Road Warriors

ONLY HIS: Elizabeth Lowell’s badass Rocky Mountain westerns and reading on the road

The Badass: Caleb Black, mythic gunslinger in black, the Man from Yuma with a badass reputation as wide and wild as the West itself. He’s feared for his ruthless skill with weapons and survival skills but he earns respect for his decency, restraint, and sense of justice.

The Lady:  Willow Moran, West Virginian horse whisperer, survivor of the war-torn heartland, steel magnolia. He calls her “southern lady” but she’s tough as nails underneath the blond hair and husky drawl.

Only His (Only Series, #1)Brought To You By: Elizabeth Lowell, in Only His (2003, Avon (originally published 1996); also available as a 2009 e-book from HarperCollins. First of 4 novels in the ONLY series.

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Escaping the ravages of the Civil War, a gently reared lady must leave behind everything she knows — and trust her life and her future to a dangerous gunfighter with a passion for vengeance.

A team of prize Arabian horses is all that Willow Moran has left — and Caleb Black is the only man who can help her reach her brother in the Colorado Rockies. But she fears this stranger who burns to avenge the wrongs of treacherous men. For Caleb is as wild and unpredictable as the uncivilized land he loves. Yet, though she challenges him at every turn, the spirited southern lady knows this proud, enigmatic loner is her destiny. And no matter what peril awaits, they must face it together — for Willow has become a fever in Caleb′s blood … awakening a need so fierce that he would defeat the devil himself to possess her.

The Setting: the American West immediately following the U.S. Civil War; Colorado, Arizona and the wilderness of the Rockies; the San Juan Mountains to the southwest.

The Tropes: Virgin Mistaken for Prostitute (“Fancy Woman”); Road Romance (grueling journey across the mountains on horseback); Hero Vowing Vengeance Against Member of Heroine’s Family; Virgin Awakened to Her Sexual Nature; Lone Gunslinger; Steel Magnolia.

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Shiloh National Military Park, August 2013

Road Warriors   I had read the 3 other novels in Lowell’s ONLY series last winter, so when I found a copy of this one at my favorite bookshop, I snatched it up to read on vacation. What luck – it’s a road romance, and the travel hardships endured by Caleb and Willow made my own roadtrip’s minor inconveniences and long hours behind the wheel fade into insignificance. Although my own journey (some 3,600 miles from New England down through the Southeast and back) did not take me to the Rockies, I enjoyed Lowell’s vigorous rendering of a uniquely American landscape with its wide open spaces. This story unfolds with a powerful evocation of harsh and dangerous mountain passes, and the battle to conquer each peak and cover every hard-won mile. An incredible contrast to days spent on interstates and blue highways, but it helped keep me grounded in the period when we visited Gettysburg and Shiloh, or learned about the early 19th century exploration of Mammoth Caves, in Kentucky.

Both Caleb and especially Willow are scarred by their experiences surviving the War and its aftermath, and their story is set during the chaos that followed when so many bereaved and/or displaced Americans, from both North and South, were on the move, seeking to rebuild lives and find new places to call home. Since I got home, I’ve been watching new seasons of the dramas HELL ON WHEELS and COPPER, both also set in the aftermath of the Civil War — I won’t digress further here except to say it strikes me more than ever as a period of intensely violent upheaval and social and economic chaos with people from all over the world drifting across the landscape and fighting for a place in a raw new world. Also, Anson Mount’s bearded Cullen Bohannon (HELL ON WHEELS) strikes me as a dead ringer for bearded gunslinger Caleb Black.

With Only His I found much to like about the character-driven romance itself. Willow is straightforward and likably no-nonsense. She’s pretending to be married because it feels safer to travel alone that way. She hires Caleb as a wilderness guide to see her safely to her “husband’s” homestead in the San Juans. But she’s really taking her prize horses to join her brother, who may be her last remaining family. This deception is countered by Caleb’s withholding the fact that he seeks the same man — who he really doesn’t believe is her husband — for a blood vendetta.  It seemed clear to me from the start that Willow’s brother will turn out to be an OK guy (well, I also had already read Only You, in which he takes center stage as the hero), and I didn’t mind this device to drive the plot conflict as much as some other Big Misunderstandings, largely because for most of the book Caleb keeps his vengeful fixations to himself so Willow — and the reader — are spared a lot of angst-y melodrama getting in the way of the growing attraction and love between them.

