and bring us back for episode 2, has the fugitives arriving at forbidding Castle Leoch, which Claire and Frank had explored in its ruined 1945 state. But as a cliffhanger ending it was more than a little flat, and without already knowing all that’s to come (there was minimal explanation yet given for why they are on the run from the British troops, other than the general offense of riding around the Highlands while Scottish), I’m not sure it would give me the fire in the belly to make sure I “tune in next week.”  What was missing was the complexity and challenge of the situation in the Highlands in 1743, which I have no doubt is already coming into much clearer focus as the weeks go by.

Bottom Line From what I’ve been hearing since I returned to the twitterverse and started catching up on all kinds of news, things really get going with the show in the second and third episodes, and I’m glad to hear it. Still, since I do already know what happens, I’m not rushing to pay Verizon to add Starz to my cable lineup.  It’ll be too late to be part of the Fall 2014 Outlander bandwagon, but I’ll probably end up binge watching the whole season on my next summer vacation.

 

Advertisements

Siege Warfare: Meditations on Medieval Romance with Author Elise Cyr

Besieged by love?  How many times have you read something like “her emotions were under siege” in a romance novel? I feel like this metaphor is common, and compelling, yet I’ve never really unpacked it. For one thing, it suggests a traditionally gendered experience, in which the hero is the pursuer, surrounding the heroine with his army of manly charms until she accepts and gives in to the inevitability of surrender/conquest.

What makes this work in genre romance is that while she may be “conquered” by the hero’s love, the heroine surrenders as much to the power of her own corresponding emotion as to the conquering male. The siege as romantic metaphor sort of circles in on itself, since the besieged is frequently “starving” herself of love/emotion while the besieger “attacks” by providing rather than depriving. (I know there must be examples of the metaphor used with the genders reversed and a pursuing heroine laying siege to her hero…I hope to hear of such in comments since I can’t find one at the moment!)

570px-Siege_castle_love_Louvre_OA6933

Ivory mirror back depicting “The Siege of the Castle of Love,” French, 14th century, now in the Louvre (via Wikimedia Commons)

Until last month, it’d been quite a while since I read a romance, or indeed any novel, where the hero wears chain mail.  Then I picked Sharon Kay Penman’s LIONHEART off a very dusty spot on my TBR shelf, for a “challenge” read involving Big Fat Books. Not a romance, but it reminded me how much I used to enjoy and immerse myself in historical fiction with medieval settings, and whetted my appetite. Also, here was a book brimming with literal historical examples of siege warfare, replete with all the implements (heavy weaponry, grappling hooks, scaling ladders) and strategies (starvation, persistence, ruthlessness) from which the literary & emotional metaphors derive.

I confess, I had to push myself a bit to get through this long book about England’s Richard ‘the Lionheart’ and his exploits in the Holy Land during the Second (?) Crusade in 1190-92. Based on my memories of Penman’s Welsh trilogy (it was nearly 20 years ago, but I treasure these books among my ‘best evers’), I had thought there’d be a stronger romantic element, and I found myself really missing the emotional satisfaction of a romance HEA. I also missed the sense that there is an end to the story at all, since this was just one long chunk of a multi-novel Angevin saga, and leaves off just as Richard is returning to England to deal with his treacherous relatives.

siegeoftheheart_FinalSo – time for a medieval romance.

Fortunately, hard on the heels of my March reading challenge came SIEGE OF THE HEART, a debut release from Elise Cyr, an author acquaintance from Twitter. I am thoroughly enjoying this romance between a Norman knight and a sword-wielding English heiress, and it’s got me re-examining some of my own assumptions about medieval romance novels, thinking about why I stopped reading them, whether they’re still as popular as ever, and what’s happening in this historical subgenre that’s new and fresh.

 Is harsh history romantic? Elise has graciously agreed to share some ideas about medievals – the chivalry, the history, and what makes a romance novel work in a setting where historical accuracy means a world with a challenging dominant belief system characterized by religious intolerance, a rigid feudal class system, very limited access to literacy and learning for most people, and marriage laws that left women with very few rights, even over their own bodies and children.

