Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Monday, 28 January 2008


This is a big impact read, like a swift kick in the gut, but in a good way.

Arden is a cold-blooded assassin. No, really. She's nasty and lethal and entirely lacking in scruples or sentimentality. Her weapon of choice is a garrote. She's really good at her job and her next victim is the beautiful thief Sevastien Aniketos. In another time and place, thinks our ruthless, bloodthirsty, lusty assassin, they would have been lovers.

Things don't go as planned and Arden finds herself at the mercy of the Thief, gorgeous, enigmatic and immortal. Power games of a highly charged and sexual nature ensue.

This is one twisted, violent, bloody read and I kind of loved it. Secretly, don't we all want to be Arden, in a slinky black stealthsuit that eats up the light?

At 89 pages, it is a quick read - I read it in one sitting - and extremely satisfying.


Wednesday, 23 January 2008


If you have to read story about love in the time of slavery you could do a lot worse than this one.
Published in 1987 - over twenty years ago! - this book earns its B+ honestly, keeping me turning the pages long after 3am on a work night. (Lindsey used to do this to me on school nights, too, although back then I was young enough to shrug off four hours of sleep).
I read Heart's Aflame for the first time more than ten years ago, and remember enjoying it tremendously. After the curiously flat Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, I decided to give it another go, wondering if my enjoyment was a result of my a) youth b) newness to the genre or c) genuine discernment.
I can't claim it as an example of good taste, but I really got into this one.

Kristen Haardrad is the daughter of a wealthy Viking merchant. The year is 873 AD - some 400 years after the events of VS,BK - and Kristen is a young woman looking for love. For Kristen’s parents - who got their own master/slave treatment in Fires of Winter - are deeply in love and her mother has filled Kristen’s young mind with dreams of true love and finding her perfect mate. Unfortunately, none of the studly young men in Kristen’s part of Norway seem to set her pulse fluttering and so - with characteristic impulsiveness - Kristen stows away on her brother Selig’s ship, ostensibly on a trading voyage to the east, where she hopes to meet Mr Right.

Unfortunately, the trading voyage is but a facade for an old fashioned raid, the sacking of a monastery in the kingdom of Wessex. There, the planned raid is curtailed by an Saxon ambush and the surviving Vikings (of which Kristen is one, disguised as a boy), are taken captive by Royce of Wyndhurst, one of King Alfred’s nobles.

Royce hates Vikings. Five years ago, Danish Vikings raided Wyndhurst, killed his father, brother and fiance. His first instinct is to kill every captured Viking, but wiser council prevails and he puts them to work doing hard labour. To the smaller Saxons, the brawny Vikings are viewed with awe and fear. They are kept shackled and under constant guard.

Smooth faced and slight (-er than the others), it isn’t long before Kristen’s ruse is discovered and she is separated from her fellow Vikings and sent to the kitchens as a domestic slave. Royce is initially disgusted by her, thinking she is the Vikings’ whore, and a ‘big, manly woman’ to boot. Of course, all this changes when Kristen emerges from her bath, nice and clean, and ‘too lovely to be real.’

And so the battle begins. Only, it isn’t much of a battle. Royce is appalled to find himself attracted to a Viking, is constantly unsettled by her mercurial temperament and confident sensuality. Accustomed the delicate ladies of his household, with their easy tears and emotional manipulation, Kristen is refreshingly honest and unafraid of his size or temper.

Similarly, Kristen is immediately taken by the handsome Saxon ...she couldn’t stop herself from admiring him, too. She had always enjoyed watching strong, well-proportioned male bodies. Just that last night of the feast at home, her mother had caught her staring overlong at Dane... A strong, handsome body was a feast for the eyes, and her mother had taught her not to ashamed that she thought so. And the Saxon lord had not only a superb body but a very handsome face as well.

