Caveat: This review discusses sexual assault.
I don’t finish every romance I start. Sometimes, I sort of dance through them, open-minded when I begin, I may lose interest and jump around a bit to see if it can catch my fancy. Sometimes it does, and I go back and read everything. Sometimes, I give up and add those to the reject pile on The (Shameful) Tally. For this review, I am smushing together two failed attempts from Jo Beverly’s Georgian “Malloren” series which is famous for the presence of a classic hero. Based around a sibling group, Beverly saved the most forbidding brother, Rothgar, for last. I’ve read series like this before. Sometimes with great results, sometimes with very bad results indeed, although the bad results make the review a lot of fun to write.
So popular was the Rothgar character, there is a phrase I started to hear in the romance subculture referring to the anticipation of a specific hero’s book, “I’m waiting for Rothgar”. Julie Anne Long is currently building the same anticipation for Lyon Redmond and Olivia Eversea in her Pennyroyal Green series. I suspect that readers who discovered Courtney Milan before I did, felt the same way about the delicious Smite Turner. I didn’t have to wait for Rothgar. He arrived at my local library thirteen years ago and has been sitting on the shelf ever since. In hardcover, no less, which is an honour accorded very few romance titles. Most of them are set up on spinners (over in a corner away from the “real” books in my library’s case) and cleared out to make way for fresh content on a regular basis.
Since I’m not waiting for Rothgar, but rather a decent author to publish something new, I decided to read other books in the series leading up to his story. I found book 2, Tempting Fortune, on the romance spinner and started with that. I didn’t get very far.
One of the things my husband objects to about romance is his perception that the heroes are aggressive and domineering towards the heroines. Originally published in 1995, Tempting Fortune begins with Bryght Malloren breaking into a home to steal some papers. He encounters an armed house guest, Portia, who tries to stop him. She tries to shoot him, he throws her to the ground to throw off her aim and then lies on top of her, restrains her, and kisses her as a “forfeit”. She’s surprised to find that she doesn’t exactly mind and feels safe with and attracted to him. [RECORD NEEDLE SCRATCH] This is EXACTLY what Mr. Julien was talking about, and EXACTLY where the book lost me. I don’t care if Adonis himself is standing in front of you: the stranger invading your home is not attractive, especially when he is pinning you to the floor. I danced ahead to see what else happens and found a scene that was even more off-putting, and then skipped ahead a couple more times, jumping to the end.
Giving up on Tempting Fortune meant I’d finished “delaying for Rothgar” and I could start Devilish. I didn’t have high hopes given the sexual power dynamics of the second book and I was thus able to avoid disappointment. He has an intense back story I won’t bother with here, but the result is that the Marquess of Rothgar is pure romance novel Alpha male: Quick with a blade or a quip, arrogant, rich as Croesus, he has the king’s ear, and, of course, he meets his match in Diana, Countess Arradale. But it’s also 1743, so while Rothgar is not effete, he is betimes bejeweled, bewigged, bepowdered, and wearing extremely dandified clothing, including high heels. My twenty-first century brain cannot process any of that as masculine and I really like emphatically masculine heroes in romance novels.
Devilish, or the portions I read at any rate, is blessedly free from the “forfeits” of Tempting Fortune, but there was an extremely distressing series of events in which Diana is verbally, physically and sexually abused, tied to a bed, her clothing cut off, and then gets rescued seconds before being raped. Now, there are books for every taste and proclivity in this genre, but I’m not talking about a sexual fantasy. Diana is violently assaulted by the villain. It is an attempted rape as a plot point. I hate attempted rape as a plot point. It’s one thing to have things getting a little dicey before the hero quickly swoops in, it is quite another to spend a protracted period on an assault and lead up to a terrifying violation. In her defense, I do think Beverly showed sensitivity and complexity in the characters’ reactions, but it was all way too much for me, and they moved on far too quickly: “I’m traumatized, I’m going to reenact my trauma to claim it and my body as my own, okay, I’m fine now.” The stories in these books are by their very nature unrealistic, but the emotional life of the characters has to feel real for the novels to have any true weight. Devilish managed to have simultaneously too much and too little emotional life, and, dear God, I never want to read a scene like that ever again
in a romance novel.