I was most delighted when I got the email from the Teach Me Tonight Professors Brilliant asking if I’d review Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, because after the Bindel article wherein she held up this book as an example of the horrors of mysogynistic hate speech contained within the genre, I thought, HOT DAMN. A book about a Roman maiden kidnapped by a Visigoth? BOO YAH. HERE be a chance for an author to take that old accusation of romance=misogyny and say, “Look! A woman in a patriarchal ‘civilized society’ is going to be kidnapped by “barbarians,” and be forced to not only confront her own attraction to her captor but the empowered role of women in a society she dismissed as being uncivilized! She has more freedom as a slave than as a Roman virgin! See? It says so on the back cover copy! Here is a big hopping chance to prove how the titles of these novels do not represent the contents, and what can be dismissed as mere drivel is actually a subversive avenue of presenting gender roles and expectations of women within ancient societies so as to facilitate consideration on the part of the reader regarding how women are treated in modern society!”
Unfortunately, after reading the book itself, my reaction to my own aspirations is thus: “Wishful thinking much?” You can certainly smell what my disappointment is cooking.
Is it fair that I judge the book based on what I thought it could have been, simply because it was picked out by someone bashing it for its title and making assumptions as to its content? Of course not. Certainly Bindel’s accusations heightened my anticipation that this might be a smarter romance that operated on deeper levels and did more than mere storytelling, but it’s not fair for me to penalize the book because I was hoping it would do more than it did.
But the opportunity which was present for examination of culture on the part of a heroine who is removed from one and moved forcibly into another was seriously underdeveloped and weak, leaving me underwhelmed and not at all as engaged as I might have liked by the book. I finished the book deflated and disappointed that a premise that could have yielded so much was flat, predictable, and ultimately a big yawn.
By far the biggest disappointment was the heroine. Julia Livia is kidnapped by Wulfric just as she is about to be raped by two Roman men during the Visigoth’s sack of Rome. The two men, hoping their crime won’t be noticed, kill Julia’s servant and are about to assault her when Wulfric cracks open the Romance Hero Can of Whoopass , takes care of their lousy selves, and rides off with Julia. He needs a home slave and decides this woman he’s just saved from assault is the one for his hearth and home, nevermind her incredulous protests to the contrary.
As Julia is riding out of Rome behind Wulfric’s teenage apprentice/cousin, she makes a stunning realization of the inequality within her own culture—before she’s even out the gate as a kidnapped war prize.
Is that what I am? His enemy? What have I done to him to deserve this?
One of the groups of slaves trudged past and she looked down at them, seeing for the first time what a mixture they were, the people who made life in the Empire run with the smooth efficiency of a water clock…. What have they done to deserve it? These barbarians have learned from us and now we reap what we sow.
That would be page 26. Enlightenment on the back of a horse, take one!
Julia moved into global understanding of the flaws of her own society with such ease, I was hoping next she’d set up the first Visigoth soup kitchen. And speaking of kitchen! She learns to cook savory-smelling tummy-happy food that satisfies Visigoth warriors like Hungry Man Meals from Swanson satisfy your favorite lumberjack, and all in a matter of days. Does she suffer from culture shock? Does she attempt to preserve her own culture in midst of Visigoth nomadic wagon-life? Any prejudice against their group for their rustic, nomadic lifestyle consisting of tents and wagons and farm animals without a bathhouse or shower to be found?
Nope. She blends in and gets comfy immediately, and has no problem learning the ropes of cooking, mending, and generally being handy with knives within mere days. The apprentice is half in love with her,Wulfric tries to resist her, and with the exception of some hot girl-on-girl fighting with her man’s aspiring fiancee, everyone looooves her. She’s pure and noble and cute, too.
Julia so easily embraces the increased power she has within her new community, she longs to stay even when she knows plans are being made for her return to Rome. It’s not Stockholm Syndrome. It’s effortless integration. I hate to make the comparison, because this book was poor but a significant jump away from the Cassie Edwards F Line, but Julia’s ease of adjustment reminded me of Savage Moon where Mishi blithely became a Shoshone with absolutely no backstory detailing her adjustment.
Another oddity I wasn’t sure how to reconcile is the use of words in the ruminations of the characters that were far, far too modern. At one point Wulfric is having a bath, and massages a sore leg: “trying to give proper attention to the condition of his muscles and the feel of the tendon he had strained two weeks before.” “Tendon?” Would there be such anatomical knowledge? The Online Etymology Dictionary lists a usage dating back to 1374 but not to the sack of Rome.
Later, as Wulfric rides to sack another Roman town, she is told to “get the medical kit out.” “Medical kit?” Seriously?
Speaking of Wulfric, he’s rather delicious, but still, his long-haired hotness and effortless leadership skills are still subject to lines of dialogue that are too pat and too perfect. Wulfric’s tribe of Visigoths sacked Rome because the Roman emperor repeatedly promised them land of their own, and did not honor his promise. The Visigoths value their word and their honor is a very plain and simple thing: you say you will do something, then you will do it.
But after conversations with Julia, Wulfric suddenly realizes and understand her culture, that the Romans act within honor as they define it:
“…The public face is what matters, what goes on behind the scenes—” [Julia] shrugged. “The ends justify the means, I suppose. But for you, and for your people, I do not think there is that separation—you are the same at your own hearth and at the king’s Council, making love or making war…. I am only just realising that. Forgive me.”
“No, forgive me. I think we should begin again. I thought your people treacherous yet they are acting within their concept of honour.”
HUR? Leaving aside the utter saccharine blooey of “making love or making war,” what the crap is this crap? He’s going to put aside or amend his understanding of honor just because Julia’s people define it differently, using terms that are the opposite of his own definition? I can only rest with a deeply confused look on my face that I hope passersby will mistake for one of profound contemplation.
Oddly, the forces acting against the couple are merely cultural, which of course are easily resolved as each comes to Simple and Truthful Realizations about their own society. The other conflict caused by the imbalance of power – created by the fact that he slung her over the back of his horse and rode away with her during the sack of Rome – is resolved by his decision to return her to Roman society, which would soothe his honor and allow her to return to him on her own terms. There are sizable questions of Wulfric’s kinglyness, or, his ability to inspire people so that they depend on and look to him for guidance and safety, and Wulfric’s role in the Visigoth tribe after the death of their current king, but all of those issues are resolved without Julia’s presence, and therefore are told, now shown. Much is made of Wulfric’s natural leadership and inspiring qualities, yet little comes of that buildup of tension.
Beyond the cultural differences, which are easily mended with the Superglue of effortless assimilation and blithe acceptance, there is no villain, no issue to be overcome except that of choice and geography. Would Julia choose to be with him if she had the option to select her mate? And where would they go since she’s damaged goods as far as the Romans are concerned, and a slave to the Visigoths? These questions aren’t really answered so much as assumed to be solved, and as a result I didn’t feel there was a truly believable happy ending.
But really, the lack of struggle to accept a completely different culture on the part of both protagonists – Julia’s ease of integration into the Visigoth community and Wulfric’s easy conquest of Julia’s Roman habits and expectations – made for a limp and tensionless storyline. Thus I was yawning, not reading, and had little to no reaction when I was done.
The Professors Brillliant have many links to other reviews of this book, and Dr. Frantz’s analysis of the concept of honor within the novel, and Dr. Vivanco’s examination of the mythologies referenced in the story are particularly fine reading. And today Dear Author’s dueling reviews will feature Jane and Jayne battling it out over their own impressions of the novel.