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.

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Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency

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

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

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

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

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

Brought To You By: Anna Cowan, in Untamed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James_Callis_25146_Medium

via fancarpet.com

Ten Reasons This Book Is Perfectly Imperfect

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

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

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

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