The Stolen Luck could have been absolutely horrible – and instead, it was one of the best romances I've read in a long time. It was sexy, thoughtful, painful, and very, very careful in its approach to its subject manner.
The Stolen Luck involves a setting is sort of a fairytale-like version of Old England – and it's very much a fairy tale version in that humans and elves can travel back and forth between the mundane world and the Land Between. When elves and humans had friendship, the Dupree family was given the Luck – a talisman that causes the Dupree vineyards to prosper. Since then, a rift has forced between humans and elves.
When the Luck is stolen, James Dupree, the head of the family, realizes that he will need an elf to guide him to and from the Lands Between to retrieve it, and he knows he will not be likely to find a willing elf guide. Despite his abhorrence of slavery, he wins an elfin slave in a card game and tells the elf, whose name is Loren, that if Loren will help him get the Luck, then James will free him.
Obviously, this book could have been full of the most horrible squick. I approached it with a not-inconsiderable amount of dread. But this is one of the most thoughtful, well-characterized novels I've read in a long time. It was lyrical, it was beautiful, and it was horrifying. I dare you to find a more simple and horrifying exchange than this one:
“Look”, he said at last. “I – what's your name?”
The elf shrugged. “Whatever you want it to be, Master.”
“What did [your previous master] call you?”
There is no glorifying or eroticizing of the master/slave relationship here. James is a decent man who wants to protect his family and behave with decency and honor towards Loren, but he doesn't trust Loren enough to free him, and that enslavement, however much it may be dressed up in courtesy and protection and care from James, is still enslavement. Loren does not suffer the physical traumas under Loren that he did under his previous owner, Alain, but it is made abundantly clear that that is not the point. As long as he is a slave, Loren cannot feel safe or, well, free. As long as he is a slave owner, James is able to use coercion as a fallback tactic – and, rarely, he does (in the form of verbal threats). His kindness makes these moments all the more of a betrayal – and, because James so desperately wants to be honorable, they illustrate how deeply corrupting the act of owning a slave is.
At the risk of belaboring this topic, I deeply admire the author, Shawna Reppert, for trying to get at the core of what makes slavery so fundamentally evil. It's easy to make a case for the evils of slavery when the slave has a master like Alain – one who is physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive. But while I think stories of the horrific abuse slaves often suffer are important to tell and to hear, they can also be used as an easy out, making it seem that the only problem with slavery comes when slaves are badly treated. There are no easy outs here. James does everything he can to make Loren comfortable, except for the one essential thing of freeing him. Without that action, all comforts are appreciated but essentially meaningless.
Happily, the author, Shawna Reppert, takes her time with this story. Loren and James interact alone, with fellow travelers, and with both of their families and friends. They work together in a variety of environments and conditions. There is action and suspense, but also long periods of calm during which they can get to know each other. James falls in love with Loren fairly quickly, but realizes that because Loren is a slave, no action on Loren's part towards James can be fully consensual, so James keeps the attraction secret, or tries to. It takes much longer for Loren to realize that he has fallen in love with James, but until James frees him he knows that they cannot have a healthy relationship.
Both of these characters are fully explored and developed. When they do stupid things, (that would be you, James, you stubborn dumbass) their motivations are clear and understandable (to the reader, not necessarily to anyone else). When they keep secrets from each other, things go badly. When they communicate fully, things go well (what a shock!). But it's so painfully, realistically hard for them to communicate well given their tangled relationship.
At its core, this book becomes a story about how two people help each other become better people. They care for each other, they respect each other, and they each have to become willing to make huge leaps of trust. The settings are gorgeous, the writing craft is lovely, and the romance is so well worth the journey. This book took a topic that I never would have imagined would work for me and wound up giving me what SB Sarah calls “Good book sigh”. Here's a paragraph to leave you with:
If they had met in a different time and place, without betrayal and war dividing their kinds, without the shadow of slavery between them, he might feel differently. James had been an ideal dance partner, all grace and contained strength, and considerate in smoothly leading where the mortal dance differed from the eleven version he knew. Prompting James to ask for a dance had been impulsive and perhaps unwise. Caught up in the festivities, he hadn't seen the harm until it was too late.
Doesn't that sound both angsty an intriguing? Don't you want to go read the book right now! Great! It will be time well spent.