Romance 101: Can romance novels turn non-readers into booklovers?

A conversation about teaching, reading and romance with @RomanceProf Jessie Matthews

In the romance reading community we frequently talk about “converting” people. What we usually mean is getting friends or relatives who don’t read romance — and may even disdain romance — to open minds, to discover and enjoy romance novels. We talk about which books to put in the “conversion kit.”  For those who care about such things, there can be immense satisfaction in converting friends or relatives from uninitiated book snobs to romance aficionados.

But what about people who don’t like to read (fiction) at all?  My good friend and fellow romance reader Jessie Matthews teaches “the basics” of reading romance to undergraduates at George Mason University and many of her students arrive at the course not having read a novel since they were last required to in high school.  To get an idea of how she builds the course and chooses the required reading, check out Jessie’s recent star turn in this video and this one for the Popular Romance Project.

ENGH-202-Banner Liotard

Jessie’s course website banner, featuring Jeanne Etienne Liotard’s painting of Marie Adelaide of France (1753), now in the Uffizi, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about my lifelong relationship with the romance genre and the ongoing conversation about how we define what is or isn’t a romance novel, along with musings about how the genre is evolving (younger readers, New Adult, erotica, etc.), I thought it’d be interesting to talk with Jessie about what happens when her reluctant-reader college students meet up with some of the best and/or most widely-discussed novels that romance has to offer.

The truth is I’ve actually been begging Jessie to “visit” Badass Romance since the beginning. Without her cheerleading, pragmatism, and feedback, I’d never have gotten over the hump from thinking about a romance & book blog to actually starting a romance & book blog. Never mind that I had been writing nothing but grants and university administrative wonkery for my dayjob, for nearly two decades. Jessie is one of the true-blue book friends whose encouragement helped me rediscover my love of writing about reading. From the time we met — 10 years ago in an online fan community of booklovers — we have always had the kind of big, exhilarating discussions that get us both excited to read more and do more with our shared love of reading romance.

Jessie jumped in and persuaded her department to support a literature course about romance novels; she’s now a regular at the academic conferences that focus on our genre. It took me a little longer to get around to doing something about romance, but so far, I’m having a lot of fun with the blog and many new friends in the romance twitterverse.  And it is a long-awaited treat and tremendous delight to have Jessie join me to chat about her groundbreaking course.

Pamela: Your course isn’t actually called Romance 101, but are there ways it is kind of like a (mini?) survey course? My (totally guesstimating) sense is that there actually aren’t very many undergraduate courses that teach romance novels in such a concentrated way. At the graduate and post-doctoral level there has been a real explosion of scholarship about romance fiction, from dissertations to documentaries, journals and conferences. But this is using romance fiction to teach undergraduates the fundamentals of textual analysis and composition. What made you decide to try framing a college literature and composition course around the history of the romance novel?

Jessie: I teach best when I am teaching literature that fascinates me, and romance fiction fits that bill. I like the genre’s diversity, its history, and the questions it generates, such as why are romance novels so popular, and, in some circles, still so widely disparaged? But I chose to teach romance novels for a general education literature course, the one–just one–required literature course for undergraduates at my university, to see if studying the genre could change student attitudes toward literature overall.

So many of my students are resistant to anything literary because “literary” equals “difficult” and time-consuming. They proudly boast that they don’t read novels, hate poetry, and rarely, if ever, see a play. I wanted to see if I could change that “group think” and get students reading fiction (as well as poetry—we do a bit of that as well) by choosing a genre whose outsider status in the academy might make it less threatening, and a genre that focuses on a topic that is of great interest to college students: intimate relationships. I guess you could call this a pedagogical bait-and-switch, but so far it has worked.

Pamela: How did you pick the books for the syllabus? Had you read them all when you started out?

Jessie: Aaagghhh!! Choosing texts! It’s the love/hate moment of designing the course. I begin my course planning with maybe 20 novels in mind, all of which I have read and want to teach, and all of which I feel have much to offer my students. Then reality sets in, and I remember that my students will read no more than five to six novels in a 15-week semester, and my buzz vanishes: I know it’s time to get down to business and make the hard choices. In the end, choosing what to teach boils down to novels that are good ambassadors of the genre, novels that showcase a range of literary elements, and novels whose context offers a productive area of exploration for students. Romance fiction offers an abundance of riches for each of these criteria, and having to choose only a few is one of the great drawbacks of teaching the course.

GMU Bookstore 50 Shades Display Feb 2013

George Mason University Bookstore, Feb 2013

The first time I taught the course, I aimed for representation and some points of connection (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary), but I learned that students dig more deeply into the literary aspects of the genre if there is an element that unites all the novels. So the next time I taught the course, I organized it around a theme. I used the Byronic Hero as the focus, and that made it easy to move from Jane Eyre to The Sheik to Rebecca to Fifty Shades of Grey. (This also made it possible to sneak in a little Byron and give my students at least some exposure to poetry). I would have called it the “Badass Hero” course, but you beat me to the punch on that title!

I want to emphasize, however, that there are many, many ways to organize a course like this.  Since my department requires that the class focus on context as well as literary analysis, I could have chosen romance novels that focus on activism (see Kelly’s recent post about social activism in the romance novel). I could also focus on a specific social issue, such as women and body image, where novels Jennifer Cruisie’s Bet Me and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had to Be You would work quite well. I’ve thought about designing a course around a specific subgenre, such as romantic suspense or paranormal romance. Of all the romance subgenres I have taught, these two have generated the most interest in students.

In the end, choosing the novels to teach in my course makes me more aware of what I couldn’t include and how those omissions will affect my students’ grasp of the genre. For example, I am always asking myself if “representation” is even possible in a undergraduate course like mine. Have I really taught the romance novel if I haven’t taught a Regency by Heyer or a Harlequin? I can’t really say yet that students finish my course with a good grounding in the genre. All I can say is that they enjoy the reading experience and liked having their assumptions about romance novels overturned.

Pamela: I was fascinated when you told me virtually none of your students fell for Lord of Scoundrels. Can you share a little bit about your students’ reactions to an iconic historical romance novel like that? And Jane Eyre — how did they fare with my beloved Jane and Rochester? Did they actually read the book or was this one of the ones where students “movie-d” the assignment?

