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At the Back Fence Issue #200

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

May 1, 2005

We bring you two interesting topics this time around in At the Back Fence. Anne begins with a discussion of Chick in Pants – romances wherein the heroine disguises herself as a man for a variety of reasons. Given the recent debate on heroines during the last two issues of this column, it’s probably a good idea to move on to the men, so following Anne’s segment I will begin to explore Heroes on the Edge, the opening salvo in what I hope will be terrific discussion about heroes who skirt the edge of morality and humanity. Some stay right at the edge without crossing over. Others do cross the line but are redeemed by books’ end. And still others cross the line and never make it back from “the dark side.” There’s some question as to whether any of the heroes in this final category should be considered “heroes” at all, but we’ll explore that together, with a little help from another Anne – Anne Stuart.

Cross-dressing Heroines (Anne Marble)

There’s something about a heroine who disguises herself as a guy. Still, what is it, exactly? Sometimes, the stories are silly and hard to believe. At other times, they’re kinda creepy because we can’t tell if the heroine is in love with a woman or a young boy. Yet there are those times when they transcend all those potential problems. At their best, they can be about a woman achieving freedom of a sort available to few women during most historical periods.

It’s not as if cross-dressing heroines (or “chicks-in-pants”) are new or unique to romances. Many writers have penned stories about heroines disguising themselves as boys (and men disguising themselves as women). Shakespeare, of course, comes to mind. For that matter, so do Benny Hill and Monty Python. They weren’t the only ones, either. Hugely popular 19th century novelist Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth wowed our foremothers with The Hidden Hand (check out our DIK review of this book) , a novel featuring a heroine disguised as a boy, not to mention adventure and secret passages and even a heroine who wins a duel. (Our own Ellen Micheletti sees Southworth as a sort of 19th century Kathleen Woodiwiss.)

Still, few romances with cross-dressing heroines are as successful as, say, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Some think this is because cross-dressing romances often drop the ball. Or is that they drop trou, as it were? They could be successful, but they often take shortcuts. They stretch our willing suspension of disbelief even more than they stretch the cross-dressing heroine’s suspenders.

There have been plenty of historical examples of women disguising themselves as men and getting away with it. Yet most of the women who disguised themselves as men took great trouble to do so, as exposure could have meant death or scandal. Unlike romance novel heroines, they couldn’t just hide their long hair under a cap or put on loose clothing. JeanMcS is fascinated by the stories of real-life chicks-in-pants because they were strong women who refused to living according to societies dictates. “Some women did go on to find love and marriage, but the ones I have read about usually even then existed with their spouses outside the normal social structure and dictates.” What great sources for heroines these women could be. Sadly, however, Jean points out that most chick-in-pant romances don’t show the reality of a woman whose drives, talents, and ambitions set her apart from the conventional ideas of femininity. I think she has a point. Most of the chick-in-pants stories I’ve read have been about women who disguised themselves as a man because they were escaping yet another evil relative, not women who were as driven as, say, Dr. “James” Barry, who disguised herself as a man in order to practice medicine in the 1800s. Or jazz musician Billy Tipton, who was revealed to be a woman upon her death.

Most readers want there to be a reason for the heroine to take on such a potentially dangerous disguise. It’s one thing for a heroine to disguise herself as a boy when she’s in danger, another to disguise herself as a boy because she wants to, let’s say, play a part in a Wild West show. Author Jo Beverley says, “My problem with many cross-dressing books is why it’s such a great thing to dress in male clothes in a time when it’s scandalous. If forced to it to survive, that’s one thing, but I really have to be convinced if a young woman chooses it when she’ll be seen as a freak. If they do choose, however, you’re right. They shouldn’t become someone else.”

Believability is a major issue. So many chick-in-pants romances simply don’t have it. They use the trope, but they don’t really get into the gist of it or make good use of it – much in the way so many romances use fake rakes or Regency spies who seem to spend their time having tea rather than spying. But a mediocre chick-in-pants novel is harder to accept than a mediocre fake rake plot, probably because the plot already requires so much suspension of disbelief. Holly Lisle, author of Midnight Rain, said that writers only get one “gimme” from readers. Maybe the cross-dressing heroine is that one “gimme,” and anything else that jabs at the edges of believability might burst the reader’s balloon. LLB questions the believability not only most cross-dressing heroines (with the exception of Shakespeare’s – and one from a terrific Connie Brockway historical we’ll discuss later), but of historical disguises altogether, particularly when two people who have been intimate with one another on some physical level can’t see through the disguise. It’s quite one thing in modern times to disguise oneself, but a heroine who sticks her hair up under a cap and binds her breasts isn’t going to convince her, but neither is an 18th or 19th century hero who isn’t a spy or “master of disguise” (a la the Scarlet Pimpernel), yet manages to trick one and all – particularly the heroine – into believing that he’s two people. There were no colored contact lenses, after all, and is it really conceivable, she asks, for a a woman to be unable to place the voice of her lover or kiss “two” men and not realizing they are one and the same.

