I first noticed this book in Borders when I was working there as a bookseller (I miss my Borders, and I really miss my fellow employees. We have a standing date at our local pub on the 14th of every month so we don’t lose touch with each other and our facebook group is in honor of our favorite manager). It was shelved in African-American Fiction, but wouldn’t have been out of place in the regular Romance section, and I did have this thought process about where it should really go- but that wasn’t my call to make. The sticker said African-American fiction, in African American Fiction it went.
Anyway, I saw this book, and was vaguely intrigued, but it was during an impoverished spell, so I couldn’t get it, and then I forgot about it because my head was full of other things, and then the pirate book discussion in November happened, and someone mentioned it, and a lightbulb went off so I went and downloaded the sample.
And was not impressed.
I was intrigued by the leads, but I felt that the writing was kind of clunky and was trying a little bit too hard, and then I got into a crisis of “am I unconsciously doing that thing where because the author is black she therefore must be twice as good to be considered half as acceptable? Am I just a cranky bitch today? Or should I buy and review this book that I’m not impressed with so far because that demonstrates there’s an audience for romances with minority leads written by minority authors, and that will help the market for minority writers?” (Seriously, if I had the $11 to spare, I would have gone to see Abduction with Taylor Lautner to encourage the idea that a Native American actor can be a marketable lead in a blockbuster movie. Even though it looked, and by all accounts was, awful. But I didn’t have the $11 to spare, and I’m not sure he can act his way out of a paper bag.)
I want to try and explain what I mean by “be twice as good to be half as acceptable.” I know that is bullshit and it’s totally unfair, I do. But we all know it happens. And I was trying to unpack my reaction, which as a white woman, I know comes loaded with all sorts of privilege. So in the interests of honesty, both with myself and with you guys, it’s something I had to consider- was I having this thought process in my subconscious? I honestly don’t know the answer to that. At this point, the best I can do is admit that it’s a possibility.
So I eventually decided, after three days of this existential crisis (and, honestly, if “buying a book for my Kindle” didn’t take up the bulk of my entertainment budget for the month, I would have had a much shorter crisis) (I’m so tired of being an impoverished student. It’s less awesome at 33 than it was at 23) to just buy it.
I’m so glad I did. I don’t know what it was about the first two chapters, or if the writing improved, or if my mood just improved, but this is a great story. And Jenkins does what makes a Redheadedgirl’s nerdy little heart go pitter-patter: she shows her fucking work. (Down to an author’s note and a small bibliography, but there are other ways she shows her work and I will love her forever for it.)
It’s the middle of the American Revolution. Our hero is Dominic, the bastard son of a French duke and a freed slavewoman from his plantation in Martinique. (The story ignores the inherent problem of a master falling in love with one of his slaves- even though he freed her, there’s such a huge power imbalance and it made me uncomfortable, but it’s not the focus of the story and I’ll just let it go now that I’ve said my bit.) Anyway, the duke dies, and Dominic’s brother has inherited, and announces that he’s going to head over to Martinique and take charge of his slaves- except that Dom’s father freed all of those slaves when Dom was born. Edourd (the evil brother) doesn’t give a shit, so Dom runs (like the fucking WIND) to Martinique to gather up the workers there and settles them all in a small island and takes up piracy to support them.
He’s super hot, by the way.
So then we meet Clare, who is the “pet” of a spoiled woman from Savannah, Georgia. They were on their way to England when Dom takes their ship, see Clare, and declares that he Is taking her, too- she’s gorgeous, and he, for perfectly understandable reasons, doesn’t like slavery. He takes Clare (after her mistress tells her to go, because “think of the rest of us!”) and installs her in his cabin.
She is not having any bullshit about sex, mostly she just wants to go home. He tells her to get some sleep, and discovers that she has never slept in a bed. Ever.
“Violet also treats me as a pet, of sorts.”
“Yes. She dresses me up in the latest fashions and parades me around as if I were an exotic parrot that as been taught to read and mimic it’s betters. I play the harpsichord, speak four languages, know the latest dances and how to sue my cutlery properly. She also thinks that when we travel to Europe, dressing me this way will make people believe that I am not a slave and thus prevent them rescuing me and offering me freedom.”