Jessie: Literature challenges my students primarily because of its heightened use of language. Why spend so much time untangling the words in a poem or a novel when you can get the “quick and dirty” about it from Sparks Notes? I want them to grapple with the language, but I needed a way to seduce them into the work first so that I could show them why it’s worthwhile to do so.

Because romance novels end happily (a criterion that is becoming more flexible when assessing romance series), they get painted with a broad brush as formulaic and trite, but romance readers and scholars know that isn’t true; romance fiction is very diverse, including its use of language (even Jane Austen and Helen Fielding differ), so I knew I could introduce a range of texts that represented various literary elements and rhetorical moves, and even literary theory (we cover post-structuralism in Dark Lover) in a way that would gently coax students into the world of literature.

Pamela: OK, I’m guessing they didn’t fall head over heels with Jane and Rochester… But do you think over the several years you’ve been teaching this course, any of your students have become romance “converts”? Have you spawned any serious fangirls or fanboys? Are they aware of and/or participating in the online romance community?

Jessie: So few men take my romance novel course, and of those who did, all but one took it because they thought it would be easy, or it was offered at the time they needed, or they just wanted to meet some women. None of them has become a convert to the romance genre.

But I always have a few women in my course who become enamored of some book and begin reading other romances. When I assigned a Nora Roberts novel, a great many of my students began reading her work. They find her writing compact, her plots appealing, and the characters easy to “relate to.” But I don’t see obsession in those who read Roberts; I see comfort in knowing what Roberts will deliver.

Then there are my “bitten” students who fall in love with a series like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I’ve assigned Dark Lover and Lover Eternal and had plenty of women in the class finish the novel in two days rather than the two weeks I allow for it. Once they’ve embraced the world of the Brothers, they go on to complete three or four books in the series before the semester ends. I can see in their faces that look of obsession, and it’s these students who head to online communities. They come to class telling me facts about the brothers, their shellans, and Ward herself, all gleaned from online communities, and I hear them sharing those facts with each other before class begins. I love hearing them become fluent in the vocabulary of that series (“Because he’s her hellren, that’s why!), but what fascinates me is seeing the joy they experience in becoming an expert about the books. More than a few of them have come up to me several semesters after our course ended to tell me things like, “Hey–The King is coming out in April! Are you going to read it?”

Pamela: I love that. I hope they find their way to some other great series with badass worldbuilding — maybe the steampunk romances of Meljean Brook, or the intense and erotic dystopian Beyond series by Kit Rocha…

I could ask you at least a dozen more questions, but we’ll stop for now since this did turn into yet another longish post. I hope I can convince you to come back for another chat — as you know, I’ve got several topics in mind and I am very keen to get your take on the intersections and exchanges going on between the romance reader/blogger community and academic scholarship about the genre and its readers.  To be continued!

Jessie-Matthews-Romance-Bookshelves-Web

in the office of the romance professor

Defaulting to the Duke: A funny fairytale romance and seeing through and around titles

Making an exception for ROMANCING THE DUKE by Tessa Dare

I keep thinking I’m done with dukes. I read a great deal of historical romance but, like many others, I feel poor old England’s been duked to death with a surfeit of fictional aristocrats. I guess I did also make an exception for Sarah MacLean’s “Killer Duke,” but only because he suited my purposes so well as an example of the “brutal” hero with a violent way of life that is both redeemed and eroticized.

Now along comes an over the top romantic cliche’ of a duke from Tessa Dare: He’s brooding, surly, half blind, and living in sulky squalor at gloomy, bat-infested Gostley Castle. Oh, and he’s also a shining example of the once and forever popular Duke of Slut archetype, with an apparently near-constant cockstand (whenever the heroine is present) and delightfully dirty repartee. (My thanks to @PennyRomance, @IsobelCarr and @SmartBitches for the assist with Duke of Slut research!) He’s joined by our equally predictable heroine, a penniless, writerly spinster who believes she’s inherited said castle and arrives just in time to save him from himself, and turn the keep into a home. It’s book one of Dare’s new “Castles Ever After” series. (The series title alone should tell you this is either saccharine silliness, or it’s going OTT).

I know it sounds too predictably ridiculous, but this book. Cracked. Me. Up. And when I was done laughing, I realized there’s also a lot going on here, some of it very cool and clever.

The Setting Regency England, the aforementioned Gothic ruin of a castle:

‘To Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight, I leave the property known as Gostley Castle.’ Is it pronounced like ‘Ghostly’ or ‘Ghastly’? Either one seems accurate.

Yet Another Duke Ransom William Dacre Vane, Duke of Rothbury

“So while I read, you’re just going to lie there. Like a matron reclining on her chaise longue.”

“No. I’m going to lie here like a duke, reposed in his own castle.”

Yet Another Penniless Spinster Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight

“Oh, but this gift isn’t the same as an ermine. This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”

The Tropes Clever Spinster Left In Poverty By Thoughtless Male Relatives; Wounded, Jilted Duke Doesn’t Trust Women; Loyal & Trustworthy Manservant Aids & Abets the Course of True Love; Female Friendship Where We Might Have Expected Rivalry (absolutely love that she pulled this off!); Spooky, Ruined Castle with Super-Romantic Turret Bedroom; Evil, Scheming Lawyers; Charming Band of Admiring Ordinary People become Main Couple’s Team Romance.

Romancing_the_DukeTruly Madly Deeply Romantic Comedy Romancing the Duke (Avon, January 2014) captivated me in ways I absolutely did not predict. Dare is a master at taking the tired and trite and refashioning it as something that’s somehow hilarious, sweet, and deeper than it seems at first glance. She succeeds because she’s so entirely willing to go over the top in a direction that is two parts farce and two parts sizzle, and she does it without taking anything about the enterprise too seriously. Her light touch results in a thoroughly enjoyable romance and a very satisfying, faux fairytale HEA.

So I’m glad I didn’t let my Put Away Your Dukes policy keep me from reading this. I have been a fan since Dare’s first trilogy, especially Goddess of the Hunt. I just had to google to find out what that trilogy was called, and I’m a little bemused to find …  The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy ..?? But that’s the thing about Dare — she’s always winking at the reader, and with the Spindle Cove series she impressively balances compelling love stories with fun and frothy ensemble romcom.