Most cross-dressing pants already have to work hard to convince the reader. First, we’re supposed to believe that no one can see through her disguise, or that only the hero can see through it. Then, you have the problems of everything from an unbelievable disguise to practicalities such as “What if she has to pee?!” One of the first books I read with a cross-dressing heroine was a historical novel, Shield of Three Lions, by Pamela Kaufman. That one was actually believable for many reasons. First, the heroine had no choice but to flee after her parents are murdered, and for a girl alone in Medieval England, disguising herself as a page boy is a good idea. Also, she was very young when she assumed her disguise (in her pre-teens). That one even addressed the peeing issue. The heroine had seen men urinate in public, so she made herself a fake penis out of a reed and was able to use it to pee in public when needed. She also had the sense to pretend to bend over in pain when someone kicked her in the “crotch.”

Compare that to many romance novels. While some chick-in-pants heroines do worry about relieving themselves without revealing themselves, many live in a sort of romance Disneyland where you can disguise yourself as a man without worrying about peeing and penises. For that matter, doesn’t it seem that many romance novel heroines don’t even realize that men have penises?

I’ve never been a particular fan of chick-in-pants stories, but on the other hand, I’ve never tried to avoid them, either. I’ve certainly sought some out, either because of the author or the plot. And sometimes because, in those special cases, the author played upon the freedom (or even the ambiguity) of the chick-in-pants theme. The discussions of Jackie Ivie’s Lady of the Knight, among others, kindled my interest.

What Is the Attraction?

So while some readers are, well, ambiguous about stories with cross-dressing heroines, why do some readers love the chick-in-pants story? Some love the element of freedom it gives a heroine. No one bats an eye when the disguised heroine rides a horse in pants or stays in the same room as the hero. In fact, many fans love the books because the disguise allows her to spend more time with the hero, often interacting with him as a buddy rather than as a woman. Also, some authors use the chicks-in-pants theme to make us ask questions about sexuality, attraction, and gender.

Michelle Anne counts Joan Wolf’s Fool’s Masquerade among one of her favorite traditional Regencies. One reason is because the chick-in-pants plot lets the reader see the hero relating to the heroine as a friend rather than as a woman.”A lot of times men are one way with the heroine and another way with their friends (in real life, too!) and I think this setup is a good way to let us and the heroine see more of the hero.” Michelle Anne readers stories about cross-dressing heroines quite often. She prefers these plots when the hero sees through the disguise quickly, however. Although she admits that the “chicks-in-pants” stories usually aren’t realistic, she is “willing to suspend disbelief in the interest of a good story.”

Anna counts the chicks-in-pants plot as one of her favorites. One reason for this is because she likes disguise books, and these are among her favorite types of disguise plots. For Anna, a well-done story can show off the ingenuity of the cross-dressing heroine. Not for Anna are the plots where the heroine merely hides her hair under a hat and wears a bulky coat. The disguise had to be clever. She also likes the moment of revelation, when the heroine finds out that the young man he has been interacting with is a woman. “How will he deal with it? What’s his reaction? I also enjoy when the heroine transitions back to her female self — getting girly again. What has she learned about herself, the hero, other people/things? How has she changed inside?”

LFL points to Laura Kinsale as someone who has written about cross-dressing heroines several times – in Uncertain Magic, The Prince of Midnight, and The Dream Hunter. Of all of these, The Dream Hunter is her favorite. It works for her because the cross-dressing serves an important purpose in the plot. The heroine’s disguise gives the hero a chance to get to know her alter ego as a friend first. If not for that disguise, he “would not have believed that a woman with such courage existed if he had not first thought she was a boy.” Reader Robin likes The Dream Hunter, in part because of the cross dressing. but also because “the two parts of Zena’s [the heroine’s] identity are ’embodied’ in those two versions of herself, and one of her challenges is to integrate them in order to find her own peace and ultimate happiness. That was very much a book focused on the competing notions of personal power and identity, and the cross-dressing element really facilitated both the character development and the love relationship.”

AAR’s Jane Jorgenson likes this type of story, numbering chick-in-pants stories among her favorites. These favorites include Georgette Heyer’s Masqueraders and These Old Shades (author Leigh Greenwood wrote a DIK of this for AAR several years ago). More recent favorites include Pam Rosenthal’s Almost a Gentleman and Jackie Ivie’s Lady of the Knight (controversial though it has been on our message boards). “I don’t think it matters to me much how realistic it truly is as regards her physical appearance. I know the argument that some women did pass in history, but I don’t dwell on that when I’m reading.” Most of her favorite books are ones where the hero figures out the disguise early on, but is the only one who knows. She likes the way this creates a sort of partnership between the hero and heroine. “They both have a stake in her masquerade and that keeps them working together. She to keep doing what she’s doing and he, because he now cares about her, to make sure she succeeds without getting hurt. Hmmm, now that I’m analyzing, I realize this is a very big part of the appeal for me.” Jane also likes the suspense element of the discovery. Not just when and how she will be found out, but also how it changes the relationship between the hero and heroine, and what it all tells her about the way the protagonists deal with each other

Varina likes chick-in-pants books. She thinks she might like these stories because of the gender-bending or because the disguise provides suspense. What will happen when the heroine is revealed to be a man? How will the hero react when he finds out? Also, she enjoys the way they show heroines acting outside of the prescribed roles for women during that historical era. She wants to see the heroine in an unusual role without becoming a pariah. Varina does, however, draw the line at chick-in-pants book that use the cross-dressing as a shallow gimmick. “If the author doesn’t know what she’s doing and just sticks the heroine in pants with hardly a second thought, or the most superficial acknowledgment of its unusualness for a given time period, then I won’t enjoy the book as much.”