Anson Mount as Confederate veteran and railroad builder Cullen Bohannon,
AMC’s Hell on Wheels (season 3 publicity image)

Lowell’s romances have an old school feel, with strong, ruthless heroes and plucky, virginal heroines. They’re well-crafted, cozy reads in which it’s easy to settle in and enjoy the slow build as the characters banter and get to know each other without a lot of tricky plot twists. There are villains, and enough shoot-outs to feel like the Wild West (Caleb’s gun-handling skills are legendary, after all, and Willow shows him she knows her way around a shotgun when it counts). But the main focus remains on their deepening emotional connection, and their shared love of horses and wilderness.

In terms of heat level, there are numerous explicit scenes where the slow build climaxes (if you will…) and the prose turns slightly purple, with lengthy passages devoted to the hero’s awakening of the virgin heroine’s innate sensuality. For me, this tendency to dwell on the gradual deflowering didn’t become tiresome because the pace of the novel allowed me plenty of time to genuinely like Caleb and Willow and enjoy their enjoyment of each other. Their physical awareness and increasing attraction is linked to growing respect and admiration. He is bent on seduction but respects her boundaries with graceful courtesy so we don’t stray into dangerous forced seduction territory and Lowell manages to make Caleb’s restraint and patience sexy – all that leashed power under tight control in a possessive, predatory yet patient hero. But  I did find myself skimming once or twice during a love scene that felt repetitive, and the patient trout-tickling metaphor is a little worn.

My favorite of the four ONLY books is Only Mine, which pairs a half-blood Cheyenne/English aristocrat hero (Wolfe Lonetree is a friend of Caleb’s who helps him rescue Willow in Only His) with a blueblood English miss. I’m pulling it out for a re-read this fall. I have a feeling I will enjoy running into Caleb and Willow again, and I’m very glad I had them along for the read while I was on my road trip. I only wish I could keep track of which book is which – the titles are no help at all, and it turns out I read the first book last.

Only His is available in several editions in the usual formats and places. I purchased it at my local used paperback shop.

 

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Historical Romance – Lament, or Let it Die?

As a new blogger, an important piece of my learning curve is keeping up with the buzz on Twitter and on established romance and book blogs, and participating in discussions in order to exchange ideas and get to know some other bloggers.  I’m posting here at “home” now because there’s so much interesting content about this topic, and my own musings are growing too lengthy for commenting on other pages.

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For about a week I’ve been following a wide-ranging discussion about historical romance that’s happening on several of the major romance blogs.  (And before I go further, let me just say to my currently quite petite band of Badass Romance followers — if you haven’t checked out the blogs at All About Romance and Dear Author, you are really missing out on the best the romance community has to offer in the way of cross-cutting dialogue and commentary about everything from book covers to publishing trends to literary criticism, along with INDISPENSABLE book reviews.)

Lynn at All About Romance asked Where Have All the Historical Romances Gone?  Since the intersection of history and romance fiction is my personal reading sweet spot, this caught my attention right away, and I jumped in to comment, along with a host of other readers and — this is one of the (many) super cool things about AAR — a bunch of historical romance authors, including the actual people who are actually responsible for some of my favorite recent reads in this genre. (!!!) A squee!! moment — ok, and here I am just trying out this term frequently employed in romance bloglandia for when you sort of interact with an author and get all “fangirl” about it….

7756458So I don’t mind if you skip the rest of this post — if you are looking for an actual good new book to read, go right now and find yourself a copy of Libertine’s Kiss, by Judith James. A non-Regency historical romance that is not to be missed.  I have been meaning to make a review post about this book for weeks! A Restoration tale, it earned DIK status at All About Romance, and features one of my favorite romance tropes: second chance at love.