I do have a few quibbles. It really is a feat to strike the right balance between breathless comedy and compelling romantic tension, and there are a few wrong notes for me. I don’t love horny girl virgin lust-think, especially in a historical romance. This was the chief reason I really didn’t like the Spindle Cove cross-class romance novella that consisted almost entirely of a well-bred young lady ogling and lusting after the hardworking, hard-bodied village blacksmith. And there’s a bit too much of it here, with Izzy’s inner panting about Ransom’s buckskins and boots. I’m sure this actually says more about me and my own internalized heteronormative perspectives on male vs. female maturity and sexuality than about the writing. I can handle the hero’s inner horny adolescent in most cases, especially when it’s accompanied by a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Somehow it doesn’t work for me in reverse, maybe because with this type of heroine it comes across as more clueless and breathless, instead of lusty and funny. Mostly, thank goodness however, there’s a lot of snap-crackle-pop dialogue that’s plenty lusty and funny.

“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It’s never the same twice, do you know that? It’s so intriguing. You’re like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”

“Oh, there’s a cock crowing, all right,” he muttered.

Blind to Love? And then there’s the disability theme here. I’m not sure what I think about the blindness of the hero. Ransom’s visual disability, which is partial and recent — due to an injury sustained in a fight over a woman — is a major plot hinge.  There are a couple of minimal glimpses of self-pitying “you deserve better than me” nonsense, and there’s Izzy’s oddly swoony realization that he’s “overcome” his affliction through intense concentration on mapping the castle and its furnishings by feel. Plus the part about his refusal to eat in front of anyone, which causes a train wreck of a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get Ransom to “accept” help.

On the up side, there’s a whole back-and-forth theme running through the novel, about who, exactly, is “saving” who.  She’s penniless and fainting from hunger as the novel opens, and he picks her up in his strong arms and revives her in dashing romance-hero style. At the end of the story she is saving him emotionally, from himself  and his wounded isolation. He’s saving her, emotionally and sexually, from an oppressive and repressive public image as “England’s Storybook Girl” (more about that anon). She’s also, with his permission, “rescuing” him from the aspects of his disability he truly cannot overcome without aid (she reads and scribes for him), and which almost lead to a disastrous end (his lawyers have been skimming funds and selling property out from under him, while he’s been moping around ignoring his mail).

It’s frankly hard for me to tell whether all this comes across successfully as part of the ironic exploration of over-used romance conventions, or merely re-produces an unwelcome set of disability dynamics. Unlike other disabilities, blindness also works as an easy metaphor in romance — he can’t see her, but in the end, when he acknowledges his love for her he’s the only one who really sees her… for who she is… her inner beauty…. etc etc. I did like the fact that neither his blindness nor Izzy’s “plainness” are reversed in order for them to love or to HEA. And the question of Izzy’s appearance remains open-ended, which is also refreshing — there is no cheesy miracle recovery enabling Ransom to see her with his eyes and tell her, and us, that she’s really actually a paragon of beauty.

The Enduring Appeal of Gothic Tales Overall, I think the first half of the novel is cracking good fun and I loved the blend of frankly bawdy banter with burgeoning awareness between Izzy and Ransom of each other’s isolation and deep loneliness. In spite of the apparent effervescence, there are difficult emotions surfacing and real shadows lurking — poverty, neglect, exploitation.

Things decelerate and get more sentimental after they start having actual sex and figure out that someone is out to steal the duke’s fortune and title by having him declared incompetent. The final section of the story is a bit like a caper, as they join forces with Duncan (the trusty manservant) and Abigail (the friend from the village) and a roving band of enthusiastic LARPers, to prove the lawyers are defrauding the estate and the duke is neither insane nor unfit.

And yet in spite of the sentimentality, this is where I really got hooked. It was the nutty LARPers that did me in. You see, our heroine, Izzy Goodnight, is not just any old penniless, bookish spinster.  She’s a celebrity.  She has a dual identity as both the inspiration for a leading character in England’s best-selling serialized fairytale, and the daughter of its wildly famous author (recently deceased). The Goodnight Tales are the 19th-century equivalent of, say, a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings phenomenon, set in the fictional world of Moranglia, and featuring a princess in a tower, a dark brooding hero, and a Shadow Knight villain. Izzy is ambivalent about her public image as “England’s precious innocent.” She lusts, she’s pissed off at the injustice of her financial situation (her male cousin got everything), and she’s more steel than satin, with a hidden history of strength and unheralded accomplishment. Yet she is never cynical, and neither is this novel, in spite of the element of farce.

The existence of a massive Moranglian fandom, complete with LARPing knights and maidens, could easily have been the big joke here. Ransom is amused and mocking at first, while Izzy drops into character (“Good Sir Wendell, please be at ease. I’ll come thither anon!”) to welcome the clankingly costumed Knights of Moranglia and Cressida’s Handmaidens, who’ve tracked her down on the way to a re-enactment and encampment.  The “fancy-dress fools” are figures of fun, but in the end, it’s a shared belief in doing the right thing – sheer old-fashioned honor and loyalty – that forge bonds of trust and mutual respect between the ill-tempered duke and his newfound fans.

“Make up as many stories as you wish. Just don’t make me the hero in them.”

Of course the Moranglians, like the reader, can see plainly that he’s the romance hero — I loved how cleverly and yet simply Dare accomplished all this, without over-writing or over-thinking it.

“Even if you did read my father’s stories, I doubt you’d enjoy them. They require the reader to possess a certain amount of…”

“Gullibility?” he suggested. “Inexperience? Willful stupidity?”

“Heart. They require the reader to possess a heart.”

There are knowing winks and nods to medieval romance from Lord Tennyson to Laura Kinsale, but the meta-story is an unabashed appreciation and celebration of gallant deeds and happy endings.

“You don’t have to admire my father’s stories,” she said. “But don’t disparage the readers, or the notion of romance.”

Defaulting to the Duke? I so appreciate a book that can make me laugh, even as it’s teasing out something fundamentally important about the nature of fiction and fandom, romance and reading. I don’t even mind so much about the surfeit of dukes anymore, at least not in the context of a book that’s thoughtful and genuine. I recognize Euro- and Anglo-centric romances about white aristocrats offer a privilege-reinforcing fantasy for some readers. There’s no doubt the genre will be better off as we see more and more historical romances about other kinds and colors of people.