Like Varina, I enjoy disguise plots, and like Jane, I look for that element of suspense. With any disguise plot, there’s already that element of suspense. How will the disguise be revealed? Will the disguised character reveal the truth, or will someone else discover the truth? Most of all, how will the discovery affect the hero and heroine? In the chick-in-pants story, the unveiling of the disguise comes with an additional level of intrigue. Not only will the hero learn that the person he has been dealing with is in disguise, he will also learn that person is a woman. That’s a revelation that can be fraught with betrayal and danger. You never know what to expect. It varies from book to book. In the best of books, the revelation can be explosive.

In Connie Brockway’s All Through the Night, the heroine, a masked thief by night, turns the tables on the hero in what may be one of the ultimate revelation scenes. The hero, Jack, catches her in the act of stealing. She reveals that she is a woman right then and there, and that throws him off. She also uses her sexuality to get a chance to escape. The way Brockway gives the power to her heroine in this scene makes it especially powerful.

You Silly Man, That’s a Girl!

Let’s face it, most women could not disguise themselves as a guy to any degree of success. That’s not to say it hasn’t been done. One of the biggest complaints about chick-in-pants novels is that the disguises are often flimsy and the characters come across as stupid because they can’t tell that the heroine is really a woman. Particularly painful for many readers is when the hero himself is among the unenlightened. (Although some prefer it if he is kept in the dark for a while.) Erica doesn’t like heroes who can’t figure out the heroine’s sex by chapter 2, and she has given up on cross-dressing heroines.

The less successful chick-in-pants stories often fail because of believability – because readers find it hard to swallow. They can’t believe in the disguise. Bobbi Smith’s Weston’s Lady is probably a good example of a not-so-successful disguise. In that one, the heroine disguised herself as a boy by wearing baggy pants and hiding her long hair under a hat. Her disguise was revealed her hat came off during one of her Wild West shows. Yup. That doesn’t sound convincing to me, either. In fact, I doubt the story delved deeply into issues of gender and identity.

Author Beverley agrees that it’s important to convince the reader that the disguise can work. One thing that can pull her out of the story is when the heroine turns out to be “a curvaceous beauty with long flowing hair. It is possible for a man to love and desire a slim-hipped, small-breasted woman with an androgynous face.” She also points out that readers see a problem if there is prolonged interaction between the hero and others, if she is wearing skimpy clothing, but most of all, if she is turns out to be curvaceous rather than manly or androgynous. The author’s own My Lady Notorious is one chick-in-pants novel readers often cite as one that works.

Allyson also hates the way so many chick-in-pants book go to great troubles to reassure the reader that the heroine really is feminine. “There has to be at least one scene where she’s reveling in her female attire, and it seems very … pointed. Like as soon as she falls in love and becomes what she’s ‘supposed’ to be, she immediately has to become traditionally feminine.” Allyson has the same problem with most books with self-proclaimed feminist heroines. She avoids them unless she knows that heroine won’t be “brought down.” Similarly, AAR’s Lynn Spencer says that “the thing I hate most about the cross-dressing books is the fact that in many of them, the heroine is seen as bright and capable while in disguise, but as soon as her gender is revealed, she must become a swooning idiot in need of the hero’s protection. Gag me.”

I’m with Lynn on heroines becoming TSTL suddenly. They don’t have to be disguised as boys to suddenly get hit with the stupid stick. This happens a lot to tomboy heroines, as well as far too many allegedly smart and intelligent and successful heroines, usually the moment they see the hero. This truly echoes the complaints many readers have about intelligent, accomplished heroines who suddenly become TSTL twits when they fall in love. Having it happen in a cross-dressing romance just strikes the point home, as if wearing pants makes the heroine smart, but putting on girly clothing makes her stupid.

To be fair, in a chick-in-pants novel, sometimes, the hero is the one who gets to be TSTL. The hero in Lynsay Sands’s The Switch couldn’t see past the heroine’s disguise, even when he accidentally walked in on her when she was taking a bath. He simply assumed that she was her twin sister. If he had moved his head about a centimeter, he would have seen her twin sister standing by her side. OK, it was a farcical romance, but that scene did yank at my willing suspension of disbelief with great force. The Switch also had the obligatory brothel scene. In this one, the hero brought young “Charlie” to a brothel because he was uncomfortable over the feelings the “lad” was engendering in him. Maybe instead of visiting the brothel, this hero should have visited the optician.

