You never forget your first.
You don’t forget your first kiss (Mike, and I had to guilt him into kissing me, because he was too much of wuss to try, and I was too much of a girly-wuss to kiss first), your first flower (Dave, whose great moments were always involving flowers but didn’t have a lot to back that up), your first Doctor (Oh, Nine. Your time was too short. But fantastic!).
This was my first romance. Again, around the age of 12 or 13. Picked it up because it was about Vikings, and my family is Scandinavian therefore Vikings are AWESOME, and I found the whole “slave/master” thing to be very…. intriguing (oh god, I hope my mother doesn’t EVER track these reviews down).
And, um, the guy on the original cover? Fabio. Yeah.
You never forget your first.
(Also, and here’s a confession that could ruin me, I once made a (really shitty) version of the dress that Zarabeth is wearing on the cover for an SCA event (middle ages and renaissance re-enactment). TO BE FAIR, it was the first set of garb I made for my own self, barring the very first attempt that failed miserably, because I had NO idea what the hell I was doing, and I did wear the underdress for years later, because it was serviceable but this was before I knew that $5 linen from Joann’s was to be avoided. OH GOD THE SHAME.) (And the cover dress is not anything like Viking Apron Dresses in any way or form, but the descriptions in the book itself are pretty close and about what I would expect from the state of research in the mid to late 90s. So there’s that.) (Which is to say that the rest of the clothing descriptions are…. not always as right as they could be, but that’s about normal.)
So this is Catherine Coulter at her early 90s, old school finest. I mean, for a taste of her early stuff, you can look at the review for Devil’s Embrace or Midsummer Magic (The first romance I ever read – SBSarah), and there’s many a theme that she runs with that shows up in all of her Viking books, and probably elsewhere too. We’re looking at the “rapist hero,” the “convoluted ways to keep your heroine a virgin,” the “hero is the one to inform the heroine she’s pregnant” but mostly avoids the “wedding night is a horribly awkward affairs where the hero loses his mind, and fall asleep right after with the heroine thinking “what the shit was that?”” which shows up in her other Viking books. Girl’s clearly got some issues.
First we meet Magnus. He is a Viking in search of a wife. He’s got himself a nice little farm, with his people, and son from his first marriage that ended with the wife dying (though not in childbirth, so props for avoiding that tired cliché- though there are plenty more to choose from). So now he’s in York, and he wants a new wife.
Enter Zarabeth, who is Irish, with flaming red hair “…dark as blood when there was no sun to lightening it” and green eyes like “wet moss.” (Magnus has blue eyes that change shades with his mood, I suppose we should be glad neither of them have purple eyes). She lives with her stepfather and little half sister Lotti- her mother died (read: killed by stepfather) while apparently running away with another man, and Lotti suffered a blow to the head at 2 years old that made her deaf. Zarabeth’s stepfather, Olav the Vain lusts after Zarabeth and scares away all the men that come sniffing around because her hair drives them wild, or something. Olav also has a son from a previous marriage, Keith, who is married to a real catch, Toki.
So Magnus approaches Zarabeth and says, “My name is Magnus, I am not cruel or vicious and I am going to wed with you.” She’s like “Whut” and he says that he’s clean, and prosperous, and he does not lie. She, after some hemming and hawing (for about a day) agrees, and just when you think that the HEA comes in a page 7, Olav announces that no, she is not going to marry Magnus, she’s going to marry him, and uses Lotti as a bargaining piece, saying unless Zarabeth does what he says, he’ll have Lotti killed.
(They are a very functional family, you can tell.)
A note about Lotti: She’s not really a plot moppet, because she an actual fleshed out character who has importance beyond “keep the heroine from doing the one thing that would solve her problems.” She’s cute, and smart, and the only thing in the world Zarabeth really cares about (and is really the only thing in the world that cares about Zarabeth).
So Zarabeth meets Magnus, and dumps him, and he gets pissy and storms off. Zarabeth, in a show of not being spineless, which is one thing I really like about her- she’s not stupid, she’s not spineless, she’s just really unlucky- drugs Olav, grabs Lotti and tries to find Magnus’ ship and run off with him. But he, in his snit, has left for Norway already. Olav marries her, (and she wears PINK at the wedding. PINK. ON A REDHEAD. NO.) but drinks and eats so much at the wedding feast that he can’t seal the deal, and then spends the next several weeks afflicted with bloody bowels, because Toki has been poisoning Olav. When he does die, Zarabeth is accused of his murder. Instead of being killed, she is given to Magnus (who has come back for some unknown, but well timed, reason) as his slave.