Bitch Media published a great interview with the Love in the Margins team from last week that provided an interesting foil – and rich array of other options – as I pondered the pros and cons of the mainstream dukely regency, which has become such a dominant default in the genre.  I’m still ambivalent about it overall. But a cleverly told fairytale is always welcome, and who wants to live in a world where readers are disparaged for the books they enjoy — as long as those readers, and the writers of such books, are willing to interrogate their choices?

ROMANCING THE DUKE is available from Avon in the usual formats and places. I received a copy from the publisher as part of the Avon Addicts program, in exchange for an honest review.

THE ANNOTATED TBR: Winter Reviews & Recommendations

Here’s another round-up of books from my TBR — women of endurance, breaking down gender & war is hell

Some of these are actually sitting on my shelves and some are on my mental list, waiting to be purchased or checked out, depending on the relative levels of my patience and my budget.  The idea is sort of an annotated TBR for myself (to help with the “now WHY was I thinking I wanted to read this…?”), with links to the reviews and reviewers most responsible for fueling the out-of-control growth of my reading aspirations.

HILD by Nicola Griffith  reviewed by Natalie over at Radish Reviews  A historical novel that shatters conventional wisdom about the lives of ordinary women is based on the life of a medieval saint who lived at the court of King Edwin in 7th centrury England? With strong female communities plus a focus on material culture (textiles and tapestries)? Yay!  Back in my own Dark Ages (college) I studied English medieval architecture, and even read me some Venerable Bede, and I still harbor a lingering fascination with the “strange but true” tales of anchoresses and abbesses and other female acts of virtue (or vice) deemed important enough to find their way into the written record.  Natalie has mentioned this book on twitter often enough that it’s pretty much topping my wishlist right now. And then there’s the reviewer at NPR who says this book shatters the myth that women of the middle ages were too oppressed to make interesting subject matter for historians. I’m curious to see for myself how this work of meticulously researched historical fiction might “read” like fantasy. For some reason I want Hild to look and act a little bit like Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones, but since I haven’t read this book yet I should probably refrain from ‘dream casting’.

REVOLUTIONARY by Alex Myers I am eager to read this not because of a particular review, but because once I saw it reviewed a couple of places, it just sounded like a book I need to read. RevWar history is one of my side obsessions. I live less than a mile from the path Paul Revere’s horse trod out to Lexington on April 19th, 1775  and last summer I tracked down the grave (in Blacksburg, Virginia) of an ancestor who served as a private in a Maryland regiment and, according to family lore, witnessed the surrender of the British at Yorktown. This novel tells the story of Deborah Sampson, a woman who hid her gender and fought as a man in the American Revolution. Alex Myers himself has experience living both male and female lives; he was recently interviewed by The Daily Beast about the book, and his life as a female-to-male transgender person. Of course this seems to be a big part of the buzz around this book, but it’s really not the main reason I’m interested in reading it. I am always on the hunt for a well-told Revolutionary tale and I’m hoping this one will soon have a place of honor on my Best Of Minutemen shelf.

AncillaryJustice

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie   reviewed by Janine Ballard at Dear Author This is pretty far outside my usual territory, but Janine’s review grabbed my attention since she loved it so much and I consider her the right kind of tough critic. Also, she’s read Outlander and is willing to entertain a deconstructionist conversation about whether or not it’s a romance, so when she talks about falling “headlong” into a novel it makes me think something pretty interesting must be going on. So even though this is science fiction, and the protagonist is an artificial intelligence who may or may not be female, it sounds like this is a novel about relationships, loyalties, and the construction of gender, and I am happy to have a hold request for this book pending at my library.

THE SHATTERED ROSE by Jo Beverley  I’ve been thinking a lot about JoBev recently, thanks partly to Janet Webb, who is a fellow appreciator and fans the flames of my Malloren/Rogues obsessions.  I’ve read nearly all of Beverley’s canon, but none of the medievals. When I posted about Lucien hitting Beth in An Unwilling Bride, the ensuing discussion revealed that The Shattered Rose also involves jealous anger and violence between hero and heroine.  Because Beverley can always be counted on to be challenging, even in the context of an engaging and absorbing romance, I’m very curious to see how this plays out in a medieval setting, especially with the story told from the hero’s POV.  A brief review and summary are here, at The Romance Reader.

THE OUTCASTS by Kathleen Kent I just feel like reading something western.  Also, Kent is the author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Heretic’s Daughter, both of which rank among the most beautiful and haunting historical novels I’ve read in decades. Possibly ever. Set in and around Puritan Andover and Salem in the years prior to the witch hunts, the former is so achingly romantic I reviewed it as a romance even though it is so not a Happy Ever After story. It was a beautiful HFN, though. Sigh. But on to Texas, and a book that sounds possibly even more menacing — a ruthless prostitute on the run from the law (after escaping from a brothel where she was a virtual prisoner).  In the Salem novels Kent’s portrayal of frontier justice and hard women chafing in the cages society places around them was breaththaking and I found I quite liked her female protagonists’ rough edges. Since the Dallas Morning News did not seem to like her very much, I’m very curious about Lucinda, and what happens when she runs into a Texas Ranger tracking a murderer. I’m a little afraid I may not like her, I’m not sure it’s going to be romantic, and I’m definitely not betting on an HEA, but I am definitely going to read this book.  

In fact, several of these books are making me think about female characters who are unsympathetic in one way or another. Since I haven’t yet read them, I can’t speak to their likeability but sometimes unlikeable heroines are actually my favorite kind.

Happy reading!

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).

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.

Jax & Tara: So Charming, and talk about a violent romance…

In which we veer Off Topic for a thought or two. Off the topic of books, that is, but not off the topic of violence and romance. Which have been connected since…. well, since forever, probably, but certainly since Shakespeare…

Up until last week it still seemed vaguely plausible to read SONS OF ANARCHY, possibly the most self-consciously badass show on television, as a contemporary romance with an uber violent motorcycle club setting.  As most SOA fans know, the show, created and authored by Kurt Sutter with his wife Katey Sagal in a leading role, is also quite self-consciously Shakespearean.