That particular hero aside, it does seem that in most chick-in-pants stories, the hero is able to see past the heroine’s masculine disguise and realize that the heroine is a woman. Often, the hero is the only one who realizes she’s really a woman. Everyone else walks around oblivious, even if she talks in a high voice and runs behind the bushes to pee. So what is the writer trying to tell us when the hero is able to look past the disguise and realizes that “lad” is really a woman? Maybe it could be a way of telling us that the hero appreciates her as a woman so much that he can tell she’s a woman even when she’s wearing pants and has cut her hair short. Maybe it’s a way of telling us that the hero is clever.

Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That

Then there are those stories where the hero finds himself strangely attracted to the heroine in her boy form. Some writers may be trying to tell us “He’s so much in love with her that he falls for her even when she thinks she’s a boy.” Others may be playing it for laughs, like something out of a Monty Python sketch. However, in some of these stories, the message may be more blurry than that. Some stories truly use the ambiguity to make us ask questions about gender and love and sexuality. Some even hint that the hero might be bisexual. Of course, this scares a lot of readers away, while other readers are grateful for something different.

AAR’s Jennifer Keirans doesn’t like the way this ambiguity is often portrayed in the chicks-in-pants romances. She wants to like these stories because she likes stories that mess around with gender roles. However, in chick-in-pants novels, she’s noticed that any hint of ambiguity is often played for cheap laughs. Jennifer dislikes the way these scenes come across. “For instance, the practically-ubiquitous scene in which the manly hero notices how shapely his young page’s butt is, and immediately looks away, horrified that he might be, you know, ‘that way.’ It’s supposed to be funny, but really, how juvenile! For one thing, the supposed humor of in this situation – the hero wondering if he’s gay, only to find out (phew!) that the page is a girl – is somewhat homophobic and derisive of gay people, and I don’t like that. I certainly don’t have an ‘Eeew, the hero might be gay’ issue; you might say that, contrarily, I have an ‘Eeew, the author thinks I’m a homophobe and so is bending over backward to prove that the hero isn’t gay’ issue. I think a sexually ambiguous hero would be a lot more interesting than the straight-arrow lunkheads we usually see. But that’s me – romance books are often a bit more socially conservative than I am.” She would be happy to enjoy this sort of story if it were well done, but in the romance genre, she has found that they are never very good. She has had to look to other genres, such as fantasy, for rue gender-bending.

I don’t think romance is entirely alone in making comedy out of gender issues. Of course, at its best, that humor tells us about the character, not about an author who is skittish about making her hero “ambiguous.” Seinfeld devoted much of an entire episode to George being worried because he thought “it moved” when a man gave him a therapeutic massage. That episode was funny because it made us laugh about a straight man wondering if “something was wrong” because he got an erection during a massage. Sadly, most of the humorous chicks-in-pants romances I’ve read are more likely to go for the easy humor and avoid making us think at the same time.

In romances, the ambiguity often just comes across as silly – even if the book isn’t a farce. Take A Bright Idea by Cindy Harris, a historical set in Ireland in the 1870s. The heroine, Dolly, disguises herself as a boy and starts training as a boxer because she blames the hero, a trainer, with the death of a loved one. When the hero, Dick, finds himself attracted to his new fighter, he is confused. He even hires a madam to find him a boyish-looking prostitute! To further confuse the issue, the heroine finds out about this and arranges to show up at his place as that prostitute. Then there’s Melanie Jackson’s Manon, where the hero finds himself attracted to the “lad” who saved him from highwaymen – even when he gets an erection after bumping into “him” – but never questions his initial reactions. Maybe he was just really secure in his sexuality.

Varina admits that she’d “feel funny if the hero fell in love with the disguised heroine before even suspecting that she wasn’t a boy.” On the other hand, AAR’s Jane Jorgensen isn’t really bothered if the hero is attracted to the heroine before he realizes she’s a woman because she believes that the first part of any attraction is chemical. “Feeling attraction just happens – whatever the object may be – it’s what we do about it that is determined by societal mores and personal choice. That is not to say that the attraction is a choice. You’re either attracted or you’re not. There’s no way to force that kind of thing. What you feel comfortable doing about it, is a whole ‘nother thing.” Two of the chick-in-pants novels Jane has enjoyed recently dwelled upon that ambiguity. To some degree, Rosenthal’s Almost a Gentleman dealt with the issue, and Ivie’s Lady of the Knight dwelled upon it. Jane thinks that these books address the theory that most of the population is wired to be bisexual but that social and personal restrictions keep us either heterosexual or homosexual.. She believes these books point out that “given the right person, any of us could fall in love where we know we shouldn’t. I liked the way the authors shook their heroes up in both of those books.”

On the other hand, reader Robin didn’t think Rosenthal’s book was all that gender-bending. In fact, she found it rather conservative because of the way the hero was repulsed by his attraction to a young “man.” She believes that in this case, the hero’s attraction falls along the line of the hero being so in love with the heroine that he falls for her before being aware that she is a woman. “Once the jig is up, so to speak, there is much relief at the real identity of the heroine and a lot of pretty traditional sexual and relationship dynamics (plus a profusion of feminine female clothing, in case we’re still wondering).” She also thought that the homosexual characters were not portrayed positively.

