When the HEA Takes a Village: Community, Connection & Romance Dude Groups (part 1)

lovely new cover/sorta silly series about a club for tall, dark & duke-ly war veterans who need a “last bastion” against marriage and “matchmaking mamas”

The lone hero, the lonely spinster, and what happens when they end up in a dude group romance?

What is your favorite term for brotherhoods in romance? Romance series built around a group of badass heroes – a man tribe, a dude group, a wolf pack – are so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable these days. There are aspects of the trope which have, rightfully, been skewered for being OTT silly (secret societies, saving the planet – or England – from evil villains bent on world domination, saving each other from “matchmaking mamas” …. Stephanie Laurens/Black Cobra & Bastion Club series, I’m looking at you…).

But the “band of brothers” structure remains a mainstay, for numerous reasons, many of them quite sensibly and pragmatically publishing/marketing related. When it moves beyond structure, however, in series where brotherhood, or a sense of “all for one and one for all”  is a fully explored theme and trope, the dude group becomes more interesting. And here, I’m thinking of some of my most favorite histrom series – Jo Beverley’s legendary Company of Rogues, or Sarah MacLean’s newer Fallen Angels.

In the hands of a thoughtful and nuanced author, a series centered on a dude group explores a powerful and appealing kind of intimacy that is, yes, about entering the “unknown” world of male friendship (for female readers), but also about the bonds of community and clan that transcend both romance and bromance and offer a vision of collective and communal problem-solving, emotional support, and practical assistance.  For me, this vision, utopian and unlikely as it may be, is often as appealing and satisfying as the HEA. In connected books series as different as Kit Rocha’s dystopian O’Kane chronicles (the Beyond series) and the aforementioned Rogues series, for example, it may take a village to raise a happy couple.

The fate of the individual

I have been pondering my taste for “clannish” communities in romance for several weeks now in light of a recent twitter conversation and a thoughtful  post by Laura Vivanco exploring romance fiction’s preference for protagonists, of both genders, who demonstrate “inner strength” and overcome adversity without being “whiny.”  Laura’s focused here more on the question of whether the genre offers space for characters who complain, or fail, or rail against fate and ill-fortune, than on themes of community. But she notes the connection between romance conventions – valorization of  resilience in order to achieve the HEA – and social pressure, especially for men, to repress complaint and personal emotions, bear up under internal conflict or external woes, and prevail against all odds, without showing weakness or dependence.

It’s possible I’m reading too much in here, but I was quite struck by the idea that the genre expresses a revealed preference for protagonists who are (a) unusually uncomplaining and resourceful and (b) independent go-it-alone-ers.

I often feel as though society, and consequently romance novels, take a very individualised view of personal success and failure which discourages social and economic critique. (Laura Vivanco, “Being Admirable, Repressing Complaint” posted April 15, 2014)

This makes sense when you consider many favored hero and heroine archetypes, from the embittered but valiant ex-soldier to the indomitable impoverished spinster (both of these types can be found in both contemporary and historical incarnations). Yes, all romances must have conflict, and one or both protagonists usually faces, and overcomes, seemingly insurmountable external challenges of one kind or another — severe financial hardship, physical or emotional trauma, bereavement, imminent danger, blackmail, estrangement, or an imperiled reputation…this is the stuff of which heroes and heroines are made. It really doesn’t seem as if there is any space for whiners, but I do think the romance genre offers space for some of its stoic protagonists to suffer in community, and to receive support.

The power of community

I don’t know what percentage of romance novels involve the hero and/or heroine relying on help from a strong community, but I do know that this is a theme that appeals to me, so I read a lot of them. A lot of the books that do this are dude group series. Along about the time I came across Laura’s wonderful post, I was also happily enmeshed in Jo Beverley’s newest Rogues romance, A SHOCKING DELIGHT, which further fueled my musings. I’ll write more about this book, and how the village of Rogues helps the romance along, in a part 2 post.  For now, I just want to throw some ideas at the wall like spaghetti. In terms of the importance of community to the outcome – the HEA – I’m not just talking about the sidekick secondary characters who help with logistics or clearing up the Big Misunderstanding. I’m talking about books where the friendships are as interesting and important (even if not receiving as much of the page count) as the central romance, and/or series where the family tree or secret club are meaningful elements of the emotional arc of the story, not just superficial hooks.