OK, back to the Big Picture.  Anyway, this week I also started more actively following some of these folks on Twitter.  So that’s how I “met”  Evangeline Holland,  an author of historical romance who also blogs about Edwardian history. Her post offered another angle on The Trouble With Historical Romance, and another blogspace to talk about this with, again, readers as well as writers.

Over at Dear Author, this morning Jane says We should let the historical genre die. Which is a bold statement, but I realize I agree with what she’s saying.  Or at least with what I think she might be saying.  Can I just say that I agree with my own interpretation of this bold post?  How ridiculous, but here is what I want to say:  although I have been commenting in a very lamentatious fashion on many of the blog posts this week, I realize that the books I have been feeling nostalgic about are mostly NOT the current crop of historical romances, which, as everyone has noted, are almost exclusively set in the British Isles of the 19th century (or feature expatriate English lords of that era who may find themselves elsewhere on the globe but for all intents and purposes are Regency or Victorian characters).

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed recent books from Liz Carlyle, Elizabeth Hoyt, Julie Anne Long, Tessa Dare, Anne Stuart, Anne Gracie, Jennifer Ashley, Meredith Duran, and at least a dozen others.   And there are standouts like Joanna Bourne’s exquisite Spymaster novels.  But what really got me feeling nostalgic about historical romance was thinking about great reads from a decade or two ago — an early Loretta Chase book like The Lion’s Daughter or Mr. Impossible, my first time reading Anya Seton’s Katherine, or a favorite “old school” historical like Elizabeth Lowell’s ONLY series. Why are there so many middling books about Regency lords, while it’s truly hard to find a gem like The Black Hawk, about a thief from St. Giles turned spy for the crown?  I’ve also really liked Pamela Clare’s MacKinnon’s Rangers trilogy, at least in part because of the alternate setting that appeals to my love for colonial American history — but, again, it’s hard to find a lot of books that do romance well in this setting.

Which I guess leaves me agreeing that if historical romance continues to occupy such a incredibly narrow band of history, a fairytale version of England overpopulated with aristocrats, I’m OK with the declining sales.  Jane/Dear Author is probably right that the genre needs to reinvent itself.  Why do we keep reading and buying books about the ton, and then complain about there not being enough historical accuracy, or variety?  Many readers in the AAR discussion suggested reading backlists and newly available e-books from the ’90s and earlier. Romantic Historical Fiction defines itself as a distinct genre these days, and I wonder if that’s another place readers are going…? And I suspect many historical romance readers are also quite happily reading newer titles in erotic, m/m and/or paranormal romance, particularly those well-crafted novels that also feature fundamental themes of honor, loyalty, kinship, defiance, courtliness, and characters who battle the odds to end up on the right side of history.

It may sound odd, but beneath surface trappings of daggers vs. claymores, sizzling sex scenes vs.  stopping at the bedroom door, the badasses of J.R.Ward’s Black Dagger Brothers and Lynn Kurland’s medieval De Piagets and MacLeods have a lot in common.  And it’s these underlying heroic tropes – a lethal combination of boldness, badassery, vulnerability, flaws, charm, and wit – that I respond to as a reader.50718

So perhaps historical romance as it’s currently being published is reaching an ebb that’s organic, cyclical, and necessary. Maybe it’s time to lament, but move on. What do you think? What is your most recent historical romance read? Or have you been reading something else entirely?

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Other links –

This topic has been taken up on many individual blogs, and in several review posts this week, too.  I’m including links here for several interesting posts that turned up in my recent reading, but this is by no means comprehensive.

Courtney Milan, Digital Strategy in Historical Romance (author, 19thc historicals)

Elise Cyr, Why Historical Romance? (author, medieval romance)

Dear Author’s  Review of Jack Absolute.  (Interesting discussion in the Comments here, about romance readers reading more straight historical fiction as we search out more interesting settings.)