Not everyone has enjoyed Lady of the Knight either. Some readers have admitted to hating it because the hero became attracted to the heroine before realizing she was a female. Erica feels “that it verged on homoerotism – not something I expect when I’m reading a romance.” On the other hand, others loved it because it took chances. That’s why I made a point to buy it. (Then again, I’ve also been known to hunt through romantica sites for stories about male vampires falling in love with each other, so what do I know?)

Though it’s not a cross-dressing novel, I can’t help think of Aral Vorkosigan, the father of Miles Vorkosigan, in the books by Lois McMaster Bujold. From the first book, Shards of Honor, it’s revealed that Aral is bisexual. Yet once he meets and falls in love with Cordelia, the heroine of the first book, he leaves that life behind. Cordelia accepts him as he is. There is a wonderful scene in the sequel, Barrayar, where a political enemy tries to break up their new marriage by telling Cordelia that Aral is bisexual. Casually, Cordelia replies, “Was bisexual. … Now he’s monogamous.” In one book, she does admit that she thinks Aral was attracted to her from the start because she wasn’t typical of the women on his planet. She was a soldier, and on his planet, only men could be soldiers. So while Cordelia wasn’t a “chick in pants” heroine, she did find a hero who was attracted to what could be considered her male characteristics.

Maybe some of these heroes who love a cross-dressing heroine are closer to Aral than we realize. However, few romance novels really deal with gender issues as well as Lois McMaster Bujold. That’s why, when chicks-in-pants novels try to deal in ambiguity, it so often either falls flat or becomes silly. Still, as long as they can get away with the ambiguousness without getting goofy, I don’t mind. I’m always glad when writers take chances. I like going on wild rides. Sure, most of the authors are playing with the ambiguity for laughs – shades of SNL’s “Ambiguously Gay Duo”. Yet some authors do play with the idea that the hero might be bisexual. It’s a way to shake and stir the novel, and it’s a guaranteed way to upset a lot of romance readers. But romance readers have a wide range of interests, so is there really anything that is not guaranteed to be controversial?

There is, however, sometimes an element of pederasty rather than homosexuality. Usually, the cross-dressing heroines don’t look like men but rather like “lads.” Often they don’t even look as if they are above the age of consent. Maybe this is what “squicks” many readers out. It’s not that the hero might be bisexual or even gay. It’s that he might like little boys. Now that’s an Eeew! Lady Naava used to like romances about cross-dressing heronies, but as she got older, she admits that “the stories kind of make me squiggle up in side. Especially when the hero thinks the heroine is a ‘boy’ and is oddly attracted to her. Its too close to man/boy love thing and that skeeves me out.” Lady Naava is not alone in being “skeeved out” by the ambiguous elements of these stories. AAR’s Ellen Micheletti doesn’t like cross-dressing romances at all and adds that “the whole thing smacks of pedophilia to me and I can’t abide that.”

Keep Your Skirt on, Missy!

Ellen isn’t alone in her dislike of the chicks-in-pants theme. Like Ellen, Kay is to the point. “I pretty much hate them and avoid them when at all possible. They just really irritate me.” AAR’s Lynn simply isn’t convinced by most cross-dressing romances. “Instead of showing real inner conflict or a genuinely convincing disguise, it’s often played for slapstick humor which usually does not do much to make me like the characters better.” And LLB absolutely hates the obligatory “brothel scene,” which bothered her the first time she read it in Catherine Coulter’s Lord Harry, and bothered her even more in Brenda Joyce’s Splendor (although it wasn’t a problem for her in Kat Martin’s Innocence Undone because both the heroine and the friend who accompanied her to the brothel were immediately recognized by the hero and his friend, who – and this is more to the point – didn’t bring them there to introduce them to sex). She adds, “There’s something altogether creepy about the hero “initiating” a younger man into adult pleasures that is made far more creepy when the younger man is really a younger woman.”

Lynn is also fed up with the brothel trip and/or the typical scene where the hero sees the heroine in her “breast-bindings,” finding those scenes annoying. However, there are a couple of cross-dressing books that Lynn has liked – To Touch the Sun by Barbara Leigh (a Harlequin Historical) and The Captain by Lynn Collum (a Regency romance). She liked the device in Collumn’s book even though it had some of the standard elements because of how well the author handled it. In Leigh’s book the heroine is “a real warrior.” Better yet, even after her gender is revealed, this heroine still gets to be tough. What more can a reader ask?

jmc has only liked one chick-in-pants book (Beverley’s My Lady Notorious). What turns her off is “the complete lack of awareness that authors tend to imbue heroines in pants. Yes, they get to do ‘freeing’ things as young men that they cannot do as women, but there usually is no recognition of the risks that they are taking, physical, social or otherwise, outside of a brief lip service. They aren’t comfortable with where they exist in their world and seem to be doing the most outrageous thing possible to find their comfort zone, without attempting to work outward from their existing position or attempting a more rational approach to changing their situation.” She sees the chick-in-pants plot as a cheap way to have a tomboy heroine without creating a fully realized character that works within the context of the time when the book is set.

