I started reading romance late in the day, so I missed out on a lot of the books that most fans are familiar with. Occasionally I get curious, especially when the author was known for being a pioneer back in the day, but isn’t as popular now. So I tried one of the grand old novels of this genre, Bertrice Small’s Skye O’Malley.
Skye is born in Ireland in 1540, the youngest of six girls. Right away you know what you’re in for, since her father is a seafarer and adventurer who always needs a woman to tup, her mother is at death’s door from constant pregnancy, and her five older sisters are all plain, much to Dad’s disappointment. But Skye is a gorgeous baby who grows up to be a feisty beauty and her father’s favorite. When the story begins, she’s fifteen and about to be married, but then she’s introduced to the handsome silver-eyed Lord Niall Burke.
Skye and Niall are instantly attracted to each other, and since her betrothed leaves her cold, Niall tries and fails to marry her himself. Finally he resorts to stepping in after the wedding to claim the droit de seigneur. But their night of passion ends when her father’s men kidnap him, then convince Skye that he’s left her. Niall is likewise made to think that Skye intends to settle down with her husband, so he marries some woman of his father’s choosing.
Needless to say, these marriages are unhappy. Niall’s wife is frigid, while Skye’s husband hates the fact that she’s in love with another man. He takes it out on her with rough sex, including anal (I can see why this book made such an impact forty years ago), but after she’s had two sons, he backs off. This would normally be good, but Skye discovers that her husband’s interests lie with his sister, who drags Skye into their bed for a bondage-assisted threesome that would make Jaime Lannister blush. Skye pushes the husband down a staircase, rendering him a paraplegic. Within a year he dies and Niall gets an annulment so they can be married. Happy ending, right? Oh, no, dear readers. Their story is just getting started.
So Skye is kidnapped and taken to a harem in Algiers, where she marries again before escaping to England, and Niall marries again too (this time his wife is a nymphomaniac, so maybe the third time will be the charm in a Goldilocks way?). Amnesia, jealous other women, every man who sees the heroine lusting after her, sex resulting from watching his stallion mount her mare – this story has it all, and often comes off as a historical soap opera, with characters soldiering on despite events that would leave a normal person in desperate need of therapy and antibiotics. And Skye’s path crosses Niall’s again and again although they can’t be together until the end.
As a result, the book was oddly entertaining. I never for one moment cared about anyone in it, but I found myself reading to see what would happen next. The descriptions of clothes and food are lush and detailed, and I got hungry reading about the wedding feasts (the multiple weddings were good for this, at any rate).
That said, bodices galore are ripped throughout, and young maidservants tumbled by their (married) masters. Skye’s second husband owns multiple sex slaves, one of whom is a “gypsy” who is gang-raped, and Niall’s second wife is implied to be so promiscuous because her mother was not only molested by a priest when she was six years old, but later used for sex by an entire shipful of men during her pregnancy.
Basically, there’s a lot of rape, up to and including a scene where an enraged Skye storms in to save a twelve-year-old girl from a mastiff. Yes, you read that right. None of the rapes are mentioned in any detail and none of the women or children involved seem to have any long-term traumas from them, so they often seemed as unrealistic as everything else, but… well, they’re there, and they’re often grotesque. I’d have given the book a higher grade if not for these, especially since they’re hardly necessary. Even back in 1980, there were ways to show a villain was a villain without having him try to force a child into bestiality.
Still, I have to give Skye O’Malley credit for what it does well. Skye is a much stronger and more active heroine than her counterparts in, say, Sweet Savage Love or The Flame and the Flower. And this is definitely not a book with wallpaper history. But ultimately, a story where I don’t care about the characters isn’t a good romance for me, and the sexual assault was so over-the-top that I can’t recommend it.