Magnus’ defining characteristic is that he does not lie. And he assumes that the people around him don’t lie, until they do. When Zarabeth tells him that she won’t marry him (but can’t tell him why, because they were being watched), he decides that her previous “Why yes, handsome stranger who I’ve known for all of 12 hours and is a really great kisser, yes I will marry you!” statement is the lie, and anything else she says after that, with the exception of “No, I won’t marry you because I don’t want to” is also a lie.
So he brings her (and Lotti- she sneaks out and grabs Lotti and begs him to bring her, too. Again, not stupid or spineless, she’s trying control the one thing she can) home to his steading. At one point in the journey, they stop at a trading post, where she is given time in a bathhouse to get her and Lotti cleaned up, and a random man approaches them, and tries to convince her to go with HIM, instead of Magnus. Z is like “Go away” Magnus sees them talking and storms over all “ALPHA MALE SMASH” and the Random Guy is like “Dude, she called me over with her womanly charms and was telling me about how mean you are, and tried to get me to take her away! TOTALLY.” and because Magnus will believe anyone except Z, even as she’s trying to tell him the truth, he puts a slave collar around her neck and everyone sulks all the way home.
He brings her home, and everyone is like “WHOA RED HAIR HOSHIT” and Z is determined to get along as best she can, and ideally avoid having to serve him in his bed (Given that this is a Catherine Coulter book, you can guess how well that last part works out for her). Magnus’ sister, Ingunn is the one who is running the household, and knows a rival when she sees one, and immediately develops a hate-on for Z. Everyone else is like “Dude, we can all see that you totes have feelings for her and she hurt you terribly, maybe you’re being a bit of an ass?” and Magnus responds THAT HE HAS NO FEELINGS SHE JUST A SLAVE GODDAMMIT and everyone is like “…ooooookay.”
So then we get to the Great Defloration. It’s rape- there’s really no two ways about it. The reviews on Amazon tend to be either “Uh, rape” or “LOOK ITS JUST DARK OKAY ITS NOT RAPE.” No, she says no, she says leave me alone, she runs. Sure, he makes sure she has her “Woman’s pleasure” afterward, but she’s “humiliated” and “felt desolate” and “completely separate from him.” He does this three times that first night and morning, including one in the bathing hut where….
…alright, this is going to be a case of “romance novels as sex ed” because when I first read the bathing hut scene, where he’s sitting and plunks her down on his shaft and he says “Move about, as you like” I HAD NO IDEA WHAT THE HELL HE WAS TALKING ABOUT. Waist bends? Get up and leave? WHAT WAS GOING ON HERE. I eventually figured it out. Romance: also educational.
So, yeah. Ingunn hates her, Magnus’ mother offers to buy Z from him to restore peace, and he’s like “NO SHE IS MINE I NEED HER HERE.” His mother asks why; if she’s the cause of so much trouble and he says he doesn’t really know. His mother says “…possibly love?” and he says NO. The Viking doth protest too much.
(His mother also points out that Random Dude had a really good reason to lie about Z calling him over and asking him to take her- he didn’t want to get killed. This had literally not occurred to Magnus, who was so wrapped up in “Everything Z says = LIES” that any other possibility was automatically false.)
Finally, shit comes to a head when Ingunn is being a supreme bitch, Magnus keeps insisting on sex that is enjoyable but not wanted, Magnus’ son, Evil, is beating up Lotti, and Z’s like “I’m done” and tries to swipe a boat and just leave. But the currents in the fjords are tricky, and Lotti ends up overboard and is seen no more. Egil then vanishes, seemingly out of guilt for his beating her up being the proximate cause of her death, and so Magnus does the only logical thing:
He has the slave collar taken off Z and he marries her.
I’m not all that sure of his thought process here- life has finally hit rock bottom, so do what you planned to do in the first place?
At this point, the B plot shows up. There had been a couple mentions early on of a guy named Orm who had made an offer of marriage for Ingunn and was turned down by her father because he was a supreme asshole. Ingunn disappears in a snit. Then some riders come along and tell Magnus of an attack on a neighboring household that killed everybody, but one 12 year old girl who was left for dead, and identified Orm and his men as the attackers. So in true Scandinavian fashion, they all need to gather up a meeting and talk about it (I’m from Minnesota, and third generation Swedish. WE STILL DO THIS).