What I particularly loved about this book was Kristen. She’s a five foot ten Nordic super woman. Her mother has filled her mind with all sorts of nonsense, and then armed her (naturally she can wield a knife/ dagger - duh). To top it off, she’s smart, brave, funny, good natured and beautiful. I should hate her, but I somehow don’t.

The things that would make me hate her - TSTL behaviour, inconsistency, lazy character building - are absent. Kristen makes sense. She’s grown up with men - her hulking alpha male father, her brothers, her cousins, her friends - and is entirely comfortable around them. Her impulsiveness is her worst characteristic and it is what leads her to stowaway on her brother’s ship. (There is also her pressing need to find her True Love, but I’m blaming her mother for that). Kristen is no stranger to hard work and accomplishes her gruelling tasks with ease. She hates her shackles and does not wear them willingly. It is the biggest source of conflict between her and Royce. She is refreshing in her recognition and acknowledgement of the attraction she feels for Royce: It was ironic that the first man that she should desire herself, after being desired by so many, should be the one man who resisted her. She was sure she could have him if she set her mind to it. But would he be honourable enough to marry her afterward?

What is also ironic is that Kristen’s role in this tale is one usually reserved for the hero: she is the sexual aggressor. More than once, she tricks and manipulates Royce into bed. She is attuned to her sexuality, finds Royce physically attractive from the start and acts on this where Royce is initially unwilling. She is also brave and strong. The first scene of the story - like VS,BK, like many bodice rippers in this vein - is an attempted rape. Kristen saves herself with the first of many displays of strength and cunning. She also saves Royce’ life, outwits bad guys and takes it as a personal affront that she failed to kill her brother’s killer (part of the reason she remains shackled for so long is her stated intention to kill this man, Royce’s charming cousin). This Viking is bloodthirsty and merciless when she has to be.

One of my favourite scenes from the book is when Kristen is taken to the bathing room with a small army of terrified women (for she is a giant freak to them) and two male guards. Kristen accepts the women’s assistance but balks at the male presence. Consequently -
Royce could hear the shrieks and screams as he approached the hall. He entered just in time to see Uland literally tossed out of the bathing room. Aldous stumbled out right after him, and then tripped over the younger man and went sprawling too....

“What the Devil is going on here?” Royce bellowed from the door.

“She would not let us bath her!”

“Tell him why, lady,” Kristen managed to gasp.

She was lying flat on her back on the floor, with four women sitting on top of her. They had come at her from behind just as she chased the old man from the room. Tripping her to the floor, they had pounced on her immediately. She could barely breath now, with one on her chest, another on her stomach.

Tee and hee. I can’t help it. It’s great fun. There’s another scene where Kristen kicks ass with her chains and I lap it up.

Royce is pretty cool too. He has his baggage - the dead fiance, whom he loved, and his consequent hatred of all things Viking - but he is not unjust. His treatment of Kristen is fairly reasonable (and I say this despite the chains, whipping and one spanking!) He has a temper, one that sends the women in his life into hysterics but that fails to daunt Kristen. In fact, Royce is quite the grouch and it is Kristen who lightens him up.

There are so many problems with this book I could highlight, but the irreverent nature of the story (clearly, it is not taking itself too seriously), the charming cast of characters (Vikings and Saxons alike), the brisk plotting and the humour that imbues every page makes it impossible to dislike.

A B+ for a great read. And a nostalgic sigh for the Lindsey Golden Age.

Sunday, 13 January 2008


The Smart Bitches have used their mad investigative skillz to uncover some veerry interesting information about Cassie Edwards. Of course, by now none of this is news to any sentient being in Romance Land, but I think it warrants a mention in passing. If only to say - Plagiarism Bad. Tree Pretty.

Also, as a reader and a blogger, it's cool to see The New York Times and, more locally, The Daily Telegraph (though, boo! right wing rag) pick this up. It's certainly newsworthy. For one thing, Edwards has more than 10 million books in print! Ten. Million. 10,000,000. In print. In the world.