Author Lynne Connolly also find that the cross-dressing heroine theme is not for her. In Lynne’s case, she simply can’t buy into the disguise. “However much people say you can’t tell the difference, people close to the person must have a sense missing if they don’t notice, and if they’re that thick, I’m not interested in learning more!” If the hero figures out the disguise early on, she can accept the story, but even then, she has to struggle to buy into the story. She does like playing with gender in her own stories, but she does so by writing about “men who aren’t afraid to wear silk and lace, women who cut their hair short and wear tailored suits.”

AAR’s Rachel admits that she hates chick-in-pants stories, and for her, it’s all because of the short hair. She realizes that this could be seen as a totally shallow reason for hating those books, but when heroines cut their hair, it reminds her of those bad short haircuts she got in the 1970s – for example, the pixie, the Dorothy Hamill, and the “feathered” look. She also doesn’t believe those stable boy’s pants are going to fit most heroines. “I don’t know about you, but, unlike most boys, I actually have hips.”

As someone who suffered from her share of bad haircuts in the 1970s, I salute you! I ended up with some hideous haircuts in my day, and I was even mistaken for a boy once. OK, I was only seven or eight years old, so I didn’t have to wear the stable boy’s pants or a baggy coat. It all happened when I was at a small summer fair in the early 1970s. I put down a dime to play a prize wheel game. I was ecstatic when the arrow landed on a cool toy bow and arrow – if the wheel had turned a little bit more, I would have won a boring plastic bracelet. Then, one of the women running the booth pointed to the bracelet and said “It’s a good thing you didn’t win that prize, that one is for girls.” Luckily, I was saved from an even more awkward moment when the woman standing beside her told her, “She is a girl.”

Sigh. When I think back on that incident, I think I was more annoyed with the implication that a girl might prefer the bracelet to the bow and arrow. I was a little bit afraid that once the woman learned I was a girl, she assumed I must be disappointed that I had won the bow and arrow. Today, I would still rather have the toy bow and arrow, and I know plenty of guys who’d rather have the pretty bracelet. While I was never into climbing trees and the like, I always knew that in many ways, boys got to watch the coolest shows and play with the coolest toys. I played with Barbie, but I also got my brothers’ G.I. Joe dolls when they grew out of them, and I even had my very own Six Million Dollar Man doll. (My Barbie deserved better than that wimpy Ken doll.) When I was growing up, the children’s sections still had books with titles like The Boy’s Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories. This annoyed me because I knew that girls could like those stories as well as anyone. Maybe that explains why I can appreciate both the struggles and the freedom of chicks-in-pants heroines, while so many other readers can’t get into those stories at all. I can’t wait to hear your reaction to the Chicks-in-Pants heroine on the ATBF Message Board!

Heroes on the Edge (Laurie Likes Books)

I mentioned Anne Stuart’s new release – Black Ice – in the last issue of this column, saying that she does what I think is the best job of any author in creating heroes who come as close as possible to crossing the line in terms of acceptable behavior without toeing over it. She doesn’t always succeed (and at times fails, and fails spectacularly!), but when she does, I’m captivated.

The set up for Black Ice is this: Chloe Underwood lives in Paris translating children’s books into English for little money. Her roommate offers her the chance to earn big bucks by taking a last-minute translating job in the French countryside. She soon discovers that rather than translating for a group of food executives, she’s gotten mixed up with some really nasty folks who are, in fact, international arms dealers. What she doesn’t know is that Bastien Touissant, one of those at the chateaux, is not who she believes him to be – he’s a spy sent to infiltrate this cartel. If Chloe doesn’t know who Bastien really is, the feeling is mutual. He’s convinced that instead of being an innocent translator she’s a spy, possibly sent to kill him.

If you’re looking for the type of spy often encountered in romance novels – at least most of those I’ve encountered – you won’t find him in Black Ice. The closest comparison I can make is Jack Seward from a book mentioned in Anne’s segment – All Through the Night. Bastien works for a super-secret entity for whom the ends justify the means. He’s a cold-hearted killer, as tough and emotionally closed off as one might expect from a man who regularly dispatches of baddies throughout the world. In his world it’s impossible trust anybody except yourself, your instincts, and your intelligence.

Before Bastien learns that Chloe really is an innocent, he goes to her room knowing that they will be videotaped and watched by the sadists among them, which is pretty much everyone at the chateaux. His actions in asserting himself over her in that room and gaining the upper hand with a woman he fears may have been sent to kill him are sexual, erotic, but altogether shocking. Later on the cartel’s head informs Sebastien that he plans to torture and kill Chloe for knowing too much. By now Bastien knows that Chloe is no spy, but plans on leaving her to her fate. Most authors would have had Bastien spiriting Chloe to safety as soon as he hears this plan, but not Stuart. Even when he walks in on the torture and sees that Chloe has been grievously injured, he takes no action. Eventually he rescues her, but only a hero really on the edge would have let it gone this far.

