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.''

Saturday, 5 January 2008

VIRGIN SLAVE, BARBARIAN KING BY LOUISE ALLEN

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!):

angel:
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.

14 comments:

Laura Vivanco said...

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.

One thing that I'm finding interesting in all the discussion about VS, BK is how many people seem to feel, at some level, that a power imbalance is crucial to a romance and that a romance in which this isn't really present "fails" (or, at best, lacks tension/interest). Like Eric I find it striking how often this seems to be coming through in the comments about the novel, sometimes more explicitly than others.

There are recurring themes in the romance novels I read, enduring trends that remain popular - the alpha male; [...] the almost ritualised mistreatment (emotional or physical) of the heroine before a moment of enlightenment; male as the sexual aggressor

Yes, and what I find interesting personally is that both my opinion of this novel, and my reading tastes in general with regard to the themes you list, and the power dynamics that accompany them, would appear to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from yours, Robin's and Sarah's. I tend to feel that a romance has failed if the hero is abusive, because I personally can't imagine any way in which a relationship could have a HEA after that.

Laura Vivanco said...

I tend to feel that a romance has failed if the hero is abusive, because I personally can't imagine any way in which a relationship could have a HEA after that.

Thought I should just clarify that that's me speaking as a reader, not as an academic, so it's my personal, rather than my professional, opinion.

Meriam said...

One thing that I'm finding interesting in all the discussion about VS, BK is how many people seem to feel, at some level, that a power imbalance is crucial to a romance and that a romance in which this isn't really present "fails" (or, at best, lacks tension/interest).

... Yes, and what I find interesting personally is that both my opinion of this novel, and my reading tastes in general with regard to the themes you list, and the power dynamics that accompany them, would appear to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from yours, Robin's and Sarah's.

Laura, I don't think that this 'imbalance' has to be realised in an abusive hero. When I talk about a power imbalance and negotiating this in a romance, I mean an imbalance of any kind - be it class or wealth or status or age or whatever. In My Reckless Heart, Jonna is Decker's employer. She is socially and economically his superior (he can barely read and write) and it is how she learns to trust and accept him for who he is that is the (emotional) conflict at the heart of the story.

What do you think of To Have and to Hold? (if you've read it). It's at once one of the most uncomfortable and striking romances I've ever read. Rachel is completely in Sebastian's power and they both know it. Here's a master/ slave romance that doesn't flinch from the reality of the power Sebastian wields over his housekeeper.

In Sweet Everlasting, the heroine is a 'simple' countrygirl, the hero a wealthy city doctor. The disparity in their stations is the central conflict in the novel. It is an absolutely beautiful story, introspective, lush, low on plot and strife, but there is plenty of emotional conflict and it is always engaging.

Even books heavy on introspection can work: Black Silk has pages and pages of Graham and Submit ruminating and it never gets old. Because the lack of plot is offset by absolutely brilliant characterisation.

I think VS,BK failed because Louise Allen never seriously explored the dynamics of this master/ slave relationship. It was all too - easy. Combined with characters that didn't jump out at me (Julia was particularly flat; Wulfric's Council scenes and his grappling with his own ambition was quite interesting), I did find the story hard going at times.

That said, it wasn't a bad book. I liked the historical detail. With a few exceptions, I didn't mind the tone/ language and I think Allen is a decent storyteller.

Laura Vivanco said...

What do you think of To Have and to Hold?

I haven't read it, but, having read various comments about it, I don't plan to, because I'm almost certain I would find it far too upsetting.

RfP said...

I haven't read Allen's book, but I'm very interested in why readers sometimes miss the intensity of the old-school bodice-ripper.

Laura: many people seem to feel, at some level, that a power imbalance is crucial to a romance and that a romance in which this isn't really present "fails" (or, at best, lacks tension/interest)

A power imbalance is one way to create tension, but by no means the only way. To my mind, the power imbalance has become a gimmick--but one that works. That's likely part of the reason people have mixed emotions over it. In reading the Allen book, both Meriam and Candy(SBTB) seem to feel a conflict between disavowing the old-school "Indian romance" but missing the intensity that can come from that plot.

I think kidnapping, power imbalance, and threat of violence can be shortcuts to create situational tension (or simple adrenaline rush) rather than developing tension more sustainedly and layeredly throughout the book. Meriam, what you said here sounds like an instance of what I'm describing:

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[....] 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.

Several other reviews have commented that Julia didn't struggle much to adapt to Visigoth society or change her views of Wulfric. That sounds like plenty of explanation for a lack of intensity in the book.

In contrast, you also mentioned To Have and To Hold. Part of what's effective about TH&TH is that the tension is sustained throughout the book because it doesn't arise simply from an overused power dynamic. The heroine struggles against herself perhaps even more than against the hero or against society. That's not the cheap thrills of a kidnapping situation, that's tension from character growth. In fact it's two characters growing, so the tension between and within them is credible and sustainable. For part of the book it seems that society has pardoned Rachel--but while that tension is gone, the tension doesn't slacken over the characters' growth and their relationship.

(Again, I haven't read the Allen book; my comments reflect some of my thoughts on why readers sometimes miss the intensity of the old-school romance.)

Sherry Thomas said...

One thing that I'm finding interesting in all the discussion about VS, BK is how many people seem to feel, at some level, that a power imbalance is crucial to a romance

I don't know that people need power inbalance in any given romance. But VS, BK is a book that loudly advertises the power imbalance--from the title to the cover art to the backblurb--as a fundamental premise. And readers go in with a certain expectation that there is a long way to go before they reach power parity.