Pamela: I just read a great review of Jeannie Lin’s THE JADE TEMPTRESS in which Miss Bates referred to the setting – also medieval, but 9th century China – as a “harsh, hierarchical world” (I can’t wait to read this one, too!). What makes this kind of setting a good place to tell a compelling love story?

Elise: It comes down to stakes. In the medieval period, regardless of which continent we’re talking about, the “harsh, hierarchical world” often meant most people were so focused on their survival and that of their family, the concept of “love” we think of today was rare as a result. The medieval version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs often didn’t move beyond food and shelter for the vast majority of people living at the time. So when love did strike, the afflicted had a lot of barriers to work through. Not least of which was the concept of marriage, which was essentially a contract negotiated between families at the behest of their liege lord. Compatibility had more to do with dowries, ready coin, and the whims of nobility instead of attraction, passion, fidelity. So love not only had to exist, it had to be a love worth fighting for, since often the couple would be going against the wishes of their families and their liege lord, removing any security they had in society. It was a harsh world indeed for lovers of the time.

Pamela: What do you think is the particular appeal of the European-set medieval? Are there deeper associations with folklore and fairytales many English-speaking readers may have grown up with?

Elise: For me, the medieval time period comes closest to evoking the world of fairytales. Castles, knights, adventures, with the more unpleasant aspects blunted by the passage of time. I grew up on fairytales—the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang. This legacy is distinctly Europe-centric, so it makes sense to me that many historical romance authors keep returning to European history and the fairytale structure with the obligatory happily-ever-after in the stories we write for ourselves and others. (I wonder to what extent that would change had I been exposed to the fairy tales and myths from other cultures at such a formative age.)

Pamela: I kept thinking about your siege metaphor as I was reading about the Crusaders’ trebuchets and other siege implements and strategies, in Penman’s LIONHEART. That was a later period than SIEGE OF THE HEART, which is set immediately following the Norman Conquest, but the forced marriage as part of a strategy of conquest, alliance, and/or assimilation is a common theme. It’s a tried and true historical romance trope, but I think it can be particularly powerful in a medieval story – how does it work in medieval to become more, and to transcend the plot device that serves to throw the hero and heroine together?

Elise: The forced marriage trope is indeed common in historical romance. The reason I think it works in medievals is because the marriage is bigger than either partner, and more is riding on its success. Servants, townspeople, villeins, and vassals all had a stake in the success or failure of an alliance. The term “peace weaver” originates from the Anglo-Saxons where a woman was married off to a warring tribe to make peace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace-weaver). To have so much riding on a match raises the stakes for a relationship, and finding ways for the hero and heroine to connect, compromise, and complement each other are elements at the heart of any romance, regardless of the time period.

Pamela: Isabel faces a forced marriage like so many widowed or otherwise vulnerable women of the ruling class in her period, because a single woman can’t “hold” a castle, or a kingdom, for her liege lord, and needs to be married to another powerful lord.  But in what ways does she hold power? Can she hold on to her own inner “castle” – ie. her heart, at least until she chooses to open the gates…?

Elise: When I chose to write in this time period, I soon realized the cards would be stacked against my heroine Isabel. The fallout from the Norman Conquest threw so many lives in turmoil, including that of an unwed English noblewoman. So I had to figure out a way to not only make her someone worthy of a story, but also have enough agency to sustain one. That way a modern reader could respect her choices despite changes in culture and gender roles brought on by the march of time. It helps that my heroine is a bit spoiled by her father, still mourning the loss of his wife. Because of this, Isabel has been afforded opportunities to acquire certain skills and experiences not available to other women. Her power lies in the respect she commands from her father’s men and the rest of the household, her knowledge of the land and the vassals who tend it, and the passion she brings to her responsibilities. The result, I hope, is a strong character, cognizant of her place in the world, confident in her abilities, who realizes her heart is only hers to give.