At the center is Jax (Hamlet), tormented by doubts about the criminal activity of the club founded by his dead father, and forced to seize the kingship from his murdering “uncle” Clay (Claudius), who had married his mother the queen, Gemma (Gertrude).  But apart from Jax/Hamlet, the show has always been more of a Shakespeare melange than a linear re-interpretation of any one play.  Female characters in particular are less obvious, and I’ve always felt that there were rather too many Ophelias ending up in madness and disaster (and not all of them female — Opie? Juice?).  And there’s a lot of Lady MacBeth in Gemma’s ruthless clannishness and opportunism.

Maggie Siff and Charlie Hunnam as Tara and Jax

Maggie Siff and Charlie Hunnam as Tara and Jax

Since the beginning six seasons ago, there’s also been a central, hot romance — the story of young lovers Jax and Tara (Ophelia #1?). In Romeo and Juliet fashion, they frequently act (hastily) on misinformation.

SPOILERS – don’t read further if you plan to watch and haven’t yet seen all of season 6.

I won’t review or summarize the episode or the nested storylines and plot twists leading up to it, but I couldn’t let last week’s season finale pass without comment. Of course this show is not a romance. It’s a testosterone-soaked adrenaline-rushed FX show aimed, at least on the surface, at the edgier side of the male action-adventure audience. It’s not my usual cup of tea. Except, curiously, that it is. There’s something about the central romantic conflict between angst-y Jax and sullen Tara, and the quasi-feudal bonds of love and loyalty among the club brothers.  But if anything, Jax and Tara have always been doomed lovers, and I doubt many viewers actually thought there would be an HEA for them. The reason I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them in the context of my recent (and very sporadic) blogging, is because this complicated couple represents a violent romance where the violence wins. And wins big. Tragically and horrifically big.

Not only is there no impossible, breath-taking, last-minute escape into the HEA for this couple, but here, in a ridiculously-named fictional California town called Charming, the heroine is murdered by the wicked queen in a crazy bloodbath that ends with the hero – the erstwhile Prince of Charming –  looking like the perp.

Which kind of makes me realize how truly fantastical and alchemical a well-written suspenseful and violent romance novel is.  I’m thinking about books like The Turncoat, subject of my initial post about violence in romance; the spy novels of Joanna Bourne, or other historicals with wartime settings; badass steampunk sagas like the Iron Seas series by Meljean Brook; or even something like Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series set partly in the grimy underbelly of Victorian London. Not to mention the current crop of biker-themed contemporary romances. How utterly and magnificently far-fetched that the romance genre can  proffer dark and gritty settings rife with violent characters, heroes and heroines who may have all manner of violent skills, attributes, propensities or histories, on the one hand, while on the other hand guaranteeing, for the central couple anyway, true love, redemption, and a Happy Ever After.

Tara’s gruesome demise, foreshadowed so many many times as she kept trying to rationalize her decision to live within the violence of the club, and then flailed around with bizarre false-pregnancy plotting and other doomed efforts to get out and get a fresh start, is in many ways a much more logical ending for a love story between two characters steeped in such a culture of routine criminal activity and violence.

What really stood out here, though, was the way this particular murder was feminized. Drug-altered Gemma (sleepwalking like Lady MacB??), having been fed misinformation by a hapless secondary character (Retired sheriff Unser, who has been compared to the monk in Romeo and Juliet), believes she must do “what we have to do” to eliminate Tara as a threat to the club. Surprising Tara in the kitchen, she uses the weapons at hand — an iron, a sink full of water, and a large grilling fork — to brutally attack and kill her daughter-in-law. No guns (even though Gemma would always have been packing), and not even a knife. Just the domestic detritus of a messy kitchen. Both Tara and Gemma had rejected the traditional “old lady” role and the relegation to the domestic sphere that goes with it — Tara was a successful surgeon (until one of Clay’s murderous schemes ended up maiming her hand a couple of seasons ago) and Gemma as the biker queen never stayed out of club business even though she wasn’t ever afforded a seat at the Table. This was not their first physical conflict, and both have had moments of fighting tooth and nail with other female antagonists. As much as Tara resisted, she had been effectively schooled by Gemma in the Charm(ing) School of Kill Or Be Killed.

Sons of Anarchy Season 4

Maggie Siff (Tara) and Katey Sagal (Gemma); FX publicity image, via ugo.com

It was also intriguing that earlier in the episode Gemma was in the same kitchen (Jax and Tara’s), scrubbing the sink and then telling Juice she just had to do something to get the place clean for Jax because Tara wasn’t great at housework. At that time they believed Tara was on the run, escaping into witness protection with Jax’s two small sons. Was Gemma’s sudden cleaning obsession a version of “out, out, damn’d spot”? Her guilt even then, before she’s done the darkest of deeds, about the lies she’s had to tell herself to justify raising her two sons to be gangster biker stone-cold killers?

I haven’t read any of the new(ish) crop of motorcycle club contemporary romances, and have yet to read the much-discussed Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley (actually I’m not sure I will read it). So I can’t speak to the direct or indirect influence of Sons of Anarchy on the romance genre, but there is SAMCRO romance fanfic to be found, and plenty of posts recommending biker romances for fans of the show, like this one from Heroes and Heartbreakers.  And there are some intriguing literary and/or feminist readings of the show itself that have fueled my pondering of Sutter’s curiously potent blend of romance, violence, Shakespeare, and gender-based tropes — I found this and this especially interesting. Also if you watch the show and like to read review/commentary, the recaps at Television Without Pity are not to be missed.

I remain in awe of the power of romance novels. A good romance novel is pure alchemy, turning the base metal of genre conventions and oft-repeated plots into solid gold, and making us believe romance can trump violence and dysfunction, in spite of what we know to be true about the challenging world in which we live. Watching this season of doomed biker romance reminded me just how powerful — how truly badass — a good romance read is.

This is likely my last post for 2013, so Happy New Year from Badass Romance! The blog isn’t quite a year old yet. I’ve learned many things as a newbie blogger, including how challenging it is to make regular posts and how hard for me to write concise posts…. thanks to all who have visited and taken the time to read and comment. I look forward to continuing the conversations in 2014!

Sarah MacLean’s Killer Duke and Eroticizing the Thrill of the Fight (a little violence with your romance, Part 2)

In the third installment of Sarah MacLean’s RULE OF SCOUNDRELS series, a hero meditates on bare knuckles, violence, and identity

In the clearing stands a Boxer William Harrow, Duke of Lamont, called Temple. He’s got tantalizing tattoos, bruising ways, and an identity crisis.

