Book Review

Virgin Slave, Barbarian King by Louise Allen

D

Title: Virgin Slave, Barbarian King
Author: Louise Allen
Publication Info: Harlequin Historical 2007
ISBN: 0373294778
Genre: Historical: European

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.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    Rosemary Sutcliff is, in my opinion, the queen of the Historical Novel Set in Ancient Times.

    Yes! Yes! And YES!!!! I must have been nine when I discovered Sutcliff, and she is still one of Top 3 favourite authors evah. She uses such vivid imagery that even now I remember scenes from books I read over a decade ago. She is also absolutely brilliant at lending significance to small, everyday details.

  2. 2

    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 […]”

    People have made very, very similar criticisms of Aeneas: “He is handsome and strong, pious and brave, serious and wise, indeed just a bit too perfect in some people’s eyes” (Janson, 53) Which is interesting to me, since I compared the two of them.

    [Janson, Tore. A Natural History of Latin. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.]

  3. 3
    Abney says:

    First let me say… I gotta read VIRGIN SLAVE, BARBARIAN KING because you guys make it sound so unappealing I want to be able to snark too.

    Except by the time I finish I will have to snark solo… but such is life.

    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

    But do you want to get busy with a “tiresome Ken doll”.

    Granted he is not a misogynistic azz but is a man so perfect even interesting as a fantasy.

    I have often wondered about this because in real life women frequently complain he is “too nice”, isn’t that part of the appeal of the alpha male fantasy.

    And while I have found the new beta male to be a nice change of pace… Gary Sue makes me throw up in my mouth just a little bit.

    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.

    Which is one of the reasons that I don’t particularly care for historicals for the most part… I get mentally distracted trying to remember if something is accurate or not.

    It is especially a problem if you are a fan of novels actually written in the period. I never got the thinking behind the desire to modernize the thinking and motivations and just assumed the dialog was the result of being lazy.

    I know… easy for me to say.

    Does anyone think that the “Renn Faire Drag” might work better if it were played as a costume satire like EVERAFTER… the Drew Berrymore modern retelling of the Cinderella story.

    I ask because I think there is a place for that type of storytelling I am just trying to think how you could actually make modern idea work in an historical context AND have it be good ~A

  4. 4
    hotflashes51 says:

    I did the Bindel thing. I blogged about the book without buying it. Hey, if she can write a feminist dissertation just by the blurb, I can do it by title…

  5. 5
    Carrie Lofty says:

    Gary Sue? Candy did you just come up with that? Soon it will be all thru the internetz…

  6. 6

    As an anthropology and history minor (and English major), I think A LOT about this kind of crap. Woah, I just startled myself out of a little reverie!

    heh.

    No, in actuality, I’ve come to a tentative conclusion about the man/woman relationships of past cultures: they’re pretty much the same as now, except with a different vocabulary and usually not as public. Women have always manipulated men to get what they want while men have the power; that’s not so different from politics today. Given the rates of domestic abuse today, I’d say, yeah, not a hell of a whole lot has changed!

    My problem in historicals is exactly Candy’s problem. Instead of women painting their faces blue and getting all Mel Gibson on our asses (“Freeeeeeedom!”) they just… did it. Just went about their day and maybe wore more constricting skirts and didn’t own any property, but I would be willing to bet a lot that the thoughts/feelings/motivations were the same as modern women’s. Food, family, happiness. Not getting raped if you can at all help it. Y’know.

    In this case, successful historicals employ SHOW and not TELL (which they really, really should be doing anyway) to convey modern thinking without coming off as anachronistic.

    The books aren’t romance (although there is plenty of smut), but Jack Whyte’s SKYSTONE series does a great job of conveying a lot of unsavory historical stuff without a whole lotta angst. The men go whoring and it’s totally acceptable, although they generally stop before we as readers get all squicky about the various VDs they are catching; the women do sneaky things like own property behind the backs of the men and don’t talk about it much; the girls get married off for political gain without any fuss or “Waaah!”, et cetera.

    With all the sexual fetishes that abound—S&M, rape, dominance, whathaveyou—you’d think romance authors would have an easier time making squicky historical realities appealing to modern readers.

