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!

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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.

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