And a Dead Girl Miss Mara Lowe, wealthy heiress gone underground and posing as the widowed Mrs. MacIntyre, head of an exclusive yet impoverished home for orphaned boys. She’s got auburn hair, street smarts, and way too many secrets.

The Setting Regency London:  MacIntyre’s Orphanage and the Fallen Angel gaming hell and boxing club.

Some Beloved and/or Familiar Tropes Hero Wronged by Heroine and Seeking Retribution; Heroine Faking Own Death as Means of Escape; Angst-y, Tortured Hero; Heroine with False Identity; Lovable Adolescent Lads and Hero Who Mentors; Worldly, Knowing French Dressmaker; Strange Bargain Struck Between Hero and Heroine Requiring Humiliating and/or Arousing Wardrobe Selection Outing; Reckless, Foolish, and Selfish Sibling Who Causes Most of Heroine’s Problems; Genteel Heroine Making Sacrifices and Running an Orphanage; Hero Camaraderie and Bromance with Other Badass Heroes In the Series; Adork-able Unusual Pet Thrown In For Good Measure.

Brought to you by Sarah MacLean, in No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (Avon, releasing on November 26, 2013)

How About a Little Violence with Your Romance?  Since my previous post on this subject, I continue to think a lot about the many intersections of violence and violent behavior with plot and character development in the romance genre. When I received NO GOOD DUKE, and re-encountered the mysterious bruiser called Temple who has appeared in the prior novels in the series, I decided to jump on the promo bandwagon and read it right away this month. This is a hero who has made his way in the world by using his brute force to subdue enemies, opponents, and his own inner demons.

In my other post, I basically asked a lot of questions and identified several different ways I think violence (non-sexual) functions as part of the romance genre’s stock-in-trade. I originally got stuck thinking about grim and graphic torture scenes — is there a comfort zone with violence in romance, and are there limits to that comfort? I also wondered about villain POV and violent fantasizing (yuck, this is my least favorite thing to read); hero and heroine in peril and on- or off-screen violence; secondary characters harmed or killed to elevate threat level; and expectations that heroes be capable of protecting themselves and others via the use of force. Astute commenters proposed additional angles including violence between H/h and the connection between amped up violence and increased explicit sexual content. Running throughout the discourse are questions surrounding the genre’s use (reliance?) of “acceptable” violence, badass heroes who never back down from a fight, and the ways in which a hero’s capacity for violence may be eroticized. Enter Sarah MacLean’s Temple, who is No Good Duke.

This is a book that unabashedly celebrates the sexy of the violent hero, even as it questions his objectification in the boxing ring and the prurient female gaze. Although he’s a brute, he’s a good man unjustly punished.

And in spite of Temple’s violent history, the actual violence in this book is well within a comfort zone for historical romance. It’s all about the character development — this is a master class in using the hero’s POV and reflections, along with the heroine’s observation (and that of other women) of his body at rest and in motion, to inextricably link his hotness with his violence, without having him actually cross the invisible hero line or take the reader beyond what might be called a normalized level of violence for historical romance.

Like many a hero in any historical setting, Temple will gladly deliver a brutal street beatdown if it’s justified (eg. protecting or rescuing), and it goes without saying that this behavior is presented in a positive light. And yes, I do think it’s meant to be sexy. Mara finds it so. Here’s Temple schooling the orphanage boys and subtexting:

“Protection.” Temple’s knuckles still ached from the night of Mara’s attack. He looked to her, grateful for her safety. “That’s the very best reason to fight.”

Her cheeks pinkened and he found he enjoyed the view. (p. 149)

But if he beats down opponents in the ring on a nightly basis for a living, or seems regrettably habituated to breaking other people’s ribs, anything un-heroic about that is offset by Temple’s own misgivings and meditations on fighting, hurting, and truth.

He fought for the moment when he was nothing but muscle and bone, movement and force, sleight and feint. For the way brutality blocked the world beyond, silencing the thunder of the crowd and the memories of his mind, and left him with only breath and might.

He fought because, for twelve years, it was in the ring alone that he knew the truth of himself and of the world.

Violence was pure, all else tainted. (pp.5-6)

By contrast, when we see Temple via Mara’s POV, his fighter’s body and the traces of violence it bears give rise to impure thoughts. On the one hand there is Mara’s “legitimate” desire, expressed through touch in the intimacy he allows as she binds his wounds.

“I want the rest of the story. You became unbeatable.”

His bad hand flexed against her hip. “I was always good at violence.”

Her hands moved of their own volition, sliding across his wide, warm chest. He was magnificently made, she knew, the product of years of fighting. Not simply for sport, but for safety.

“It was my purpose.”

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “It wasn’t.” (p.320)

On the flip side, and more interesting, is the way MacLean touches on the heteronormative objectification of male violence and the prurience inherent in the Fallen Angel’s winning business model, which incorporates a women-only one-way mirrored viewing gallery alongside the ring, where ladies of all classes mingle, wearing masks, for ogling.  It’s an interesting, possibly ahistorical, element that can be read as a sort of equal-rights mitigation for the overall setting and the gaming hell’s undoubted, unavoidable exploitation of the feminine charms of certain of its employees. (Heroes who run gaming hells always seem to do it in the least sexist way possible.)

“Any minute now,” a feminine sigh came from several yards away, and the entire room – on both sides of the window – seemed to still, waiting.

They were waiting for Temple.

And Mara found that she, too, was waiting.

Even though she hated him.

And then he was there, filling the doorway as though it were cut to his size, broad and tall and big as a house, bare from the waist up, wearing only those scandalous tattoos and buckskin breeches fitted to his massive thighs, and the long linen strips she’d wrapped along the hills and valleys of his knuckles and around the muscles of his thumb and wrist as she tried not to notice his hands. (p. 179)

This is from a lengthy and pivotal scene at the midpoint of the novel. (I don’t want to say more about the twist-y plot negotiations that go on between the couple here because it’d be spoilerish.) MacLean begins by eliding  Mara’s desiring gaze with that of the other women in the gallery, but quickly pulls her heroine away into quite a different emotional space:

“I’d risk a night with the Killer Duke to find out!”