Strength in sisterhood: the Rarest Blooms series

Sometimes, it’s a band of sisters, not brothers, and the community is powerful in less obvious ways.  I’m grateful to tweeps @JanetNorCal and @_Marijana_ for helping me remember the Rarest Blooms series by Madeline Hunter.  The Blooms are female Rogues, in a sense, banding together to support one another through difficult times, and to serve as resource, rescuers and refuge. In the context of a historical romance, any such effort by women is necessarily going to be subversive inasmuch as it may involve challenges to the existing social order. Hunter’s protagonists live communally in a remote country village, supporting themselves with a nursery/floral business, and if I am remembering this right, they are each, for one reason or another, basically in hiding from the patriarchy in one guise or another (lack of financial stability/legal rights, an abusive male family member, or a trauma history). Here’s Dabney’s DIK review of DANGEROUS IN DIAMONDS for AAR, which reminded me that the Blooms series also touched on themes of class conflict and economic critique by exploring businesswoman Daphne’s and ducal libertine Tristan’s reactions to being swept up in labor riots.

Over on twitter, I linked to Laura’s post and a brief discussion ensued in which Donna Thorland proposed that story=suffering and referenced classical drama and the narrative hero arc.  This exchange with Laura and Donna raised all kinds of interesting questions for me about how characters suffer, whether certain modes of suffering “earn” the HEA, and whether the hero/ine must always “go it alone” in order to prevail. (I tried Storify for the first time in hopes of getting the tweets in coherent order, but I have no idea how to embed it so it’ll just have to be a link.)

Historical romance is certainly full of lonely protagonists who suffer their woes stoically, and also flawed heroes/heroines who must tread an individual path to redemption. I’m struck, though, by how many series are structured around communities that, I think, do act in small yet meaningful ways to challenge the status quo, whatever that may be given the setting of the narrative. I need to think more about this, and look more closely at some examples to figure out how these clannish (some are literally family clans, as in Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, or JoBev’s epic Mallorens) communities become more than window dressing or a series framing device.

I’d love to hear about other favorite dude group series, and especially some contemporary/fantasy ones. The Black Dagger Brotherhood has been in the back of my mind since J.R. Ward so clearly set out to write a community of brothers and the books are as much about the friendships as about the individual couples nominally at the center of each one. Where else do you find this? Do you think HEAs that get embraced by a strong community are (more?) satisfying in some way? Or is this whole dude group thing just overused?

 

 

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Never Say Die: Speaking Up for Badass Regencies

I have to say I am loving all this talk about historical romance over the past couple of weeks. Last week I tossed around my own musings on the provocative yet substantive discussion launched by the influential All About Romance and Dear Author blogs. This week finds historical romance “troubles” cropping up again at Risky Regencies, which I think is great.  Sick of the Regency? Well maybe, but….

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As many have pointed out, readers have had a decades-long love affair with Regency-set historical romance for good reason, and if there is a real or perceived Regency Fatigue among readers, the candid discussion we’ve all been having stems mainly from deeply rooted affection for this Heyer- and Austen-inspired world. In re-examining my own sentiments this week, I realized I’m probably slightly ambivalent.  I’ve confessed to suffering a mild disenchantment with Regencies that feel too wall-paperish or insubstantial.  I do actively hunt out historicals with settings based on American history, and the erstwhile art historian in me still wishes there were more badass romances set in southern Europe during the Renaissance (and not yet another Tudor- or Borgia-inspired historical novel with romantic elements).

PDVD_415But I’ve read hundreds, probably thousands, of Regencies, and there are so many on my DIK shelf that it’s overflowing. Also, there really are badass Regency heroes /heroines who aren’t dukes, earls, or even the slightest bit aristocratic — through they’re frequently noble, in the best sense of the word. There’s an element of truth in the suggestion that some Regencies offer a fairytale version of England which is devoid of politics, or gritty social and economic realities.  sharpeBut it’s equally true that some Regencies offer well-researched military and/or social history, plots that center on wartime or post-war conflict, and even themes of class conflict, industrialization, domestic violence, and addiction — though I don’t claim to know how Regencies that touch on these darker themes stack up to their frothier siblings in terms of sales figures.

I thought it would be fun to take a few manic Monday minutes to list a few of my all-time favorite Badass Regencies.  If there’s a thread running through this list, it’s my love for intricately connected books, especially a series structured around a plausible group of badass heroes. I am probably repeating something I’ve said elsewhere, but I am drawn to fiction that explores themes like loyalty, honor, kinship, friendship, bravery, and family. Romances against such a backdrop are especially powerful, and it’s a big part of my devotion to historicals.

kinopoisk.ruI’m also a sucker for the band of brothers trope, if it’s done well, with careful and well-researched world-building. Hell, even if it’s a barely plausible Saving England From the Forces of Evil Secret Spy Ring, if it has compelling characters, a strong story and finely honed dialogue, I’m willing to suspend disbelief.

What are your favorite Really Good Regencies??  Today’s list is heavily weighted towards uber alphas, with a lot of war heroes and spies.  I haven’t even mentioned Loretta Chase once yet (!). I’ll return at some point to come up with my list of top badass Regencies where the heroes fight their battles in ballrooms, drawing rooms, and gaming hells, and there are plenty I still haven’t yet read, so please help me out and let me know who you’d add!

