Book Review

Blackbird by Grace Draven

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Title: Blackbird
Author: Grace Draven
Publication Info: Amber Quill Press 2005
ISBN: 1592793533
Genre: Historical: European

Candy:

OK, first of all? This novella is marketed as historical erotica by its publisher, Amber Quill Press. The reality? I’ve read hotter, more detailed love scenes in short stories from mainstream anthologies. I was expecting nookie—oceans and rivers and fountains of it—and instead found one four-page love scene in 54 pages of story. It’s even a pretty standard in-out, in-out scene, though BONUS! A bodice (OK, chemise) does get ripped. Somewhat unfairly, this impacted my opinion of the book, and really, this is not necessarily Draven’s fault. It’s:

1. The publisher’s fault, for labeling the novella inaccurately; and

2. My fault, for being a smut-hungry hussy who feels cranky when she expects copious scenes of inventive sexx0r, only to be denied.

And second of all: this is not a complete story unto itself. There are many, many loose ends (including the love story and HEA) that Draven will wrap up in a sequel. Again, an indication that this is the first installment in a series on the publisher’s part would’ve been good.

The story features a pretty standard Wrongly Accused Hero plot. Colin Wyndham is the illegitimate son of the Earl of Montcleve, and when right on the cusp of manhood, is quite conveniently found clutching a bloody knife next to daddy-o’s lifeless body in the study. I’m not sure why innocent people are so enamored with splashing themselves with blood and grabbing the murder weapon when they stumble upon a grisly death; common sense would normally dictate that one throw up, then scream like a little girl and run for help, but on the other hand, whole writing careers have been built with this sort of scenario, so why break with tradition? At any rate, Colin runs off and becomes a pirate captain—probably because being a pirate bo’sun doesn’t have quite the same heroic ring to it.

Fast forward a few years, and we meet our statuesque heroine and orgasmless widow, Kate Abbot. To her credit, Kate loved her husband, even if he was weedy and bespectacled and lousy in bed and womanish enough to die of consumption. (Side note: my personal experience has been that weedy, bespectacled boys tend to be good in the sack because they KNOW they have to compensate for their lack of studly good looks. Also: they’re usually very, very happy to get a girl and tend to be, well, accommodating, shall we say… Anyway, enough TMI, back to reviewing.)

Kate moved to Barbados following her husband’s death to be with her brother, who’s a commodore. One day, while accompanying her brother on parade inspection duties on a military compound, she notices a prison warden brutally beating a chained prisoner with a riding quirt. What does a gently-reared, recently widowed Englishwoman do?

The only thing she could do, of course. Run over (with skirts hitched up to her knees, no less), wrench the quirt from the warden and start beating the everloving snot out of him, while the prisoners watch on, appropriately speechless.

Naturally, she feels indignant when her brother tells her off for being a crazy-ass bitch. Now, I’m fairly used to feisty romance heroines, but this woman deserves a whole new category. Like, a “Tonya Harding On Altruistic Crack” category. OK, I’ll admit I enjoyed how the prison warden got his ass handed to him, because I generally enjoy watching and reading about women kicking patoot, but there was a definite “Oh are you SHITTING me?” feeling to the whole scene.

Anyway, one of the prisoners immediately decides to take advantage of the proximity of convenient hostage material and nabs our winsome Kate. This man is, of course, no other than Colin Wyndham, scheduled to hang for the crimes of patricide and piracy in just a few days. Using Kate as his bargaining chip, he manages to free his fellow prisoners (including the members of his crew who were captured with him) and scarper back to his ship, the Blackbird, conveniently anchored, unguarded and fully-manned, in a nearby cove. Which, again, are you SHITTING me? The pirate captain and key members of the crew are caught, but the military made no effort to find and secure the ship when it’s just minutes away?

The rest of the story involves the chase as the Blackbird tries to make its way to the relative safety of Tortuga, and Kate’s seduction by Colin, who is, as Kate’s brother noted, “ever popular among the strumpets” (hee!). Oh, and then there’s a plot twist, which I won’t give away—no, not even with the turn-text-to-white spoiler thing I do every now and then—but trust me: out of all the hostages in all of Barbados, Colin is lucky indeed to have nabbed this particular chippy because she’s the key to saving his ass and proving his innocence.

Overall, Draven’s writing style isn’t too bad. It does verge towards lilac in spots, especially the love scenes, but I’ve read a lot worse. The use of some standard romance cliches (the orgasmless widow, the feisty heroine who’s willing to take on all comers and come on all takers [no, wait, I only WISHED Kate had come on all takers] despite what one presumes is a sheltered upbringing, the emasculation of the first husband) didn’t thrill me, either, but at least Draven didn’t take it all the way and make, say, the husband abusive on top of being sexually ineffective.