Some may think that Bastien crossed the line, but I don’t. He skirts it throughout the entire book, never once breaking character. I think it’s incredibly difficult to create a hero such as Bastien because I would imagine many an author’s inclination would be to soften him up, even just a little. But Stuart doesn’t, and Black Ice is a wonderful read because of it. I asked the author to talk about not only Bastien, but her heroes in general, many of whom are nearly as dark as Bastien. Here’s what she had to say:

My heroes. I tend to have long arguments with Jo Beverley about this, because my heroes aren’t honorable men, at least, not by conventional standards. They have their own moral code that they wouldn’t break, and of course half the interest in the book is making him break that code, which is usually the one thing he holds on to.

My dark heroes (and actually I do have light, charming ones like the hero in Lady Fortune) tend to be lost souls, men who think they can’t be redeemed, men who no longer want to be redeemed. At some point in their lives they crossed some kind of invisible line and they’ve given up on thinking they have any kind of decency or goodness. Since they’re bad, and done bad things, they make sure no tough but vulnerable young woman confuses matters and tries to tell them they’re worthy of being loved.

I like to go as far to the edge as I can, though sometimes even I draw back. In Break the Night, I first imagined the hero as the unwitting reincarnation of Jack the Ripper. In the end that was just too heavy a psychic burden for him to carry, and I gave him a reprieve.

The danger of a dark hero is irresistible to me. The battle for redemption is on such a huge scale that the triumph is even more powerful. 31 years ago, when my first book came out, the cover copy said ” and one was Adam, a dangerous but compelling man who was either trying to murder her – or seduce her. Or perhaps both …” Even in 1974 I still went for the same darkness.

There are a number of subconscious emotional reasons why I write that extreme kind of hero. One, because they’re absolutely riveting. A writer always has to make certain her villain isn’t more interesting than her hero. I neatly avoid the problem by combining the two. Secondly, I write extreme darkness because I think if the hero and heroine can survive what fate throws at them then they can survive anything. Thirdly, I have the sweetest, most tender and Beta male husband in the world (30 years of marriage). Because I have such warmth and safety in my own bed I’m grounded enough to let my imagination go to the absolute extremes. I expect another aspect is that I had a fairly horrendous childhood, and I’m exorcising my demons by writing these heroes.

One thing I try never to do is write something for shock value. Black Ice was probably the most extreme book I can remember writing, and I thought at the time that he might be too much for readers to take. But I understood Bastien, fell in love with him, and there was no way I could tone him down.

I guess that’s the risk an author has to take, and I’m a firm believer that to create you must take risks. You have to be willing to do it all, take any kind of chance if the book demands it. Creative cowardice is the most deadly kind of sin.

So if at times my heroes seem too bleak, too dark, too murderous (I jokingly say I’ve been writing books about Men Who Kill and Women Who Love Them) for some readers, it’s one of the chances I have to take.

In the end, what saves my hero, redeems him, is not the love of a good woman. My heroes tend to be charismatic, gorgeous, and good in bed. Most women love them. What saves him is his ability to fall in love. To care for someone, when he’s tried so hard, for so long, not to care about anyone.

It fascinates me.

I alluded to a scene fairly early in the book in which Bastien forces an encounter with Chloe that is at once erotic and shocking. I was transfixed when I read it, but I can imagine many a reader – particularly those who are new to Stuart – being appalled. I asked her about that love scene and others by her that are variations on “forced seduction, ” such as a scene from one of my Stuart DIK’s, A Rose at Midnight (see our Rifs on P.C. for more on this topic, and click here for Nancy Friday’s take – and my own as well – on the rape fantasy) that I think is critical in understand that this fantasy is oh-so-not-at-all about rape in real life.

Actually I was sort of appalled at the first time they have sex in Black Ice. I don’t consider that a love scene, nor the scene in the hotel when she realizes she’s covered in blood and they start in the shower and end in the bed. It’s sex, and for me it’s very hot sex and a fascinating way to show character, but, particularly in the first scene, he’s using sex as a weapon, he’s entirely in control, and it’s almost more of a … rats, I don’t want to say torture or abuse scene, because both those terms are so off-putting. It’s a conflict/fight scene. It’s cruel thing to do, and he’s entirely closed off from her emotionally (or at least thinks he is at that point), and the fact that he’s able to get off while doing what he needs to do is merely a side benefit.

It’s an extremely difficult scene but it worked for me. It brought the two of them down to a very basic level early on, and things could build from that point. I think he was half-astonished when he saves her life later on, though there are inklings that he’s not as shut-off as he could wish he was.

About forced seduction scenarios that aren’t actually rape. There’s a reason women used to find rape to be such an appealing fantasy. By being out of control, controlled by the seducer/rapist, she becomes even more powerful. Because it’s not her choice, and only reluctantly her decision, she retains an inviolate part of her. Because she’s not giving herself whole-heartedly, and in the end only gives in to the physical pleasure, not to an emotional bond, she actually remains stronger and more reserved. In Black Ice, if he’d seduced her into telling him the truth via love talk it would have been a much different scenario. She’d feel betrayed by him. In this case she’s angry, horrified at her own physical reaction, but emotionally she hasn’t been truly compromised. That doesn’t happen until she falls in love with him.