Badass Regencies That Won’t. Back. Down

Joanna Bourne, the Spymaster series / Darkly exquisite; French and English spies from all rungs of the social ladder. Words fail me.  If anything, these books just keep getting better and better.  The heroines are as badass as the heroes. Adrian’s story (The Black Hawk) was one of the best books I read in 2012.

Stephanie Laurens, the early Cynster books / Lush and nostalgic; curiously addictive. This family operates like a clan of badass white knights, reminding me both of Scottish medievals and, oddly, of “fixers” like Olivia Pope and her band of gladiators in suits.

Jo Beverley, the Company of Rogues series / Richly satisfying; wonderful secondary characters and friendships; some middle class protagonists. This series is wonderful and only suffers the tiniest bit from probably being constantly compared to the (Georgian-set) Malloren series.

Laurel McKee, Daughters of Erin series / Fiery and pretty political; there are riots and revolutionaries. Broadly speaking, these qualify as Regency-era historicals, but set in Ireland during and following the 1798 rebellion. I loved the theme of SISTERhood in this series, and the history is woven in seamlessly.

Gaelen Foley, Knight Miscellany/ A duke, twin heroes of the Peninsular Wars and their other siblings; these books explore sibling rivalry quite intensely, and the war-damaged brothers are heart-stoppingly enigmatic and tormented.

Eileen Dreyer, Drake’s Rakes series / A genuine band of brothers series; they fought and barely survived Waterloo together. The journey home is fraught with perils like amnesia, mistaken identity, deception, treason, abandonment and a disgraced wife.  The depiction of military life, especially the officer’s wives/daughters who traveled with the army made Never a Gentleman my favorite.  This series also reminded me so strongly of Bernard Cornwell’s legendary hero Richard Sharpe, that some of the glory of Sharpe’s Rifles may have rubbed off on Drake’s Rakes.

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Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe, a particular favorite Regency badass who fought his way to being an officer but never a gentleman, before he got involved with Lords or Rings or playing the Game of Thrones.

London’s Gambling King

Name: Julian Delbraith and/or Roscoe Neville?  A hero by either name, he’s titled and urbane enough to dazzle the ton AND he’s lethal enough — and enlightened enough — to run the only worker-friendly gambling empire in Regency London.  Of course he is.  How could it be otherwise?

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Story Recounted By: Stephanie Laurens, in The Lady Risks All (2012)

Hangs Out In: 1820’s London, dividing his time between Roscoe’s exquisitely appointed townhouse in Pimlico and Ridgeware, Lord Julian’s nephew’s ducal seat and residence of his gaggle of adoring female relatives (along with the teenage duke, Henry).

Likes: Innately noble spinsters of 29 years whose deep passions are ready to burst the bonds of Rigid Respectability; games of chance; giving in to his protective urges; having crime bosses as well as Bastion Club aristocrats for friends; sisters; Cynsters.

Dislikes: Waterloo deserters, kidnappers, having his female friends ignore his directives and follow him to dockside taverns.

Badass Hero Moment: Unreservedly shares his long-kept secret home and family with Miranda and Roderick in their time of need, thereby revealing his aristocratic alter-ego (and simultaneously putting them — especially her — under his direct and explicit protection).

Badass Annoying Moment: TOTAL Dog in the Manger behavior when HE decides Miranda is too respectable and good to associate with notorious and disreputable Roscoe.

(too) Frequently Described As: prowling; panther-like; LGK (London’s gambling king)

Might Look Like:  Toby Stephens (above)  as Rochester in the brilliant 2006 BBC  Jane Eyre …?

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To Read Or Not To Read?  I picked it up largely out of nostalgia.  So many wonderful reads from SL — I read her whole backlist about 6 years ago and still find the prospect of the familiar, cozy, dense, character-driven Cynster-esque tales appealing.  What can I say – I’m loyal! But this one falls far short of the greatness of the early Cynster novels, and even pales in comparison to the Bastion Club books in which Roscoe first appeared (which prior appearances are made much of). It could be me, but where I used to linger and enjoy the pages-long love scenes, I had to skim and skip the purply, generic and repetitive episodes where Roscoe and Miranda fly to heaven’s gate together.  The best thing about this outing is the book’s title, which, for once in a romance novel, cleverly captures both a thematically appropriate gambling reference and foreshadows a central plot element.  Miranda does indeed Risk All, and this book stands apart from most of SL’s oeuvre in that it is she who Decides and then Pursues the alpha hero, and not vice versa.

Tangentially Related … and Possibly Diverting:

Crockford’s Club: How a Fishmonger Built a Gambling Club and Bankrupted the British Aristocracy.”  A hilarious historical tale from the Smithsonian’s Past Imperfect blog.

Pamela Poll: What is your favorite romance where the heroine is the pursuer? Can an alpha hero and alpha heroine co-exist in the same romance?  Leave a comment and tell me what you think!

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