800px-Bayeux_Tapestry_scene19_Dinan

Siege of a motte and bailey castle at Dinan as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Pamela: Beyond her inner qualities and skills such as strength of purpose or being politically astute, you also gave Isabel an outwardly fighting spirit and weaponry and badassery to go with it. She’s quite a shield-maiden, and in this way reminds me of the warrior maidens from a Tolkien saga, or the early Norse mythologies that inspired him. What made you decide to have Isabel be skilled at physical combat in her own right, in spite of needing to marry in order to retain dominion over her family’s lands?

Elise: Well, badassery was indeed a consideration. One thing I always disliked about fairy tales was the passive or secondary role women often played. I didn’t want that for my heroine, especially given the modern lens and the power dynamics of the time. So I wanted her skills with blade and bow to match her fighting spirit. She couldn’t be easily dismissed, politically, personally, physically. If you dig into the accounts of the Conquest, it wasn’t very pretty. I wanted a heroine who could transcend the brutality of the time period and be strong enough to pick up the pieces afterward.

Pamela: Alex is a wonderfully patient yet determined siege strategist. It’s refreshing to read a medieval warrior hero who’s open about his willingness to fall in love with the heiress he’s being commanded to marry, rather than bemoan his lost bachelorhood or succumbing to insta-lust for wedding, bedding, and then ignoring his new bride. He approaches Isabel as he would any worthy potential adversary or ally – and only once he realizes that he’s attracted to her, both physically and in terms of her character, does he decide upon a courtship strategy of emotional siege warfare. So many romance novels cast the hero as the protagonist whose deeper emotions are walled up behind a mental fortress – did you think about this as an inversion or subversion?

Elise: I did try to invert some expectations when it came to Alex, the Norman knight who throws Isabel’s world in turmoil. Going back to the brutality of the Conquest, it’s easy to assume that bloodlust is what defined the conquerors as they raped, pillaged, and razed the land on their trek from the coast to the heart of London. I felt not every man William brought to England could be ruled by such aggression—these very knights were the origins of chivalry after all, formalized roughly a hundred years later. As a conqueror, it’s easy to view Alex as a “bad guy.” So I tried to give Alex those honorable, chivalric impulses, while retaining the rough edges of the Norman culture. Having him in touch with his emotions, aware of how he’s perceived by others and how to manipulate that, were tools I used to keep him accessible to the reader. I also wanted to highlight his leadership qualities—he may be a landless knight, seeking his fortune in England, but he is still worthy of a noblewoman like Isabel.

Pamela: They do seem very well-matched, and I am looking forward to finishing their story.

800px-Mortagne_siege

Siege of Mortagne (Hundred Years War) from a 14th century Flemish manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons.

I am also feeling very pleased with myself for rediscovering the delights of a well-crafted medieval romance. It’s interesting there are some very popular mainstream television series with medieval or medieval-inspired settings, and I have been wondering if we’d start seeing more romance novels that show the influence of Game of Thrones or Vikings, at least in terms of setting, if not theme, but perhaps there is more epic fantasy that uses such settings these days, as opposed to traditional histrom?  I’ve gone back to find Jo Beverley’s medievals – new to me and, as expected, both satisfying and and complex — but I’m also eager for recommendations of newer titles.  Apart from the perennial popularity of Scottish-theme books (which tend to involve castles and claymores, even when set in a later century!), I’m having a hard time coming up with recent traditional medieval romances.  (Happily, Elise is working to fill the void.)

From the publisher, about SIEGE OF THE HEART: He fought for king and country, but that battle was nothing compared to the one he’ll wage for a woman’s heart.

Still reeling from the news of her father’s death during the Norman Conquest, Isabel Dumont is unprepared when trouble arrives at the castle gates. Alexandre d’Évreux, a Norman knight with close ties to England’s new king, has arrived to secure the land and the loyalties of the Dumont family. Desperate to protect her people, Isabel strives to keep the confounding knight at arm’s length and hide the truth about her father’s death.