The laughter fairly shook the room, nearly all of the women taking immense pleasure from the words – from their own additions to the lewd suggestions. Mara looked down the room, at the long row of silks and satins and perfect coifs and maquillage, and the way the women fairly salivated at Temple, remembering his moniker but not the truth of it – that he was a duke. That he deserved their respect.

And that, even if he weren’t a duke … he wasn’t an animal. (p.181)

What’s also rather masterful is that all this bobbing and weaving around the romance convention of a hero who’s a sexy beast of a violent badass dude, but really a good guy, is happening sort of on a meta level that entwines with the plot, which centers on Temple’s mistaken and undeserved infamy as a brutal murderer. Known to all of London as the “Killer Duke,” he’s been tried and convicted of Mara’s murder in the court of public opinion, and has never been received or accepted in his rightful ducal role. Yet the reader knows from the start that he’s not a killer, that his life of violence began in exile and survival and has flourished as a form of self-destructive, pain-numbing expiation of sins not committed.

At the orphanage again:

“Well. This is a treat. It’s not every day a duke gives up his title to take on work.”

“I hear it happens quite often in novels,” Temple said. (p. 141)

Temple has taken on more than work in response to the loss of his reputation — he’s simultaneously reduced himself to the basest survival skill and raised it to a form of contemplation and sacrifice. His face and body are textured with scarring and traces of fractures. Mara’s gaze on his scars, her attention to his past and present injuries, become her means of approach and connection. Temple and Mara share a dark and too-familiar knowledge of grievous injury and bodily harm and seeing this in each other engenders the beginning of forgiveness and redemption for both. 

early 19th centry gloves

via History Hoydens

Bare knuckles bare a lot This novel makes much of the sexy dissonance of a manor-born duke as a bare-knuckle brawler. Mara lavishes care on the bruised hands which have served him as weapons and tools of destruction yet touch her with only gentleness and grace. I loved how, in return, Temple attunes himself to observing Mara’s hands. One of the first chinks in his armor of anger at her deceptions and secrets appears when he notices that she has no gloves. He begins to know something about her hardscrabble life as he observes her work-roughened hands. She binds his hands in linen; he buys her gloves. This is something else they share. Capable, somewhat battered hands may not seem like a sexy detail, but I loved the chemistry MacLean created with these parallels.  

In a sense the violence of NO GOOD DUKE, both that which is depicted and that which is inferred, becomes a form of redemptive suffering, and not just for Temple. Mara is a survivor, and not just of her own “murder.” To say more would involve spoilers, and this post is already over-long. I will just conclude by saying I loved going more than a few rounds with this couple; although I started out focusing on Temple’s “violence is pure” rhetoric, I quickly got caught up in their stories and their romance.

Disclosures I received an advance copy of  NO GOOD DUKE GOES UNPUNISHED from Avon, in exchange for an honest review and as part of the Addicts program, along with a sweet little swag deck of cards — so I can pretend I’m gambling at the Fallen Angel, presumably.  As an intermittent blogger, I may be the most slacker Addict ever, and have wondered seriously in recent months whether I should stop taking the free books. 

no good duke

It seemed like a good idea at the time, back in May when I was even less sure than I am now how this blogging thing was going to evolve. I think this is the first time I’m even attempting a post to coincide with a release week. But how could I not? This book is practically a treatise on writing a sympathetic violent hero, and raises all kinds of interesting questions.

Also, I’m a MacLean fan. The books are so much better than the silly titles, and perhaps that’s part of the fun. And I met her at the NECRWA conference book-signing last spring, so there’s a bit of fangirl squee to acknowledge — I know she’s charming in person as well. Last but well worth revisiting – she’s a badass advocate for the genre.

THE ANNOTATED TBR: an autumn collection of recommendations and reviews from some of my favorite bloggers

Some badass book reviewers and my overly hopeful list of books for late fall reading…

I’m trying out a new feature, which looks to be an occasional round-up of great reviews of books from my TBR. The idea is sort of an annotated TBR for myself (to help with the “now WHY was I thinking I wanted to read this…?”), with links to the reviews and reviewers most responsible for fueling the out-of-control growth of the pile.

This is also a way for me to share my enthusiasm for the art of the book review itself, and the incredible writing I’m so enjoying as I spend more time in the Romanceland bloggiverse.

I used to read reviews only after finishing a book, as a way of interrogating my own response, checking in with fellow readers, and and having some kind of “dialogue” about it. But since starting the blog I’ve discovered that many of the best conversations about the genre, and the romance reading experience, are happening in and around reviews and related comments threads. I’m reading lots of reviews for books I’ll probably never read.

So here are some fantastic essays about books I do want to read. And even if you don’t think the book sounds up your alley, be sure and check out the links, because these reviews are outstanding, insightful and fun reading in their own right.

THE GRAND SOPHY, by Georgette Heyer: Over at Something More, Liz takes another look at a classic Heyer, or rather, another listen. The Comments here are so good — I’m both inspired to do more re-reads of vintage and classic authors, and a little afraid of what I’ll find I may have been willing to overlook in a romance that I’d find egregious in other genres, or in a book published today. With this throwback review, Liz and her discussants dig into Heyer’s anti-Semitic characterization of the villain, and how interpretation and response may be variable when listening as opposed to reading the printed page.

LOVE, CONTINUANCE, AND INCREASING, by Julian Griffith: And then for a Regency which, I imagine, might make dear Miss Heyer blush. Natalie at Radish Reviews has written an intriguing and very persuasive review of a historical menage romance, which, actually, really makes me want to read it. It’s not the polyamorous part that makes me need persuading, it’s the historical part. I mean I know historical people had all kinds of intimacy just as people do now, but to make a menage work as a romance I have to believe in the love story and suspend disbelief about the practicalities involved in setting up housekeeping and achieving the HEA. Which is a LOT harder to do within the confines of a historical setting. But Natalie’s review gives Griffith kudos on this very challenge, along with the emotional intimacy, so I am definitely intrigued, in spite of the slightly creepy cover art and the fact that she didn’t love the ending.