Yeah, I know I’m twisted. These kinds of tough emotional situations are hard for some people to read. For me they make the ultimate pay-off that much stronger.

While the story is still revving up, Bastien realizes that Chloe will be tortured and then killed and plans to do nothing about it. Eventually he returns and saves her, but well after any other hero would. While most would respond immediately, the remainder would likely jump in after seeing the heroine in such dire straits. Not Bastien – by the time he rescues her she’s nearly dead, setting the tone – and the hero’s character – for the remainder of the book. I asked Stuart about Bastien and this part of the story:

He’s icy cold. At that point he likes to think he’s incapable of human emotion, and many times in the past few years he’s had to make the cold-blooded, practical choices. Intellectually he tells himself there’s no reason why this should be any different. She was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A shame, but there you have it. However, he does go to her room on the off-chance that it’s not too late, and he just happens to go after Hakim. He’s torn between believing he can do this, let her die, and his uncontrollable need to go after her. He won’t even admit to himself that’s why he’s going after her. He waits as long as he can stand it, hopes it’s been taken out of his hands, but when she’s still alive he has no choice but to save her, going against everything he’s built up over the years. He wants to not care, but he’s not doing a very good job of it, and that ambivalence propels him into the escape and all the adventures that follow.

Bastien is the only hero I’ve ever read who is this cold on the inside from beginning to end. I’ve read many cold-hearted heroes in the past, but they thaw fairly quickly while Bastien does not. He’s unique in that he remains true to his character throughout the story, and even when he exhibits tell-tale signs of warming up, he manages to retain his icy edge. Anne Stuart is the only author I know of who can write a hero this dark and still make me care about him. Those of you who’ve read her before know that while some of her books feature traditional HEA epilogues, it’s not something she does with every book. No passels of kiddies running around proud parents for her, although she’s not entirely immune to that. Even so, though, her endings fit her books, befitting her heroes on the edge.

I’ve mentioned that Jack Seward from Brockway’s All Through the Night is another hero on the edge, and I can think of a few others, although these two are closest to the edge, successfully, as I think I’ve ever read. I’m tempted to mention Lord Raeburn from Lydia Joyce’s The Veil of Night, but he’s really more tortured than icy, and while the two often go hand in hand, most authors work around the torture rather than the ice. And as far as being a hero on the edge, many such heroes are on the edge in a sexual way. For instance, when I read and reviewed Gaelen Foley’s Prince Charming, I wrote that he was “a libertine whose actions are shown from the very first page,” and that he is “very selfish and often vulgar.” He’s on the edge in terms of sexual morality, but he’s not on the edge of humanity.

I’d like to explore all sorts of heroes on the edge, so if you are so inclined as to discuss out-and-out rakes, that’s fine, but what I’m most interested in are heroes like Jack and Bastien, and about reformation, transformation, and redemption. How close to the edge can a hero exist for you, and what happens with those who either skirt the edge or out-and-out cross it? How important are reformation, transformation, and redemption to you, and must all three go hand-in-hand?

Time to post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

The Chicks in Pants premise is obviously one that has been mined for dramatic (and comedic) potential for centuries. Anne discussed a variety of romances utilizing this premise, and reported on readers’ reactions both in general – and specifically – about how well it works. What about you?

Do you find the Chicks in Pants premise believable for the most part? Which books have used the premise successfully? Which have not? What made the difference for you?

What about disguises in general? Do you enjoy heroes and/or heroines in disguise? Do you find them more or less believable or are you as big a skeptic as LLB? Which “disguise” romances have you liked best…liked least?

The sexual ambiguity to a Chicks in Pants romance is often a sticky point for readers. It can make them uncomfortable, and because certain scenes have been used in so many romances (the brothel scene, for instance, is now de rigeur), they can be not only discomfitting but cliché. How do you weigh in on this issue? Do you find it at all creepy for a hero to be falling in love with the heroine when he believes her to be a male of the species? And if so, why? Is it a homoerotic or pederastic bent – or something else?

Do you enjoy reading Heroes on the Edge? If so, why, and which heroes worked best for you? If not, why not, and which heroes best illustrate why you don’t care to read about them? And for those who enjoy this type of hero, when have you not liked him, and why?

To like a hero on the edge, must he never dip his toe over, or can he cross ever-so-slightly across the line? Can you name some effective heroes in each of these instances? What about heroes who do more than barely crossing the line, heroes who take a big step over the line, but leaves “the dark side” well before story’s end? And what of heroes who primarily exist on “the dark side” and remain in character throughout the entire romance?

As far as reformation, transformation, and redemption, how necessary are all three to you, and how believable is it when a very dark hero lightens up tremendously by the end of the book? Do you prefer a hero who reforms, transforms, and is redeemed well before book’s end, at book’s end, or, quite frankly, never quite works through all three stages? Please give examples of heroes you’ve liked and those you’ve disliked whenever possible.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,

Laurie Likes Books, Anne Stuart, and Anne Marble

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