For Alexandre, the spoils of war come with more than just a generous gift of land. They come with Isabel Dumont. Vowing to marry only for love, Alexandre finds himself in a difficult situation as a conqueror granted dominion over the land and its people. Isabel is the one person capable of helping him win the regard of those living in the war-torn country…if he chooses to accept her.

Just when Alexandre finds a spark of hope that he and Isabel have a chance at love, she vanishes. His quest to find her plunges him deeper into the conquest’s fallout. Was she taken? Or did she leave?

CONTENT WARNING: Entering into this novel may cause extreme affection toward knights of old, admiration for strong-willed women, and the overwhelming belief that love really can conquer all.

SIEGE OF THE HEART is available from Kensington as an e-book in the usual places. I believe a print edition is forthcoming. I’m grateful to the publisher and to Elise for sharing an e-ARC with me.

 

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.

Boston and Badass

I just need to get this off my mind.   It’s an unfinished post I was working on about 2 weeks ago.  Butch O’Neal was going to be my next badass.  I wanted to do a JR Ward hero to add a solid dose of vampire/paranormal romance into the mix, and review a book I actually really liked.  My blog is so new; I’m still trying to get some momentum going and figure out what it’s really going to be about. What will be fun and interesting for me to ponder and post, and what might inspire some sassy and/or intriguing discussion?
BPD barrier
Even though I read Lover Revealed quite a while ago, Butch’s story was among my Black Dagger favorites and this is partly because of the Boston connection.  So there it is… I’ve been completely stalled and distracted, like everyone else who lives in the Boston area, and pretty much haven’t even thought about my new blog for over a week, since before marathon Monday and school vacation week.  When I did think about getting back to the blog, it was with avoidance,  because I knew this was the post I’d find.  Ugh.  I can’t finish it now, and I’m not sure I should post it at all, even with these fragmentary musings.
69058_502345496486795_1485821568_n
I have noticed the term badass all over the place in mainstream coverage and tweeting about the cops in Boston and Watertown.  I can’t tell if I am just noticing it more, or if it is actually being used more. For example, this from a list of media moments compiled by Boston.com’s Radio BDC blog:
IF YOU WERE LISTENING TO THE SCANNER, THIS WILL NOT BE NEWS: WATERTOWN POLICE OFFICERS ARE TOTALLY BADASS.  While waiting for backup, a single Watertown police officer engaged in a shootout with the suspects early Friday morning — and employed a tactic straight out of a Die Hard movie, according to Watertown police chief Edward Deveau. The officer put his car in gear and jumped out of it, hoping they would think he was still in it as he fired from behind a tree, Deveau said.
We tell kids to “look for the helpers” when we’re forced to talk with them about violent and scary events in the news.  I think some of us grown-ups can’t help looking for badass heroes, in much the same way.
25ac2013-hide-and-seek-champions-thumb-535x365-100787
It’s interesting how quickly social media has provided the means for romanticizing key figures in the drama of the last week.  This morning I read this crazy story about how “hot” and badass the Boston FBI head is, based on tweets and other online sources of pop culture buzz.
In case you were buried under a rock, DesLauriers was at the center of the investigation all last week. He stood up at press conferences and said all kinds of badassy stuff, like this: FBI’s DesLauriers ‘We will go to ends of the earth to find those responsible for this despicable crime.”

I was inclined to just ditch my whole post, since it seems pretty cheesy and insensitive to objectify and engage in the “crushing out” on Boston law enforcement in the context of an overwrought fictional world where the Boston cop hero is a vampire.  I have not been directly injured or affected by the terrible events of last week.  I just live here, and my children live here.  The perpetrator is being treated in the hospital where they were born.  Many other strands link us to the places and institutions that have suffered devastating loss and lockdown. For me, Boston Strong is too personal; it’s not just a meme to adopt, analyze and/or deconstruct.   But then I decided to leave the post unfinished and try and make my peace with it by articulating some of this.