RIVETED, by Meljean Brook: Nicola of AlphaHeroes is one of my favorite romance reviewers. She’s not posting new reviews this fall, but her weekly Sunday Soup posts are newsy, intelligent, sometimes opinionated summaries of Romanceland chatter and buzz …. and for an autumnal reading suggestion I love this review from September 2012 of the third book in Brook’s Iron Seas series. I’ve only read The Iron Duke (book one), which I found impressive, fascinating, and flawed. Nicola says RIVETED is the best of the three, so I’m planning to check it out.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, by Sandra Antonelli: I’ve been wanting to read this “older heroine” romance ever since I learned from twitter that Antonelli is doing her doctoral dissertation on the subject of representations of women and age in romance fiction. It takes alchemy to turn academic writers into romance novelists, and sometimes the wonk factor is much too evident, but Read React Review Jessica’s marvelous review (a guest post at Radish Reviews) has only moved this higher up on my TBR.

A LADY’S SECRET WEAPON, by Tracey Devlyn: If Miss Bates (Miss Bates Reads Romance) says Devlyn’s Regency spy romance beats out Joanna Bourne for delivering emotional and exciting historical suspense with a full and satisfying HEA, this is a book I need to read. I find myself so often in agreement with MissB (though never expressing myself with such clarity or elegance!) that I feel compelled to investigate further. I am a great admirer of Bourne’s beautiful Spymaster series and if MissB is calling my spies out with this polite yet clear challenge, I need to see what’s what! Also, Devlyn’s novel has just been nominated for an RT award for Best Innovative Historical Romance of 2013.

And finally, for the sheer pleasure of reading a great review of a book NOT receiving a recommendation, you can’t do better than Miss Bates’s delightfully proper yet hilariously underwhelmed post on THROUGH THE SMOKE by Brenda Novak.

So that’s what I’m hoping to read between now and the New Year (ha! As if.) – what about you? And what about book reviews? Do you enjoy reading them in their own right, even if it’s not a book you’re likely to read?

Scare Tactics: How About a Little Violence with Your Romance?

This is a post-in-progress, which is to say it’s an invitation to a discussion….  

I’m still thinking through the questions I want to explore, and I’m hoping one or two fellow readers and/or bloggers will be willing to help me kick this around a little bit.  What’s your comfort level with graphic violence in romance fiction?  Does your level of ease/unease change according to the setting or sub-genre?

My previous post was a rave review for Donna Thorland’s The Turncoat.  I think — although I’m by no means able to state this with any kind of statistical certainty — that it’s more violent than most histrom novels I’ve read.  It’s a wartime romance, and the protagonists are engaged in espionage and counter-espionage on opposing sides. There are several scenes involving physical and psychological torture (of known and/or suspected spies, of ordinary citizens for the purposes of intimidation by the occupying British) that were intense enough to remind me of novels and films well outside the romance genre – painful WWII stories with Nazis, or at one point even the cable drama Homeland, which is sort of a maze-like essay on spying, love, illusion and torture. I thought perhaps the novel Thorland most evoked for me, in terms of the use of violence and fear as a theme in a love story, might be Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which some detractors dislike for its graphic no-holds-barred narrative (that’s the original cover from 1991, when it was published looking very much like a trad romance novel).

In a way, the grittiness of Thorland’s wonderful novel was oddly refreshing to my historical sensibilities, because I love this period and setting so much, and she made it a very real, very dangerous place and time, with safe domestic harbors few and far between. But there are other romance novels set in this period, even ones involving the spy networks, that don’t place the brutality of wartime so much at the forefront. It’s got me thinking about violence in the romance genre, and the delicate balance required to incorporate graphic episodes in a form of storytelling that is a lot about escape, fantasy, and happy endings.

We talk a lot about how rape or the threat of rape functions in romance, from “rapey” heroes and dubious consent to rape culture and assumptions about women who read BDSM erotica. These are important discussions, and what I’m talking about is certainly connected to these issues. But I’m pondering violence in romance more broadly — what do we find acceptable, and how does what we find acceptable change according to the different sub-genres or settings of particular novels? What about non-sexual violence?

Heroes are often called upon to be badass and perform a beatdown on the villain, or to annihilate random thugs. This is equally true in a Stephanie Laurens Regency or a Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy from JR Ward. In some cases the heroine is also capable of delivering the beatdown – see for example Joanna Bourne’s female spies. Do we expect a certain level of badassery and capacity for violence in the hero across the romance genre? Do we look for a similar capacity in the heroine in selected contexts?

And what of violence and the threat of violence against hero and heroine? How much is too much? How much are we willing to let happen to our protagonists? And whatever has happened to them or whatever they endure, what level of detail are we willing to experience along with them?

If you’re still with me, I’m really curious to know what you think about the way violence gets used and incorporated in romance novels. Do you prefer the suspense to build via allusions to offscreen violence? Character development via potentially violent and/or abusive episodes from the past, not the present space of the novel? What about the function of plot devices such as last-minute rescues, subjecting a secondary character to violence to intensify the sense of danger to H/h, or going inside the villain’s head for sections or chapters involving evil deeds and/or graphically violent fantasies?

Even romance novels that are frothy and fun sometimes utilize danger or the threat of violence to drive the story. How does that work? When a novel is light in tone, how do authors elevate suspense if there is a plot involving hero or heroine in peril? I reviewed The Pirate Lord by Sabrina Jeffries a while back, and I struggled a bit with the romp-ish tone of the book given grim subject matter (pirates kidnap convict ship carrying female prisoners, for forced marriages so they can make a utopian community on a deserted island). Do some romance sub-genres depend on the element of danger as a plot device, yet avoid graphic depictions of violent crimes? How does this work without trivializing the emotional impact of fear, stress, etc. or reducing violent acts to the level of cartoonish evildoers?

Or are all these questions sort of meaningless since as readers we tend to instinctively choose books that will meet our needs within our comfort zone on several important measures? In romance fiction, people seem to frequently make choices based  on subgenre, “sensuality rating,” and the opinions of trusted recommenders. Perhaps level of violence, like level of explicit sexual content, is something about which we make instinctive judgments, thereby avoiding books that will make us uncomfortable? Or are we willing to tolerate more variability with violence, from book to book?

Finally, are there loose conventions that guide us as readers — that is, does level of violence correlate with particular subgenres within romance? Do you expect a certain amount of danger in paranormals or urban fantasy because of the use of suspense plots, while contemporaries tend to offer less violent forms of danger? What about historical romance? Are certain settings likely to involve more graphic violence, or just different types of violence — eg. the ritualized violence of the duel?

dsafda

Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, 1975
via amovieaweek.com