    I, for one, love the idea of slave + “barbarian” king. But skip the modern angsty internal dialogue and just be about the business of dirty, accurate storytelling; it’s ever so much more compelling than Renn Faire Drag. Give me a barbarian who’s never heard of women’s rights any day over Gary Sue/Ken Doll. At least wacking Wulfric over the head with something heavy and made of iron would be a lot more satisfying.

  7. 7
    Abney says:

    I, for one, love the idea of slave + “barbarian” king. But skip the modern angsty internal dialogue and just be about the business of dirty, accurate storytelling; it’s ever so much more compelling than Renn Faire Drag. Give me a barbarian who’s never heard of women’s rights any day over Gary Sue/Ken Doll. At least wacking Wulfric over the head with something heavy and made of iron would be a lot more satisfying.

    That’s what I’m talking about… pull my hair, bend me over but buy me something pretty first.

    I too am a woman of basic needs.

    I think that a lot of the angsty internal dialogue stems from the illusion of evolved civility that we operate under.

    I want to be able to indulge the fantasy without the analysis or having to rewrite history ~A

  8. 8
    willaful says:

    I just ran across the annoying reverie thing in another book! Do you suppose it’s the latest fad in Harlequins?

  9. 9
    Angel says:

    I got the impression that all of Wulfric’s nicey-niceness was put there by the author as an attempt to make up for the fact that he’s a person who thinks it’s perfectly okay to own other people.

    This is, imo, a mistake on two levels. First, no matter how fucking nice he is, people who aren’t turned on by slave fantasies (i.e. me) are going to hate his slaveowning ass. Oh, so you don’t condone rape of women, huh? But you fucking wallow in a system where a slave’s only protection from rape is the hope of having a master with such tender feelings. Fuck you and your pretty, pretty hair, asshole.

    “Nice” is not the same as good. And as a paliative for evil behavior/opinions, it rather sucks.

    Second, people who want to really enjoy a raunchy slave fantasy are deprived of the full “kick” of that scenario that they would get if Wulfric were a more believably honest slaveowning sonofabitch.

    By trying to be inoffensive, the story ends up being lukewarm and irritating to everybody.

    On another note, I don’t think Wulfric is so much a beta male as an Alpha male with all the power and the unpleasant aspects of that power smoothed out. A beta male in this story, imo, would be, for instance, another Roman who’s taken along with Julia whom, for *waves hands* classism reasons or some such she previously disdained, who she learns to survive with. Somebody more on an equal level with her.

  10. 10
    Denise says:

    Carrie Lofty said:

    “Gary Sue? Candy did you just come up with that? Soon it will be all thru the internetz”

    Nope.  Well, maybe Gary Sue.  The male version of the Mary Sue character is commonly referred to as Gary Stu and is as much a bane to good characterization as she is.  : ) 

    That being said, I’m so psyched that the hero isn’t an alpha asshat, I’m buying the book.

  11. 11
    Teddy Pig says:

    a raunchy slave fantasy

    Teddypig raises his hand. PICK ME!

  12. 12
    Shannon C. says:

    Angel,
    I pretty much agree wholeheartedly with your comments. I mean, I don’t have raunchy slave fantasies, but really, the title says he’s a barbarian king. I expected him to be a bit more alpha. That being said, it’s also clear he doesn’t consider Julia his slave for very long.

    I do agree with Candy’s thoughts on Wulfric. He and Julia both had that distinctly Mary Sue vibe going.

  13. 13

    “fuck you and your pretty, pretty hair”

    lfmao.

  14. 14

    Argh. I obviously meant “lmfao.”

    WTF would LFMAO mean? :)

  15. 15
    Trix says:

    Totally seconded re Rosemary Sutcliff. She was fabulous. The Lantern Bearers, Eagle of the Ninth, and Warrior Scarlet are just awesome – and being able to write convincingly about opposite sides of the fence (in different novels) is fantastic.

  16. 16
    Trix says:

    LFMAO – “laugh and f*** my arse off”?

    Hey, I can see myself saying that. If I haven’t already. :-)

    [feel24 – feel 24 what]

  17. 17
    Kate D says:

    Perhaps, in addition to actually reading the book, Julie Bindel’s research should include a few reader blogs, as well.

    I’ve been a fan of “Smart Bitches” for awhile. The words “patriarchy” and “submission” certainly don’t apply to the romance fans I find here… though I’m usually too busy laughing over your insights to worry that I’m being oppressed.