She is insistent at returning to Savannah because she has two children there- two children who were sold from her when Clare’s owners were low on cash. But she gets to see them every Sunday, and as she point out to Dom, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
Dom would REALLY like to engage in sexytimes, but upon learning that Clare’s only two sexual experiences were for the purposes of breeding (men chosen by Violet and no pleasure involved for anyone), he decides she deserves a bed. But not before bringing her to orgasm just from playing with her boobs.
They get to Dom’s island paradise, mostly populated by the people he rescued from Martinique, but not before running into a slaver ship that Dom sinks. But doesn’t kill the captain because the plot required that the evil captain show up later.
Seriously, people, you run into your arch enemy, YOU KILL HIM. It’s in the handbook.
Once at the island paradise, Clare sees people from Africa who are not slaves, who work hard for their own sakes, and not at the beck and call of anyone. And she gets to enjoy sunsets. She and Dom fall in love, but she wants to go back to Savannah for her kids. Dom offers to go rescue them, but she’s afraid that if they try, and fail, she’ll never see them again- she’s afraid to hope.
What I loved about this book is the small details that gave the picture Jenkins painted such depth. From details that told me she understood how 18th century clothing worked (stays, shift, split skirts) to a thing about Dom having pistols tied to a lace that he draped around his neck (fire, drop and you don’t lose them!) showed me that she knew her shit and wasn’t afraid to use it.
One minor character is Theodora, the aunt of Violet, who was the one who thought to educate Clare, based on a bet- Theodora bet Violet’s father that a slave given an education could be as “genteel as its betters.” Theodora turns out to be a huge help to Clare and Dom…but that statement is really telling- like she believes that slaves are human, but still not on the same level as white people. This is a realistic character. People like this still exist.
Which the villains- well. I mean, romance villains aren’t always the most nuanced bunch, but the villainous women (one of Dom’s ex-flings and his father’s wife) (these are two different women- that would be seriously fucked up otherwise) were all in the “slutting it up all over the Carribean” type and I don’t really like that. Violet, of course, isn’t slutting it up all over the Carribean, but she is shallow, vapid, and cruel to Clare just for the sake of being cruel. I’m okay with the Evilwash the Archenemy gets (seriously, what he does is pretty awful, and so specific that I don’t think Jenkins came up with it on her own- that must have been a thing she found in the record), but in general, I like villains to have a little texture.
I found the writing to be kind of uneven- sometimes it was awkward and stilted, and sometimes she would come out with some really evocative prose:
Dominic saw her mask slip, and for just a moment her myriad emotions became visible. Before he could get a true handle on what she might be thinking, the barrier hiding her inner thoughts was firmly back in place, and she was looking up into his eyes.
Clare meets a number of people that want to know who she is and where she came from, and instead of rewriting the same damn story over and over (Jean M. Auel, I’d be looking at you, but I’m pretty sure you have a ghostwriter doing your books now) there’s a couple of times where we just get “Clare told her story.” Which I applaud the concept, I really do. But the execution was lacking.
Finally, I want to talk about why I think this book is important- it addresses slavery in a way that I don’t think a white author could do. This subject is not academic to Jenkins, there’s a pain there that comes through. It felt so real and so authentic. Clare not being certain where in Africa she came from; her refusal to dare to hope or dream when she knows that hopes and dreams aren’t luxuries she can afford to have. Fear that if she’s pregnant from all the sexytimes that the baby will be sold away from her. Joy in the simple act if being able to enjoy a sunset, because her entire life had been spent working from sunup to sundown.
The author’s note tells me that this is part of a trilogy, and is really the prequel to the other books, which I will be checking out when I’m more flush. And I did get another sample with the tease, “After Black Seminole Teresa July's bank robbing career is cut short by a three-year prison sentence…” I LOVE BANK ROBBING HEROINES.
I’ll admit, I haven’t read a lot of African-American authors, beyond the depressing stuff they made us read in high school. But you can bet your asses I’ll be reading more of Jenkins. Flaws aside, I think she has stories that not a lot of people are telling. And I want to read them.