Every successful author must have at least one book published early in her career, which is surely the last she would recommend to anyone looking for a sample of her work. For Patricia Gaffney, Sweet Treason could be it. Unfortunately, even the engrossing story and elegant prose couldn’t redeem its two great blunders: a hugely dissatisfying ending and (insert scandalized gurgling sound here) a rapist-hero.
Scottish spy Katherine McGregor hates no people more than the English, who have killed her fiancé, her brother, and her father. But when she is captured during a mission, she is forced to deal with Major James Burke, the maverick English officer tasked to escort her to prison. Her only avenue of escape is to pretend to be a simpleminded prostitute, seducing Burke into letting her go. However, their powerful attraction forces them to confront the possibility of betraying their respective causes and loving the enemy.
The Jacobite rebellion led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland in 1745-46 provides an interesting historical setting, one for which author Diana Gabaldon has set an extremely high bar. Sweet Treason, written years before Gabaldon’s epic series, falls short. Gaffney focuses less on battlefield action and more on political intrigue, which is an appropriate backdrop for Kate and Burke’s clandestine, tortured affair.
Indeed, powerful feelings buffet the story forward, a laudable factor in any love story if and only if all the pain and suffering has a suitable payoff. For instance, the memory of a harrowing incident involving a piece of rope makes Kate delirious with fear whenever someone tries to tie her up. But her frequent attempts to escape finally force Burke to bind her hands behind her back during a long journey. At this point, you can’t help but agonize, “Awwww, how could he be so cruel? But he couldn’t possibly know! Later when he finds out about her past, he will surely make up for it.”
Unfortunately, you might be disappointed. This book takes you on a precipitous, heart-twisting ride, only to run out of gas at the most crucial moments. After Kate and Burke’s disloyalties toward one another – the 700 things they haven’t explained to each other – you expect a spectacular climax where at least somebody grovels. After all, it’s the only fitting reward for following the convoluted plot, full of all the hurdles you can possibly think of: lies, scheming relatives, men who lust after Kate and who want to kill Burke, women who lust after Burke and who want to get rid of Kate, more lies, disease, accidents, imprisonment. The list goes on. And on. And on.
And then it all ends abruptly, making you wonder, “What was all that about? And can I take back all the time and emotion I’ve invested?”
The characterization isn’t much of an improvement over the plot, particularly Gaffney’s rendering of Burke. He is an interestingly strong figure, but his unpardonable sin, as mentioned above, is that he rapes Kate. True, he is drunk and angry at the time and his actions are in keeping with the intensity Gaffney is trying to sketch. But what jarred me irrevocably out of the story is that the rape has been eroticized. Readers are warned that three rape attempts on Kate by three different men are depicted here, as well as two successful rapes.
To be fair, only Burke’s rape of Kate appears to have a romantic angle. Note though that he expresses deep remorse and she is obviously traumatized, so I don’t read the book as saying that women enjoy forced intercourse. However, I do read the book as saying that violent sex without the woman’s consent could figure significantly in the development of a relationship. For me, this obliterates the fundamental romance-as-fantasy element, pushing the book toward the edges of the genre (as it exists today).
With regard to the issue of domination, Burke is a pale prototype of Sebastian, the fascinatingly dark hero of Gaffney’s more recent To Have and to Hold. For a large part of the book, everything is in Burke’s control. He could make Kate do anything he wants, through force or seduction. Of course it helps for the sake of fantasy that he is tall, broad-shouldered, black-haired and blue-eyed, and that despite his mild cruelty he secretly has a soft spot for the heroine. Admittedly this could be erotic, but only to an extent, and provided that the characters’ personalities are deep enough to support such a relationship of unequal power. This sexual complexity is very finely conveyed in To Have and to Hold, but poorly rendered in Sweet Treason.
Nonetheless, Gaffney aficionados will probably appreciate this book, which may not be the author’s best but which is an early harbinger of her potential. In one scene, Burke admires Kate: “Her neck seemed almost too frail to bear the heavy head of lustrous hair; he thought of a beautiful flower on a slender stalk.” How often do you find prose like that in a first book? Just think of an imaginary epilogue and maybe a slight rewrite, and this one could be well worth a look.