You take away that long way to go, the stakes will reduce dramatically, and with that, interest will flag. Kind of like if Frodo found out that Mount Doom was really only 20 miles away and guarded by nothing more than a couple of sleepy dogs.

Disclaimer: haven't read the book. Really shouldn't comment. But oh, well. Might as well start being presumptuous first thing in the new year.

Laura Vivanco said...

But VS, BK is a book that loudly advertises the power imbalance--from the title to the cover art to the backblurb--as a fundamental premise. And readers go in with a certain expectation that there is a long way to go before they reach power parity.

As a regular reader of M&B Historicals, it met my expectations. I noticed that the reviewer from Cataromance, which is a review site which only reviews category romances, was also happy with the novel.

I suspect that most of the people who had the type of expectations you describe were primarily readers of single-titles, and so their expectations were different, and based on reading a different set of romances.

Sherry Thomas said...

That is an interesting take, LV. Are M&B historicals typically less conflict-driven than single titles?

Laura Vivanco said...

Well, it's hard to say for sure, because maybe my definition of "conflict" would differ from that of other people, and by now I have my favourites in the M&B/Harlequin Historicals line, so I'm more likely to choose the ones that suit my tastes. But they're definitely shorter, so there tend to be fewer characters and sub-plots than in single-titles. I also have the impression that, in general, the really rakish and/or tortured heroes are more likely to be found in single-titles, and there's less sex in the HM&B historicals than in most single-title historicals.

The HM&B historicals generally have less conflict than the Harlequin Presents/M&B Moderns. There are some which have a similar level of conflict, but I don't think they're in the majority.

Tumperkin said...

Nice post Meriam. I've not read the book and don't plan to but I found your comments striking given what I know of the book via the other reviews I've read.

RfP said...

Are M&B historicals typically less conflict-driven than single titles?

I wouldn't say so across the board. Single title historicals vary considerably in that regard. (Perhaps M&B historicals do too--I haven't read as many of them, but those I've read have been more consistent. I rarely read category these days, but when I do it's generally historical.)

I agree with Laura that if there's an extremely rakish hero in the story, it's probably not an M&B. But that doesn't mean extreme rakes, tortured heroes, and power conflicts are ubiquitous in single-title historicals. (Maybe in erotic historical romance, but there the power conflicts often have a specific kind of feminist-sexual slant--and the rakes are sometimes female.) Like Laura, though, I have my favorites so I may not read the single-title historicals with the most tortured characters. For example, I didn't grow up on Woodiwiss-type historicals and haven't enjoyed the ones I've tried. Elizabeth Lowell's Westerns and Harlequins are the closest I've come to enjoying "old school" romance. In terms of power imbalance, etc, they're pretty tame compared to, say, a Johanna Lindsey. But early Lowells are full of emotional sturm und drang--I recall some tortured characters of both sexes.

Which leaves me very interested in Laura's comments about readers' expectations. I find Harlequin Presents similar on a number of levels to the old-school historicals. The plots are similar, as are the power imbalances, and I would say the level of sturm und drang is similar if you allow for the difference in length.

Meriam said...

Sherry But VS, BK is a book that loudly advertises the power imbalance--from the title to the cover art to the backblurb--as a fundamental premise. And readers go in with a certain expectation that there is a long way to go before they reach power parity.

Yes, I do think expectation had something to do with my reaction to the book. I primarily read single title historicals, so unlike Laura, perhaps I approached the book with a different set of expectations. Plus, I've only ever read one other slave romance - Hearts Aflame. That was pretty over the top (but enjoyable, I confess) and the conflict was drawn out; culturally between the Viking heroine and Saxon hero, between two strong individuals unwilling to give an inch, between the heroine's desire to stay with her man and return to her loving family; plus, villains! It's all very old school, and I would be interested to read it again (I read HA ten years ago, very new to the genre).

I must say, out of all the reviews I've read (and I'm not done yet) Candy's resonated strongly with me. I find it deeply ironic that a novel which disproves many of Bindel's charges against romance failed to satisfy so many romance readers. What can you do?

btw, is Robin doing a review for VS,BK?

Laura Vivanco said...

btw, is Robin doing a review for VS,BK?

I think it might be more analysis rather than a review, but yes, she's planning to, though she's been a bit busy recently, so it won't be up for a few days.

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I mostly visits this website[url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/lose-10-pounds-in-2-weeks-quick-weight-loss-tips].[/url]rapeandadverbs.blogspot.com really contains lot of useful information. Do you pay attention towards your health?. Are you really serious about your weight?. Recent Scientific Research points that closely 60% of all United States adults are either obese or weighty[url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/lose-10-pounds-in-2-weeks-quick-weight-loss-tips].[/url] So if you're one of these people, you're not alone. In fact, most of us need to lose a few pounds once in a while to get sexy and perfect six pack abs. Now the question is how you are planning to have quick weight loss? [url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/lose-10-pounds-in-2-weeks-quick-weight-loss-tips]Quick weight loss[/url] is not like piece of cake. You need to improve some of you daily habbits to achive weight loss in short span of time.

About me: I am writer of [url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/lose-10-pounds-in-2-weeks-quick-weight-loss-tips]Quick weight loss tips[/url]. I am also health expert who can help you lose weight quickly. If you do not want to go under hard training program than you may also try [url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/acai-berry-for-quick-weight-loss]Acai Berry[/url] or [url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/colon-cleanse-for-weight-loss]Colon Cleansing[/url] for effortless weight loss.