  18. 18
    Susan/DC says:

    Rosemary Sutcliffe occasionally made me cry and I loved her for it.  “Sun Horse, Moon Horse”, “Song for a Dark Queen”, “The Horse Lord”, “The Eagle of the Ninth” and its sequels—I don’t think the woman wrote a bad book.  And to make it even better, I read a quote from her that she wanted to write romance novels but didn’t feel she could do them justice since she’d not experienced that kind of relationship herself.

  19. 19
    Kate Pearce says:

    I thought I was the only person still living who loved Rosemary Sutcliff-shall we form a club?
    The Mark of the Horse Lord all the Roman novels, Simon and her King Arthur novel are still amazing!

  20. 20
    Natalie says:

    I’m not a romance reader, and I don’t really follow the ins and outs of this genre. But I find the upset about this Bindel piece kind of reactionary.

    Considering that romance fans have been criticizing Bindel for not reading this book before she wrote this piece, it is quite ironic that the fans apparently didn’t read the article very closely.

    Bindel notes that the Louise Allen book had not been released when she wrote the article. Yet, I have read a lot of criticism of her, from romance fans, for not reading the book before she used it in an article.  How was she expected to do this before the book came out?

    Her piece makes it very clear that she’s discussing the cover blurbs and illustration, and the title. This is a completely valid source material for cultural criticism, which appears to be her particular discipline.

    Cover illustrations, titles, back-cover synopsis are all designed for the specific goal of selling the book. All of these things on the outside of the book influence whether a random consumer will buy it, and they are chosen carefully. So someone criticizing the seeming willingness of a publishing company to profit of the promotion of “ravishment” would do well to criticize the covers, and not necessarily the text itself.

    I haven’t read the book, so perhaps it is especially ironic that the actual text has nothing to do with the covers Bindel was criticizing. But at no point did she claim that she was using anything else as source material.

  21. 21

    it is quite ironic that the fans apparently didn’t read the article very closely.

    Oh, some of us read it extremely closely.

    Her piece makes it very clear that she’s discussing the cover blurbs and illustration, and the title. This is a completely valid source material for cultural criticism, which appears to be her particular discipline.

    Yes, they’re “valid source material” but what Bindel’s piece does is demonstrate that she’s making generalisations about all Mills & Boon romances on the basis of 20 novels she read fifteen years ago, and the titles and blurbs of a few current novels. Even her analysis of the genre fifteen years ago, at which time she actually read the contents of some of the novels, is based on too small a sample size (as I discussed in some detail elsewhere. She does not limit her comments to analysis of the implications of the covers, blurbs and titles of the current romances. Rather, she sweepingly claims that “heterosexual romantic fiction promotes – the sexual submission of women to men. M&B novels are full of patriarchal propaganda”. Note that “full of.” She’s talking about the contents of the novels, not just the way in which they’re packaged and marketed. Elsewhere she also talks about the contents of the novels, not just what can be learned from the covers: “The modern-day character often dares to have sex before marriage, knows what she wants in terms of her career and personal life, and even has a sense of humour.” These references to the contents of modern romances, as well as her brief discussion of the contents of older romances, makes it clear that hers is an opinion based on rather limited evidence.

  22. 22
    Natalie says:

    “What Bindel’s piece does is demonstrate that she’s making generalisations about all Mills & Boon romances on the basis of 20 novels she read fifteen years ago, and the titles and blurbs of a few current novels.”

    Does she claim to be doing something else? If not, this seems like pretty straight forward academic cultural critique. People have based their graduate theses on less written work. I know twenty books isn’t much for a romance publisher, but it’s still a lot of books to read and critique.

  23. 23
    Teddy Pig says:

    Actually Bindel’s comments sound like the mumblings of a wanna be expert on a subject she has little to no understanding of or experience in reading.

    Not the type of person I would spend much time listening to but I am sure she has her followers like Howard Stern does.

    It is not like the News industry will ever run out of space they will give to a talking head to make copy.

  24. 24

    People have based their graduate theses on less written work. I know twenty books isn’t much for a romance publisher, but it’s still a lot of books to read and critique.

