I had heard Coulter’s books could be a real gamble: you either win big or you lose big. Well, I should have cut my losses before I put money down on Devil’s Embrace. It’s a creepy, cruel novel, and that it was Coulter’s first full-length historical is no excuse. As her note on the back of the book makes clear, she’s still quite proud of it.
Coulter’s heroine, the witty if not worldly Cassandra Brougham is an English lady sure enough of her own desires to reject doing the London season in favor of marriage to her childhood crush, Edward. But Lord Anthony, Earl of Clare, English aristocrat, Italian nobleman, and fabulously tanned fellow has been watching the considerably younger Cassie from afar. He had planned to woo and wed her in London, but her sudden marriage plans force him to resort to more piratical measures.
Intending to take her to Genoa and make her his bride, Anthony seizes Cassie from her tiny sailboat on the day before her wedding, dashing the craft against the rocks to make it appear that she has met her death at sea. It all sounds very romantic, except that Anthony’s next logical step is to rape Cassie. And when I say logical, I mean that Anthony has thoroughly thought this through and even explains himself to Cassie before he assaults her. Now, there have been plenty of discussions about marital (or pre-marital) rape in romance fiction, and certain authors’ propensity for it. It seems to me that many of the “rapes” that take place in romance fiction rarely resemble the brutality and violation of real rape. But Coulter seems unwilling to settle for anything less than the real thing.
Anthony uses his love for Cassie and his belief that he must take her virginity to insure that she will wed him and no other to justify his behavior. And it is perhaps this, his lack of guilt or remorse, his pat righteousness that is most repulsive. He is not deliberately or excessively violent, but the act is itself violent. Cassie seems to have all of the reactions of a real rape victim: shock, terror, self-loathing. The difference is that Cassie’s psyche leaps over these obstacles to put her firmly in the throes of sexual passion by the following night. The rest of the sexual relations between Cassie and Anthony are decidedly consensual though of the, “I hate myself for wanting you” variety. Because Coulter has painted the rape so realistically, this turnaround is truly upsetting.
From there, Coulter lulls us into a false sense of security with some very fine writing as Cassie and Anthony journey to his home in Genoa. Coulter gives Cassie a few choice opportunities to prove herself as a smart, courageous heroine, the best being a fabulous scene in which Cassie dupes a burly pirate. The descriptions of the Italian coast are equally wonderful.
But just as we let our guard down and start to forget that earlier nastiness, just as we’re beginning to enjoy the dialogue and bask in the Genoan sun, Coulter hits us with another rape scene- this one a gang rape committed by four (yes, all four) hired thugs. The sub-plot that leads up to the assault is completely underdeveloped and feels nearly tacked on. It’s as if Coulter knows she’s given us a smug rapist for a hero so she needs to show us what a really bad rape is like. And this one is really, truly horrifying. Anyone going into this book expecting the hero to come bursting through the door in the nick of time, don’t. Coulter is determined to see this through to the graphic end. Just to give you an indication of the level of brutality, the heroine ends up needing stitches in the last place one could want them.
The rape is a transparent and unnecessarily ugly plot device that Coulter uses to cast Anthony in the role of avenging angel and patient caregiver. But by then, I’d had enough of Anthony’s paternalism. Coulter repeatedly tells us that, though Anthony’s attachment to Cassie began as a result of his attraction to her mother, he has come to love her for her independent self. Unfortunately, his love for Cassie always seems more obsessive and weird than passionate, particularly since most of his interaction with her took place when she was a very young girl. He kidnaps her, allows her family to believe she’s dead, and then follows Cassie around the globe without ever doubting himself or questioning his own motives. I guess in Coulter’s world, fathers or at least father figures really do know best.