A couple of points worth mentioning.

I find it interesting that it took a non-romance reader to discover the initial discrepancies. I could make a sweeping assumption about the average Cassie Edwards' reader, but it's more than that. I don't think many romance readers read critically, and I think we - I- have a high tolerance for The Bad. The chaff. Our senses are dulled to it. In other words, we can wade through a great deal of crap in the hopes of discovering that next great read, so much so that we barely flinch at the dire and we certainly don't question it.

In the last week, I have found and read a Cassie Edwards. At first I was appalled. Now, reflecting on the experience, I can't help but wonder if Edwards is some sort of satirist. Because if that's the case, lines like these -

When she had made brief eye contact with Shadow outside her father's study, she had seen enough gentleness in his eyes to know that he would not harm her. Even now as he bound and gagged her he had done it with a keen gentleness! His eyes, as the moon revealed them to Maria, spoke of much that touched her heart and unleashed her passion! (Savage Dream, p76)

"Having to pay to have my woman returned to me is the last straw!" he said to himself, his heart paining him to think that Maria might have been raped, perhaps even repeatedly! (Savage Dream pp276-277)

I want to see things right with my parents before I enter into a marriage with you. While riding alone in the desert before passing out from exhaustion and hunger, I had much time to think." (Savage Dream p291)

- Lines like these take on a sort of mad brilliance. Add a hero who refers to himself in the third person and you have a masterful and layered parody of the romance genre.

In other news, black footed ferrets are seriously cute. For weasels.

ETA, The Smart Bitches have discovered that numerous passages in Savage Dream bear 'remarkable similarities' to a Pulitzer winning novel, Laughing Boy.
ETA This is very funny indeed. For posterity.

And score one for the ferrets. Perhaps Cassie Edwards can look back on the whole episode with a tinge of pride; for were it not for her copious and badly done plagiarism, the black footed ferret would be languishing in obscurity, forever overshadowed by its glamorous counterparts.

Saturday, 5 January 2008


This was a particularly difficult review to write because I wanted to address two points. Firstly, my impression and enjoyment of the story at ‘gut-level,’ purely as a reader of romance novels. Secondly, my analysis of the novel in the context of the remarks made by Julie Bindel. Ironically the novel succeeds as an argument against Bindel’s most outrageous claims, yet fundamentally fails to satisfy as a historical romance.

The Virgin in question is Julia Livia Rufa, a pampered Roman virgin and the daughter of a powerful senator. The Barbarian is Wulfric, a Visigoth, and the story begins during the Visigoth sacking of Rome in 410 AD.

Wulfric saves Julia from a near rape at the hands of her own countrymen and decides that she will do nicely as his house slave - purely on impulse, as he later acknowledges to himself; for she is “neither the wife he should acquire nor the domesticated slave who would make life more comfortable.” Despite the attraction he feels for her, Wulfric is an honourable man who disapproves of rape and makes it clear to Julia from the outset that he has no intention of violating her.

Julia has always done as she is told; “shop here, wear this , go to this party, not to that one. Be friends with those girls, this one is unsuitable... Marry Antonius Justus Celsus. Yes father, yes mother. Whatever you say...” She has to, for the first time in her life, rely on herself, fight for herself if she wants to be free and return to her civilised world. Her stubborn rebellion is pitted against Wulfric’s implacable resolve and the two butt heads as Julia rails against her new life as a slave.

Reluctantly at first, she is drawn into Wulfric’s world, the world of the (to Roman eyes) uncouth, unsophisticated and primitive barbarians. As his slave, she learns to cook and clean the tent she shares with Wulfric and his young ward, Berig. She forms a close friendship with Una, a neighbouring kinswoman, and unsuccessfully fights her growing attraction to the gold skinned, musclebound barbarian who owns her. As the story progresses, Julia finds herself more at home amongst the Visigoths than she ever felt in Rome, recognising that her previous existence was lonely and sterile by comparison.

