I have been reading romance novels since I was about 12 years old. Until I got a job and had disposable income, I pretty much pilfered my mom’s collection of books. She had Suzanne Barclay and Rosemary Rogers and Daphne du Maurier and a host of others that I no longer remember (pesky bad memory strikes again!). When I was in high school, I got really into Jean Auel and Kathleen Woodiwiss. During my college years, I stopped reading romance and spent close to a decade reading the classics and being a horrible snob. In 2007 or so, I rediscovered my love of romance, and now it’s pretty much all I read.
The thing is, when I tell people I read romance novels, they think I’m reading this kind of thing:
Cover image, Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey
Or perhaps this:
Cover image, Velvet Promise by Jude Deveraux
And I’m not. When I developed my own taste for romance (and started buying my own books), I veered toward those authors who used Jane Austen as their model and wrote books with charming, witty characters, strong heroines, misunderstood (but not dastardly) heroes and, generally, employed a regency England setting. Among my extensive romance novel collection there is not a Fabio cover in sight (not even any hidden ones). But I do have this, courtesy of my best friend. Seems ill-advised, to me, to kneel on a rocky cliff, but what do I know?
Cover image, For the Love of a Pirate by Edith Layton
For personal reasons, I do not enjoy romance novels that meander into bodice-ripper territory. You may be wondering, “What’s a bodice ripper?” I’m about to tell you, so if you weren’t wondering, feel free to skip ahead.
As with everything, I don’t really have the time and interest to do any research, but if you’re really curious, you can read the wikipedia page about romance novels. The (derogatory) term “bodice ripper” refers to the single-title romance novels that were written and released in the late 70s to early 90s that feature a young (16-22), innocent, relatively weak-willed heroine paired with an older (30s, usually), domineering, arrogant, sexually aggressive hero who often saves the heroine from some sort of peril (and often was the sot who put her in that peril, just to be clear). The dialogue in these novels is often like this:
I don’t want to make value judgments. I like a whole lot of crap that would horrify other people, but I just really hate this style of romance novel. To me, it isn’t romantic to read the antics of a hero character who is all, “Of course she wants me! She might be saying no because [insert one: I raped her on our wedding night; I killed her father; I seduced and abandoned her sister; I’ve abducted her; etc.], but her eyes are saying Yes Yes Yes!!!” And to pair that nonsense with a heroine character who dithers back and forth between desire and shame (“I want him, but I don’t want to want him, because he [insert one: raped me on our wedding night; killed my father; seduced and abandoned my sister; abducted me; etc.], but when he waggles his eyebrows at me like that, I just melt inside, and I have no control over my wanton desires because I’m just a woman.”) it just leaves a foul taste in my mouth.
Given my profound dislike of this particular romance novel trope, I think it’s interesting that I purchased this book:
Cover image, Lord of Vengeance by Lara Adrian (writing as Tina St. John)
Everything about it screams bodice ripper (except the cover isn’t nearly cheesy enough). See for yourself… here’s the publisher’s blurb:
Taken captive by Gunnar Rutledge, a dark knight sworn to destroy her father, Raina d’Bussy must teach forgiveness to a man who knows no mercy and lives only to exact revenge on his enemy. But time in Gunnar’s keep stirs an unwanted passion in Raina, and something far more perilous, when she finds herself falling in love with the one man she should never desire.
For Gunnar, vengeance is all that matters. He seeks the ultimate price from his enemy’s beautiful young daughter, claiming Raina as his hostage. But the proud beauty defies him at every turn, tempting him like no other. Setting out to break Raina’s glorious spirit, Gunnar instead finds himself bewitched by her goodness, her strength. Can he seize the justice he is due without losing Raina forever?
So… captive heroine? check! Dark knight hero who lives to exact revenge on the heroine’s father? check! Unwanted passion stirred in the heroine? check! Hero setting out to break his captive’s spirit? check! And, finally, hero unexpectedly and unwillingly captivated by the heroine’s goodness? check!
But I bought this book (it was really cheap, but, still, I spent my own money on it) because I hoped that Gunnar would turn out to be the misunderstood hero (I love those) and that Raina would have some backbone (after all, she ‘defies him at every turn’ and has ‘strength’). My big problem with the archetypes in bodice rippers is not just that the hero is a total assmunch but that the heroine is a weak-sauce pansy who just accepts whatever the hero gives her as though it’s totally his right to be a douche-canoe. So I bought the book because (1) it was cheap and (2) there was a fairly decent chance that I would turn out liking it. Let me just interject a tiny little tangent here: if I had been browsing for this book in a physical book store and had to turn over real cash for it, I would not have purchased it. It is so much easier to blow a ton of money on books that ‘might be good’ when I purchase them online and download them to my nook.
I was a nail-biting ball of nerves throughout the first half of Lord of Vengeance, because Gunnar exudes all of the iconic traits of a bodice-ripper hero, and Raina, though she obviously possesses some steel and fortitude, keeps vacillating between being overcome by her fascination and desire for Gunnar and being overcome by guilt and shame for feeling those things. Most lamentably, there was a ‘you may say no, but your eyes say yes’ scene, and it pushed me perilously close to making the DNF decision. But I started reading the book after Kim over at Reflections of a Book Addict gave it a high rating, and I trust her ability to recommend books for me to read. Our taste is eerily similar.
As it turns out, I’m thrilled that I stuck with it and finished this book, because the second half of the book more than makes up for the uncertainty of the first half. Gunnar, it turns out, is really a squishy, peep-filled fuzzball who just wants to do the right thing and love Raina good. Raina discovers the power of her own femininity (total tangent: does anybody else have to count all the “in”s when typing that word?) and finds strength in her ability to trust and love bravely.
It really is beautiful, but I think the character transitions for both Gunnar and Raina could have been smoothed out a wee bit in the editing process. I’ve read books in which the characters undergo complete personality overhauls that aren’t explained in any way (other than plain ‘ol bad editing), and Lord of Vengeance is nothing like that, but the character development for both characters did seem a little abrupt. Gunnar was always a good guy–just pretending to be a bad guy in the beginning–and Raina was always a strong woman–just shocked into weakness by some of Gunnar’s more blatant antics–and both characters begin acting in a manner more true to themselves as they get to know one another and get more comfortable with each other.
The end is lovely, and I liked that Nigel (I know, right? Who the hell is Nigel?) played a foil to Gunnar’s evil reputation/squishy heart of gold. There was almost too little Nigel, though. He’s really the villain of the piece, but he’s not present throughout most of the book. I guess it’s OK, though, because he manages to cram a whole lot of evil antics into his few appearances.
Anyway, Lord of Vengeance is a great read, especially if you’re interested in a book that contains all the classic elements of a bodice ripper without being awful. I really enjoyed it.
And now, because I know you’re interested, this is what Gunnar looks like on the inside:
Gunnar’s inner fuzzball
He just wants to love you.