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.''

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

HEARTS AFLAME, BY JOHANNA LINDSEY

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.

9 comments:

Tumperkin said...

This sounds cool! I'm not really into this period but I think I'll give this a whirl.

Meriam said...

Thanks, T. I'm not really into this period either, but HA is my exception.

This review is particularly long and rambling because there was so much I wanted to write and discuss that it all got a little out of hand. I need to master the art of a concise review.

RfP said...

Concise takes work. Also, there's review and then there's critical essay.... I tend to blend the two forms, and I'm still developing my ideas on how to structure that combined form.

Meriam said...

I've been thinking a lot about reviews, too. Especially after the VS,BS blog extravaganza and the subsequent reviews. Laura's post at TMT and one at Dear Author had me thinking about the kind of reviews I want to write, what kind I enjoy most.

Both you and Tumperkin write excellent reviews, although I think you have very different styles. Your reviews are far more analytical (veering towards criticism), whilst Tumperkin's are pure entertainment, more 'the public critic' Frye talks about. I always enjoy her posts, and they're very persuasive. She makes me want to read books I would never otherwise consider.

By far my favourite reviewer in terms of entertainment/ enjoyment is Candy. I remember she wrote one review as an interpretive dance routine (if only I had the time to find it).

Anyway, it's interesting, it's hard work, I have a long way to go. I should read some Hazlitt and Orwell or something.

RfP said...

I love reading the classic great reviewers, and reading about reviewing too. At the same time, there's a lot in those reviews that I don't feel a need to imitate. Especially as I'm writing online, and typically not about brand-new books. The medium and timing don't necessitate a different style, but they open up the possibilities.

It's one thing to write a static essay, quite another to write a conversation starter. Ditto a broad-audience piece versus a small blog where I might be half of my own audience (which is partly along the lines of Frye's "public critic" concept, but not entirely).

Likewise, writing about a book before it comes out is different from discussing an older work with a mixture of those who have and haven't read it. And in terms of discussion, I think the review style on different sites strongly shapes the kinds of conversations that tend to happen there.

More than any of the above, however, I'm interested in how one evaluates a variety of fiction--genre and literary--without either getting completely relativistic (everything's good sometimes, for someone) or putting down one genre for not being another. I've seen some people do well at this through a relatively uncritical list along the lines of Good Books I Like In All Genres. What I'd like to do (though as I currently have no time to write, it'll take me a few hundred years) is explore where the more analytical approach takes that conversation. Does it makes sense to give very different genres equal levels of critique? In purely analytical terms, of course it does; in a more review-oriented sense, I'm not sure.

Meriam said...

More than any of the above, however, I'm interested in how one evaluates a variety of fiction--genre and literary--without either getting completely relativistic (every thing's good sometimes, for someone) or putting down one genre for not being another.

Isn't it all about judging a novel against what it's trying to achieve? I like Mark Kermode, a British movie reviewer, because he understands/ appreciates genre (his favourite movie is the Excorist - he has a phd in horror films) and takes them as seriously as they take themselves. Anyway, my point is, even within one genre (say, romance) you can't review all books equally. For example, reading Present,s I'm not rating them against the entire genre, against Gaffney or Kinsale, because they'd all get Ds and Fs. I have to rate them against other categories, bearing in mind things like the restrictions of word count and the guidelines. Is that relativistic?

(Have I completely misunderstood you?)

Anyway, please expound, I'm intrigued by this.

Does it makes sense to give very different genres equal levels of critique?

Sherry Thomas said...

I remember this one. Used to read it sitting on the floor of the bookstore.

My mum was a poor student then, but we lived on campus, so the university bookstore was a quick bicycle ride away. And boy, did I spend a lot of time in the romance aisle in those days, reading Johanna Lindsey.

I know I used to reread certain parts of this book. But I think it was the woman being abducted by the Russian aristocrat and fed aphrodisiac that I used to reread most often--me and my politically incorrect self. :-)

Meriam said...

That sounds like a cool childhood - living on campus! I had a local library and some very disapproving librarians... I loved the early Lindseys. But Secret Fire... that was a tough one to love. I couldn't believe the premise. He basically kidnapped her for sex! And drugged her! And - and - !!

If I were to pinpoint my favourites, they would be the ones where the hero almost took a backseat to the kickass heroine - Like Savage Thunder (remember That Horseride?) and The Magic of You and Defy Not the Heart.

You know, this makes me want to go buy copies - the bodice ripper copies, naturally - of vintage Lindsey. By the time I could afford to buy my books, Lindsey lost most of her magic and I had moved on.

Meriam said...

Okay, now I've read a couple of reviews for Secret Fire and just came across this:

The love scenes alone are original. Yes, she's drugged - but not by Dimitri (at first). However, I've never read anything sexier than what happens when these two are together. Later, Katherine's imperial temper and scathing wit collide with Dimitri's tyrant of an aunt, which results in an absolutely shocking punishment, followed by one of the coolest rescue scenes ever (in a kitchen, no less).

Blimey, I can't remember this kitchen bit. Methinks a reread is in order...