Julia and Wulfric’s mutual attraction and growing love is challenged by Wulfric’s eminent status among his people: as ‘king-worthy,’ he is a strong contender for kinghood once the ailing Alaric dies. Consequently, Wulfric knows he has to make a good marriage that will bring him key allies and ‘many spears.’ He cannot afford to marry a Roman slave if he hopes to succeed Alaric.

VS,BK follows the Visigoth’s sacking of Rome and the aftermath - the Visigoths’ journey to the south in search of a homeland. You could even say it’s a road-trip romance, with much of the story taking place on the move. There’s plenty of historical detail, enough to satisfy a reader who, like me, has a limited knowledge of the period. Indeed, there were times when I was more interested in domestic minutia or the inner workings of the famous public baths than the romance taking place between Wulfric and Julia.

As anyone reading my recent blog entries must know, I am currently disenchanted with my favourite sub genre - historical romance. In particular, I find myself gnashing my teeth over what I vaguely describe as the ‘wallpaper historical,’ which, to my mind equals at least one of three things: shoddy research, inappropriate dialogue or a too-modern sensibility (it is, I grudgingly concede, impossible to shed entirely our modern attititudes). My problem with Virgin Slave, Barbarian King was the sinking realisation, as I progressed into the novel, that I was reading a story about two very nice 21st century people supplanted into the year 410 and forced to enact a master/ slave paradigm about which both were very uncomfortable and mildly embarrassed.

In particular, I found Wulfric almost laughably perfect. This tall, golden, king-worthy warrior, wise in council, fierce in battle, loves animals and small children. Wulfric is the perfect man; sensitively appreciating when Julia might need space, holding her when she cries at night in her sleep, soothing her when she is sick. He - naturally - abhors rape and assures Julia she has nothing to fear from him. After taking Julia’s virginity in a (SPOILER!) consensual and mutually satisfying encounter, this gentle warrior - wracked by guilt - compares his action to plucking a lily and watching it wilt in his hands.

The problem was this: Allen has taken a situation ripe with conflict and then effectively removed the heart of the conflict. Julia’s initial resistance to her situation lasts about two days and is illustrated in a series of cheeky, defiant gestures that are easily quashed. As it says on the tin (blurb), “Julia realizes that she’s more free as a slave than she ever was as a sheltered Roman virgin.” This realisation dawning so soon in the book, I was left with two thirds of the novel left to read, and very little compelling me to continue.

In her excellent response to Bindel’s comments on Mills and Boon Romances, Robin says: ...”some of my favourite books are those that struggle with very difficult power imbalances and all sorts of attendant anxieties.” to which Sarah Frantz replied: “I absolutely think romances represent our attempts to work through some of the more threatening aspects of power imbalances in patriarchal society.”

These comments struck me because some of my favourite romances deal with this imbalance beautifully - To Have and to Hold, My Reckless Heart, Voices of the Night, The Smoke Thief. These stories work so well because the imbalance is compellingly portrayed, before it is negotiated and then redressed to achieve a satisfying HEA (to put it very simply). Having failed to present a compelling power imbalance with suitably high stakes (incredible as it seems, in a master/ slave dynamic) the romance fails to take off in VS,BK.

I was left thinking that the only other master/slave romance I have read - Johanna Lindsey’s Hearts Aflame, complete with spanking, chains and a giant Viking heroine - worked better as a romance. Johanna Lindsey!

