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.