    It’s not, in my opinion, a large enough sample to justify the sweeping generalisations she makes, and sweeping generalisations should not be part of a “straight forward academic cultural critique.” As I made clear in my analysis of her methodology, she did identify themes which are present in some M&B romances. The big problem is that she’s ignoring all the romances which don’t fit the generalisation. And she seems to assume that the more recent novels are pretty much the same as the older ones because the blurbs of some new ones resembles the plots of some of the old ones. That’s not comparing like with like, so again, I think there’s a problem with her methodology.

  25. 25
    Natalie says:

    “I think there’s a problem with her methodology.” I’d agree, and there are also problems with the assumptions she makes about her subject matter. But the majority of responses to this seem to focus on the “she didn’t read the book”, something she is quite honest about, without engaging the actually claims or opinions she expresses. And there are plenty of problems with both her methodology and her assumptions.

    She assume the influence of art on life has a singular direction. That is, she believes that media portrayals influence real people but does not consider the fact that real people influence media portrayals, and important angle in any study of media. She also ignores that fact that genre fiction is largely bought by fans, most of whom make their decisions on things other that cover contents.

  26. 26
    RfP says:

    Does she claim to be doing something else? If not, this seems like pretty straight forward academic cultural critique. People have based their graduate theses on less written work. I know twenty books isn’t much for a romance publisher, but it’s still a lot of books to read and critique.

    I too found a lot of the upset here reactionary, but that doesn’t excuse Bindel’s poor methodology or overstated claims.

    Twenty books is NOTHING for a romance publisher.  That’s not a problem to shrug off.  The size of the genre is truly staggering, if you’re coming from another genre.  Also—twenty Harlequin romances is not really a lot of reading.  They’re only 175 or so pages apiece.

    It’s not clear to me that Bindel herself realizes how large the genre is, or how different the various romance imprints/lines are.  She made some good points, but she hugely overstated her findings and applied her fairly narrow research to the whole genre.

    Also, if she read twenty romances years ago, she should know that romances’ marketing and content are frequently divergent.  In fact that’s one of my biggest peeves about romance—the marketing is extraordinarily deceptive.  So to base an opinion on book covers—given she should know better from her reading—seems both slipshod and misleading to make her point.

    Nonetheless, I’ve defended a number of Bindel’s points elsewhere.  I think her delivery was irrational and overstated, but some of her insights were worth examining.

  27. 27
    Natalie says:

    “Twenty books is NOTHING for a romance publisher.  That’s not a problem to shrug off.  The size of the genre is truly staggering, if you’re coming from another genre.  Also—twenty Harlequin romances is not really a lot of reading.  They’re only 175 or so pages apiece.”

    It’s absolutely true that it’s nothing as far as the publisher’s output goes. But no matter how short the books are, reading twenty books and coming up with a critique based on that isn’t insignificant. I did my undergraduate thesis on print advertising (rarely more that one page each) and probably looked at a total 1440 pages, but it still took me eight months just to do the preliminary research. 20 books at 175 pages apiece is twice as much material.

  28. 28
    Teddy Pig says:

    I did my undergraduate thesis on print advertising (rarely more that one page each) and probably looked at a total 1440 pages, but it still took me eight months just to do the preliminary research. 20 books at 175 pages apiece is twice as much material.

    Print Advertising media is extremely visual and geared for minimum high priced space use with maximum customer impact so you would not have that much media to go through in the first place.

    While books are geared for being read as a whole and then interpreted. If you are seriously reviewing their content that is.

    Bindel did not use a conditional statement about the industry, she made a sweeping generalization of a specific book with out knowledge of the actual content.

  29. 29
    RfP says:

    Natalie, it is a lot of work.  The more important point is about how Bindel framed her conclusions, and her extrapolation from 20 old romance novels to all of heterosexual romantic fiction.  There was a lot of arm-waving in that article, and it obscured the more credible points she made.

  30. 30
    RfP says:

    I should have said, BTW, that I think some of the blogging about her article was hyper-critical—including some of the critiques on Teach Me Tonight.  Bindel’s article is a short piece for a newspaper, not an academic paper.  There’s a place for opinion pieces, and there should be no expectation that she would shore up her arguments with solid proofs.  It’s just a pity, IMO, that she went SO far in asserting hostile opinions rather than framing or qualifying her arguments.

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