Does the provocatively titled, limply portrayed Virgin Slave, Barbarian King challenge Bindel’s assertions? Is this misogynistic hate speech? Does it promote patriarchy and fuel rape fantasies? This is particularly interesting because, of course, women did not fare well in Greco-Roman thought and many of these misogynistic attitudes were prevalent in early Christian society. I have no idea whether Wulfric was a particularly enlightened Visigoth or if the Goths as a whole had a less repressive attitude towards women. In any case, Julia’s ‘feisty’ and ‘stubborn’ behaviour is approvingly considered Goth-like in the story. Indeed, Wulfric declares that women of spirit and courage are valued among his people, ready to defend their hearth or settle ‘insults.’ Julia uses her wit, her strength and her courage to return to Wulfric when he tries to send her home. She fights a tougher, stronger woman in self-defense (earlier on Wulfric fights a much larger man). Over the course of the novel, she wins over the surly Berig so that he becomes her champion. Her character is developed so that she becomes a worthy mate to the king-like Wulfric. She finds her place within his world and feels she belongs for the first time in her life. Of course, this is in the capacity of a house slave - cooking, cleaning and mending for her master. Her close friend, the fecund Una, is mother to a small tribe and a happily married woman - the ideal? Julia’s options throughout the novel are domestic options - she can return to Rome and become the wife of an influential senator, or stay with Wulfric and keep his home, most likely as his slave.

Wulfric, for all his qualities as a leader, is a man in search of a home. Always on the march, he has clung “to the vision of a villa somewhere in Gaul, shady courtyard, lush fields...” and finds that Julia has “given him a home wherever she [is].” In the end, he achieves this vision. Although Julia and Wulfric’s happy-ever-after is predictable and breaks no new ground - marriage with kids on the way - it is not achieved without sacrifice. Julia gives up her life in ‘civilised’ Rome, her parents, her powerful fiance and a position in the top reaches of society to be with Wulfric. Wulfric gives up his claim to the kingship. His more symbolic gesture, the (SPOILER!) cutting of his ‘sacred’ hair for Julia is huge. “You might as well cut off his balls,” says Berig earlier on in the novel. That’s some symbolic castration for you, and an element of this - civilizing the barbarian hero, or ‘taming’ the bad boy/ rake, is evident in every romance Bindel might choose to pick up. As Sarah Frantz asks over at TMT: Who is the subjugated?

To conclude, Bindel’s comments have brought to the forefront issues about the genre I’ve never considered before in a serious or critical way. To be sure, Bindel echoed many of my own prejudices about Mills and Boon romances (particularly the Presents line), which I am now keen to reevaluate. Moreover, it has forced me to make a stand in my own mind about what, if any, role romance has in promoting a patriarchal agenda. All popular culture is guilty of promoting the dominant ideology of any time, and romance is most definitely not exempt from this. There are recurring themes in the romance novels I read, enduring trends that remain popular - the alpha male; bliss in domesticity; the almost ritualised mistreatment (emotional or physical) of the heroine before a moment of enlightenment; male as the sexual aggressor - that would make it impossible to argue otherwise. I am left with a comment that struck me over at Teach Me Tonight (I love you guys!):

Bindel's article made me think that a Romance doesn't have to be like those horrid twenty M&B books she read to be patriarchal. All it has to do, imo, is be written by someone who's not actively trying not to be patriarchal. The unexamined assumptions are just going to come through, whether in a "funny" conversation where the hero razzes his male friend for being "like a girl" to show male bonding... or where the hero's allowed an active sex life, and the heroine must be a virgin to be worthy, or where the hero "tames" the heroine by forcing sex on her... whatever, it's going to be there to a greater or lesser extent. Much like the way that racism is... going to be in any work created in a racist culture, if only in the complete unrealistic absence of people of color, or the fact that the behavior of the token of a particular ethnicity follows racist assumptions.

In Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, Louise Allen is certainly not guilty of ‘unexamined assumptions.’ Indeed, in her painstaking care to ensure a level balance of power between slave and barbarian, paradoxically - tellingly? - something crucial is missing from the romance.

This gets a grade C+ from me. In order to ensure my review was pure and uninformed by the opinions of the Witty and Wise, I have refrained from reading the plethora of reviews gracing blog-land for this novel. I'm now off to see what the others made of it.