I had been especially looking forward to comments on the “poll” question, but now the whole thing just feels completely different.  Real life badass cops chasing and fighting warped evildoers who suddenly — given the scale and grandiose ambition of their actions — resemble nothing so much as Lessers.  Tough to make your peace with that.

Boston Badass

Badass: Brian (Butch) O’Neal, hard-ass Boston cop and long lost descendant of Wrath; re-united with his kin and his kind when he rescues Beth, a female vampire destined to be Queen.

Falls For: Marissa, aristocratic female of impeccable lineage who was not destined to be Queen, but kicks ass in her own right when she takes on the Princeps Council and defeats an attempt to impose misogynist restrictions on female rights and freedoms (the “sehclusion” motion).

Story Recounted By: the incomparable J.R. Ward, in Lover Revealed (2007)

Hangs Out In: V’s lair at the mansion, the ultimate man cave.

Likes:  Schmancy clothes, good Scotch, the Sox .  There are a lot of high end, top shelf brand names in this book.

Dislikes:  Following law enforcement rules when justice is what he’s after; sitting on the sideline when there are Lessers to be Dehstroyed.

Badass Hero Moment: Withstands torture to protect the Brotherhood and its secrets.

To Read Or Not To Read?

Tangentially Related … and Possibly Diverting:  

Pamela Poll:  Boston cops, Boston criminals… there’s a whole sub-genre now of Boston Noir, and it’s not just books.  There are so many great Boston films.  And tv — who can forget Spencer For Hire?!  So…. who are your favorite Boston badasses?

Hungry Like the Wolf

Name: Aidan of Awe, brawny 15th-century Highlander who’s half deamhan (demon?), half immortal Master (savior of Innocence); haunted by his small dead son, he’s a dark, tormented, and merciless warrior feared as the Wolf of Awe.

dark em

Falls For:  Self-described plain and geeky data-whiz Brianna Rose, who has her own paranormal thing going on; as an empath “Brie” is somehow both enthralled with Aidan and brought low by his intense negative emotions.

Story Recounted By: Brenda Joyce, in Dark Embrace, a Masters of Time novel, book one of the Rose Trilogy

Hangs Out In: Cold Scottish castles, packs of wolves, Brianna’s dreams.

Likes:  Lasses with nicknames of French cheese.

Dislikes: Ghosts.

(too) Frequently Described As:   Hot.  We get it, he’s hot.  He would have benefited from a big dose of Showing Not Telling, perhaps via some better dialogue and some perceptible rapport with Brie.

Might Look Like:  I could not get a good mental image of this guy — at least not his face.  As a reader, I find it frustrating, and very telling, when the hero feels so generic to me that I can’t picture a face.  Like the book cover itself, in my mind Aidan was Faceless Bonny Braw Big Shoulder Hero in Kilt.

To Read Or Not To Read?  Too many big questions loomed annoyingly throughout the read.  Why/how is Aidan a shapeshifter, and why a wolf?  Why is this love story so one-sided? (It’s impossible to tell why or how he has feelings for her, but we’re told every couple of pages that she is in love with him).  Why is time travel, and living in centuries not one’s own, so widely practiced and no one is thought odd for wearing designer jeans in medieval Scotland?  I realize this is part of a series, and I mistook the fact that it’s book one of a trilogy, but there are few answers to be had, and apparently any world-building that might have answered at least some of these questions, has happened in an earlier Masters of Time book.  The action and emotion throughout this tale are fever-pitched, yet the real problem is the lack of connection between Aidan and Brianna.  Constant dread, constant lust-think, constant anguish.

Tangentially Related … and Possibly Diverting:  This song just kept popping into my head as I was reading!

Pamela Poll: Do you ever find yourself associating a song with a book as you’re reading it, almost like a mental soundtrack (with or without the accompanying mental image)?  Leave a comment and tell me about it!