The story does suffer from significant pacing problems, though. The novella starts in a very leisurely fashion, as if it were a full-length novel. The set up is quite good as a whole, aside from Kate’s impression of a certain batshit insane figure-skater-turned-pugilist, but it’s not suited to a 54-page story. As a consequence, the last few bits are incredibly rushed, and Kate happily tumbles into bed with her captor after only a few days at sea and a really good dinner conversation. It’s not that I don’t think this sort of thing can happen; I just didn’t buy into it in this particular instance because I didn’t get to see Kate interact all that much with Colin, and what little interaction there is, is antagonistic up until the dinner and the performance of the humpty dance. And as I noted before, I didn’t know this wasn’t a stand-alone story, and the ending perplexed me until I e-mailed Draven for confirmation that yes, there WILL be a sequel.

In short: this novella would’ve been a lot better if it had been much more even in tone and pacing, instead of being crispy on the outside and doughy and unset in the middle. And not in a good way, like a chocolate lava cake. More like a chiffon cake that hadn’t been baked long enough.

Sarah:

We need to make a category for “erotica/romantica” on our site because Candy and I both like us some romantic nookie action. That being said, there was not nearly enough erotic action for this to be an historical erotica novella. There was a hot, descriptive, cock-laden love scene, but there wasn’t a powder-keg build-up of tension or any other sexual interaction, just a minor spat over dinner that led to some in-and-out sex.

The other element that I felt was missing was a full twist on the established cliches. Draven already made her heroine tall, and curvy, and buxom, and contrasting her with the dainty and petite sister in law made it clear to me she wasn’t the average romance heroine. Add to that her incredibly short-sighted assing of the prison guard and I get it loud and clear: she is not average.

But then, to make her an orgasmless widow, it’s like when a figure skater (to keep up with the Tonya-Harding-on-Altruistic-Crack analogy) goes up in the air to spin four times before landing, and her leg pops out and she manages just one half of a twist before landing. Making Kate an Orgasmless Widow is the author’s leg popping out of her midair twist-on-cliche. Candy is right: the nerdy guys learn fast how to get it on. So why not have her a multi-orgasm widow? Why not have her hungering for some man action as she sits in her black dresses unable to really socialize with anyone aside from family? The restrictions of mourning on women at that time were pretty daunting; granted there was tremendous freedom once one came out of mourning, but still, being able to take a lover and finding that same companionship as she had with her husband would be very difficult. To make Kate this tall, strong, powerfully tempered woman, then to sell her short in the sex department, left me with a, “Darn it, why not go all the way, here?” feeling. And really, it’s an erotic novella; it should go all the way, circle around, come back, and go all the way again.

Now, I feel like a right heel for doing this, because I’m second guessing the author’s decisions, but I have to say it. Suppose for a moment that she was a multi-orgasmed widow, desperate for action. And she gets herself kidnapped and held on board a pirate ship with a hot, manly captain who has been in prison for quite awhile, and prior to that on a ship full of men. Now thems is some sex-crazed individuals, and a ripe scenario for an erotic novella. As it is in present form, the orgasmless widow and the well-sexed-but-not-recently hero who just got sprung from prison, is a solid thump back into cliche-land. While I am shamed to find myself being something of a backseat writer in this review, I have to point out that this particular cliche was surprising to find in an erotica novel, many of which exist to twist cliches of romance and sexuality on their ears and spin them around some more.

Aside from the TPS report Candy sent from the Too Much Reality Suspended Department, from the eagerly awaiting pirate ship, to the fierce attack on the guard, my disappointment in this novella rests mainly in the lack of action – nookee action. I have no problem suspending reality, and really, sometimes some over-the-top fantasy in a romance makes me very happy to leave my own reality and live in such a completely convenient world. But leaving me with an, “Oh, but…” feeling is not enough of a reality suspension.

However, that all being said, the writing style is snappy – there were parts of description that could have been explicated, but Draven does have an ear for language that depicts an engrossing image, and her dialogue, particularly between Colin and Kate, is snappy enough to keep me reading. Even if the cliches piled too high for my liking, good dialogue will redeem a story with me any time. Arrrrgh.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    E.D'Trix says:

    Wow—a 4-page love scene equals erotic novella? Not to my employers…

    I don’t know how y’all feel about regency erotic romance, but you may want to give A Gentleman Seduced by Sharon Page (Ellora’s Cave) a try. It breaks a few cliches wide open, while sticking with a few too.

    It is not a book meant to be taken dead seriously, but if you read it tongue in cheek it is great fun!

