Blame it on Bindel, man, blame it on Bindel. When she claimed in a Guardian On-Line article that romance novels represented “misogynistic hate speech” and cited various romance novel titles and back cover copy as proof, the heat, as they say in Kitchen Stadium, was on. Assorted people agreed to review the book as part of an examination of whether Bindel’s accusations had any bite, and we Smart Bitches joined in, of course. The good folks of Teach Me Tonight (is it wrong of me that I want to dub them The Professor Sisters (and one Professor Brother) and wish they’d make weird animated Internet videos about pop culture studies?) have amassed a pretty comprehensive round-up of links for all the commentary and reviews on Virgin Slave, Barbarian King.
Sarah posted her review earlier today, and I’ll say she’s spot-on about most of the issues that bugged me, so I won’t go into detail about them here. The amazing speed with which the conflicts are resolved (the heroine falls in love with the hero, I shit you not, about three days after he kidnaps her and makes her his slave), the anachronisms, the annoying heroine… They made for a book that was simultaneously irritating and boring.
There were, however, several other things about this book that struck me as worthy of dissection and discussion that Sarah didn’t cover in her review.
The hero, for one. He is a species of romance novel hero who is as far away from compelling for me as it gets without actively inciting revulsion. He’s the bestest warrior in all the land. He’s supernaturally patient with the heroine and her spunky shenanigans. He won’t tolerate the mistreatment of women. He’s loyal to his king. He’s a good Christian and won’t tolerate the destruction of churches. Children love him. Animals adore him. He’s so perfect, I wouldn’t be surprised if cartoon bluebirds fly about and twitter musically every time he takes a crap. He is, in short, a Gary Sue. I hesitate to use the term “politically correct” as any sort of pejorative in a serious sense, because all too often I’ve seen it being used by assholes who want to spout something sexist or racist while attempting to couch their opinion as unpopular but universal truth, but here I am saying this anyway: Wulfric is a politically correct hero, and hot damn, does that ever make him tiresome.
On one hand, I really appreciate the move away from asshole rapist heroes in the genre. I really, really do. If I had to choose between a violent assmunch like the hero in The Flame and the Flower or a paragon of all things virtuous like Wulfric, I’d still pick Wulfric, tiresome though he is. On the other hand, he’s not a human so much as he is a Ken Doll, except instead of plastic, he’s molded from untempered wish fulfillment. This Plastic Perfect Guy quality to Wulfric makes Bindel’s mention of Virgin Slave, Barbarian King in the article in The Guardian rather ironic; her accusation that this book is one of the examples of “misogynistic hate speech” is completely defused by the fact that the book opens with the hero saving the heroine from being raped. (Sarah Frantz noticed this, too.)
The Gary Suism is merely a symptom of the fact that the book attempts to play with the idea that the so-called barbarians aren’t the truly barbarous ones, and that the civilized world is often uncivil. This is worthy territory to explore; alas, that’s been covered many times before by many different authors, most of them writing execrable Indian romances, and Allen doesn’t provide anything new or meaty to ponder. In fact, her portrayals of the Visigoths vs. the Romans create caricatures worthy of old-school Westerns in terms of which group we’re clearly supposed to root for and which ones we’re supposed to boo. What I did find interesting, however, is how the Race to be Resuscitated in this particular instance is tall, blond and Germanic. The rather condescending “but they’re real people, REALLY” tone is usually applied to Native Americans and sundry non-whites, especially in Romancelandia. That inversion in race and racial expectations was somewhat interesting, and God knows there was a lot of potential for stuff that, if not comprehensive in scope, at least feels emotionally real, but the cultural differences and attitudes aren’t so much skimmed over in this novel as flown over at the height of several thousand feet; you can see a sea of interesting issues waiting to be plumbed, but all you can do is wave to its pretty contours from the double-paned window as the story whooshes by at high speed.
And as an auxiliary consequence of the facile treatment of the culture, you get what I have dubbed the People in Renn Faire Drag effect: the characters are essentially modern people in costume. I realize that there are real difficulties in creating convincing characters from a distant era; so much of our conception of acceptable behavior has changed over the past 1600 years that it can be hard to create characters who are both sympathetic to our modern sensibilities while remaining authentic to their era in history. I don’t expect—or want—complete authenticity. I do expect, however, that the characters will not engage in musings that smack of modern psychoanalysis, philosophical conceptions of self and freedom that were first popularized during the Enlightenment, or 20th-century embracements of pluralism and multi-culturalism. (As a side note: This book, besides being irritatingly modern in tone, also had a hilarious habit of self-consciously pointing out that the characters had been lost in thought for a long time; the hero or heroine are forever starting themselves out of reveries. Authors, please don’t do this. It interrupts the flow of the story, and it makes your characters look retarded.)
Some authors have successfully written book set in Ancient Rome that featured characters that, if not necessarily 100% authentic to the times (and I’d argue that there’s really no way for us to ascertain that, given our distressing lack of time machines), are still convincing for works of popular fiction. Rosemary Sutcliff is, in my opinion, the queen of the Historical Novel Set in Ancient Times. I’m somewhat hard-pressed to put my finger on what she does that convinces me that her characters are true to their times, but part of it is how none of them display the hallmarks of what I think of as modern thinking (such as attempts to engage in what amounts to talk therapy), even though we are privy to their rich, complex internal lives.
Strangely enough, Allen gets a lot of the historical trappings right; she seems to have done a decent amount of research into the setting of the times, and she’s convincing enough that I don’t feel the need to fact-check her. But this, coupled with the anachronistic attitudes of the characters, intensifies the feeling that they’re actors in costume on a well-designed soundstage.
This isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for me. Mary Jo Putney is absolutely terrible when it comes to writing modern characters into historical romances. However, she’s also very good at making them flawed, detailed and interesting, and when she’s at her best, I don’t care that her characters are in Renn Faire drag. This book doesn’t even come close.
All that being said, however, the book really isn’t all that bad. It’s boring, it’s trite, it’s facile—but the prose is competent, and the characters likeable enough. It didn’t piss me off with its awfulness, which is when books start falling into the D- and F category, and while I don’t find it quite as repulsive as, say, Dark Lover by J.R. Ward, it’s also not as compelling. Ultimately, I have to agree with Sarah’s grade: it’s a D. It’s a passing grade, but barely.