Magnus goes off, and, naturally, Orm shows up and kidnaps Z (seriously, the way people disappear around here, you’d think they’d have some sort of lo-jack system). There’s a chase, threatened rape, eventually Z escapes (after knocking Orm out and stealing his sword, which was kind of awesome, and then refuses to let anyone take the sword from her, which was TOTALLY awesome) and runs into Magnus, who had been trailing them. He’s extremely relieved to see her alive, and allows that he may, possibly, have feelings after all. She’s extremely relieved to see him coming after her, and allows that maybe she kind of does like him, at all.
They go back to the steading, and then Orm attacks it and burns it down, and swipes Ingunn (again- I’m saying, Viking-era lo-jack), who had been involved with the entire plot. At this point, Z is taken to fainting for no reason, and Magnus smugly tells her that she is pregnant. Then they actually have a sweet little conversation about how this new baby won’t be a replacement for either Lotti or Egil, but will be it’s own little person and they can be happy about that. Aw.
So, somehow, someone finds a scrap of cloth that had been part of Lotti’s dress the day she drowned, and it’s proof that Lotti isn’t dead after all! And something Orm said to Z while he was taunting her indicated that the kids were both in York. Because there are only two places in the world. I don’t know.
So Magnus quickly rebuilds the steading, because winter is coming and you need shelter, and then trots off to York. Z insists on coming with, and they argue, and she’s like “Fuck you and your whole “keeping me safe” shit- how well has THAT worked out?” and he’s like “FINE” and she’s like “FINE” and then he says that he’s horny and sad things will happen to him if they don’t get it on, and she says well that would be sad, and they have fairly normal, married people sex.
When they get there, they go see the king, who says, “Oh, yeah, I remember you, you were accused of killing your husband.” Z’s like “well, yes, that was me, except for the part where I didn’t do It.” and the king is like “Oh yeah, we know that- Toki confessed when she was drunk and Keith killed her. Our bad.” And Z doesn’t demand huge compensation, just the money the Magnus paid for her. I would have been like “DO YOU HAVE ANY FUCKING CLUE WHAT ALL HAPPENED THERE WHAT THE FUCK” and probably spit in someone’s face, so I guess it’s somewhat better that Z’s a more restrained person than I am.
Yeah. Anyway, Ingunn somehow managed to sneak into York and was trying to buy back the kids and have them sent back to Magnus, but Orm found her, and dragged her and kids back to his new homestead, and beat the shit out of her. She managed to lure him into a room, knock him out, and set the place on fire, and then promptly lost her mind. So Magnus shows up at that point, cleans up, finds the kids, and everyone lives happily ever after.
So, yeah. This is decidedly Old School. And not that good, and not really hillarable at all. There are parts I like- I really do like Zarabeth. I like how she used Lotti in the narrative as an actual character and not a Plot Moppet. I, god help me, actually kind of like her voice for dialogue- it sounds kinda Viking like without being too obnoxious.
I don’t like how Magnus has to get his rape on before he can figure his shit out. I don’t like how Orem’s motivation for everything is because he (Orm) did not get to marry Magnus’ first wife. That’s it. He lost the hypotenuse game ten years before. And because of this he….rapes and kills a bunch of people, kidnaps Z, burns down Magnus’ steading, kidnaps the kids….. yeah, I don’t know. (Or maybe the idea is, he was clearly an asshole, and that’s why he lost the hypotenuse game and the focused his psychopathy. It’s not clear, and THAT is the frustrating thing.)
All that said, you never forget your first, and you often have a kind of soft spot for it, no matter how bad. I mean, it did teach me a thing or two. If there wasn’t all the nostalgia factors wrapped up in it, it would be more like a C+, but I have a soft spot for this book.
There was, evidently, some research that Coulter did, but there is one flaw I cannot and will not forgive. Early on, she’s describing the food Z is making for Olav, and talks a LOT about potatoes.
I PROMISE YOU AND YOU AND YOU AND THE STALKER IN THE BACK SHE DID NOT SERVE ANYONE POTATOES IN YORK IN 900 AD.
Potatoes are a NEW WORLD food, and they did not appear in England until the 1500s at the earliest. SO. Crack open your Oxford Companion to Food (what do you mean, you don’t have one?) and double check on what foodstuffs were available in the time and place you have set. IT IS NOT HARD.