  2. 2
    Candy says:

    Oooh, thanks for the recommendation. You know what would be fun fodder for a Regency-set erotic romance? When Duennas Go Bad. Imagine, a professional chaperone who’s also a discreet professional Something Else, who knows all the ways of foiling amorous trysts because she knows allll the tricks herself. Kind of like one of those hire-a-thief-to-foil-a-thief capers. But then talk about needing to suspend disbelief for a story premise like that….

  3. 3
    E.D'Trix says:

    Hell, Candy—in the world of erotic romance that would work… Now, gets to writin’!

  4. 4
    Candy says:

    Right after I write the one about the bored Lady Helene and her beautiful, bisexual, 22-year-old gardener.

    I have another one in which the hero decides to satisfy the young debutante heroine’s curiosity about All Sorts of Things because he catches her indulging (ahem) with the hot young stableboy, and he reckons he’ll help keep her out of trouble.

    And then there’s one about the painfully shy young man and his crush on his older brother’s beautiful widow.

    I’m a regular fount of erotic romance ideas. Many of them seem to center around bored aristocratic women and younger men, heee. I just wish I could write fiction worth a damn. Sighhhhh. Right now I just have loads and loads of fun playing the story in my head like a movie, and once that’s resolved to my satisfaction, I move on to the next tale.

  5. 5
    Sarah says:

    I have the same habit. I alternate between a paranormal storyline, a contemporary storyline, and a Regency all in my head, and work them out cerebrally until I move on – or until I find another book to distract myself.

  6. 6
    white raven says:

    *groans* but smiles as well.  Ladies, I bow in much cringing appreciation.  :-) 

    Seriously, while good critique can be hard to take at times, I truly appreciate this.  This kind of stuff goes a long way to helping me improve in later books. 

    Believe it or not, I do write more hard core stuff, but reserve it for fanfiction.  Your responses to this has let me know that the romance audience outside of fanfic is definitely ready for the racier stuff. 

    I’m highlighting many of the believability issues you’ve both pointed out and tacking them up on my reference board for when I complete the sequel.  All good stuff.

    Too be honest, while I flinch, I also grin.  That was a damn good dose of snark, and I appreciate you both taking the time out to give Blackbird a scan.  Critique like that can be gold if you know how to put it to good use.

    Thank you!

  7. 7
    Sarah says:

    white raven, bring on the hard core! All the publishers might not be ready but us readers are. We are definitely ready to have cliches and sexual standards turned on their ear – and certainly ready to read about mad mad nookie action.

    I’m sure having your work critiqued by us snarque-filled bitches is a tough experience, but the fact that you sent your work to us means you have some serious femme-cojones. You have quite a good ear for dialogue and it ain’t like I was bored reading Blackbird. Kick ass and take names on your next work!

  8. 8
    Candy says:

    Given that mainstream publishers like Berkley are marketing Emma Holly as romance and the success of Ellora’s Cave, I definitely think there’s a significant readership who’s ready and willing for more sexiness in their reading material. I know I am.

    Anyway, I’m glad you found our snarkery helpful. Go ahead and use Monica’s Author Calming Guide on me if you like , I ain’t afeared :lol: .

  9. 9
    white raven says:

    Ladies, really, I don’t have the money to buy good critique like this.  So I’m grateful to get it for free.  I’m not brown-nosing here.  The good stuff pulls no punches.  I’m of the opinion if you want to improve, you seek out concrits like this and learn from them.  Besides, I’ve been writing in the fanfic arena for a couple of years now.  Readers are brutal in that arena.  You develop a thick skin very quickly. 

    As for the more racy fiction, send me an e-mail and I’ll send you some links to some of my stuff as well as to others who write some most excellent erotica. 

    *cough, cough* – Now then, if either of you would ever like to beta-read a fiction that I’m currently working on, let me know.  I’ll e-mail you what I have along with a scalpel and a red pen.    :-)

    Oh, and here’s something I think you and others on SB might enjoy.  These two historians have set up a community on Live Journal called History Spork.  They slam movies for historical inaccuracies.  The first entry is a real hoot.

    http://www.livejournal.com/users/fourth_rose/44345.html

    Again, thank you two very much.  And I mean that.  I now feel oooo-ficial with my SmartBitch review.  Woohoo!

  10. 10
    Candy says:

    Holy shit! That Livejournal link was awesome. “This is no time for earth logic, little one.” Hee!

  11. 11
    beejay says:

    Okay, for me, that would have been one horny broad, PMSing like mad, and it would be a wonder she didn’t kill the warden with her bare hands.  I mean, here’s this studly hunk o’ man meat, the likes of which she’s never gotten any of, and this troll is beating him bloody.  I ask you, what else could she do?

    Okay, so that’s the way I would write it.  Probably why I don’t write historicals.  :grin:

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