Hello everyone and welcome to our monthly AAR blog column. The basic idea is we choose a book every month and have a discussion about it. We being Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer.
So, uh, My Dark Prince: He’s the Prince of an imagined country, attempting to secure the line of succession by marrying the princess of neighbouring imagined country. Except then the princess is presumed kidnapped. BUT the heroine happens to look like this princess. There’s politics! And intrigue! And angst. And finally love.
AJH: Omg, this book. I literally do not know what to say.
Elisabeth: Ha! Sounds like you had a few issues with this one.
AJH: I do have issues but they were partially of my own making, in that I wasn’t paying enough attention and so I assumed it was from, uh, the 70s or something. And so I read it with my ‘this is from the 70s’ hat on (which I guess is a set of deely boppers) and then I discovered it was actually from the year 2000 and suddenly a lot of the things I’d seen as cracktastically old school were weird and disturbing to me.
Elisabeth: I know what you mean about putting on a different set of lenses for older books. I’ve got a set too. First though, was there anything you liked about it?
AJH: I did actually really enjoy it at the time of reading. It’s super dramatic and engaging. It was just afterwards when I actually thought about it that my reactions became complicated.
Elisabeth: It did have a fairy tale epic quality that I enjoyed. It reminded me of Laura Kinsale’s books. Of course, the bad news is that it reminded me so much of Kinsale that I found myself comparing it to hers (which are my FAVORITES) and…finding it a bit lacking.
AJH: I think once you start comparing something to Kinsale it is doomed… DOOMED! I liked the fairytale quality you mention and the other thing I admired is that the hero is genuinely a Machiavelli. I often find attempts to do political intrigue pretty transparent, but there were so many layers of manipulation here that the hero always being one step ahead came across as genuinely impressive to me. If unpleasant.
Elisabeth: Indeed. In fact I thought the political intrigue was much more well done than the romance. And especially the sex. But the intrigue I think was what was reminding me of Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. It’s a different era though, which doesn’t speak especially well of the characterization of the hero. And that’s kind of where I got tripped up, I think. This was definitely the hero’s story. He was the one with the major emotional issues to address and he was the one with the massive personal goal. The heroine felt like window dressing to me. She was just so…perfect and sweet and peasanty. I couldn’t figure out what Ross was trying to do with her.
AJH: I thought the heroine–Penny–was actually quite interesting in some respects. I mean, she is a bit too good to be true (which played off badly in the context of at least one of the hero’s issues) but I liked the fact she was sexually experienced and not afraid to be the sexual instigator. I also liked the fact that near the end of the book she comes back to the Pollyanna letters she wrote to her mother at the beginning of the book, and is all like “oh wow, I was a smug moron”. So I felt there was probably more depth to her than actually comes out in the text.
Elisabeth: Hm. Well, I’m all for subtext and quiet romantic conflict, but I think the vision exceeded the execution there.
AJH: I would very much agree with that – to me, the hero was one-note tormented, although politically adept, and the heroine was uneven with flashes of genuine depth. But I think where she lost any hope of being a subtle or nuanced character was when she literally saved the hero from his abusive past with her vagina. And I know this is a Thing in romance (and there’s the Magic Dick of Healing in m/m) but it felt really … hammerlike to me in this book.
Elisabeth: Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what saved him. Like, at first, their sexual scenarios seemed pretty healthy and normal? But then there’s one near the end where he is really quite cruel to her. And by the final few, I was just skimming them, which I never do. I’m not sure it’s exactly her vagina that saves him. She kind of gives him some talk therapy and writing therapy, which felt totally weird and anachronistic to me. And then he’s magically all better, like, overnight. I just thought the whole thing was strange and inconsistent.
AJH: There was one sex scene, which is the first one, which actually kind of moved me? In that they say they love each other, and she sort of gives him everything, just open-hearted responses, and it concludes with her realising that he’s only given her his body in response. I know it’s not precisely original but I thought it worked quite well context and what I did like about it was, at that point, it wasn’t trying to pretend sex could be inherently healing. Like they have the magic romance novel sex … but he’s still an abuse victim after. But, as you say, once they get into trying to ‘fix’ that, it all goes really weird. And the final time they do bonking, he waits to have his PTSD flashback (as he has all times previously) and it does not come! Because love. Or write-therapy. Or vagina. Or whu?
Elisabeth: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Well, it is the end of the book. And it’s a romance, so he does eventually have to heal. Maybe the lead-up to it was too subtle for me. I just didn’t catch the PTSD flashbacks the way I did in, say, The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne. Maybe because it was the hero and not the heroine? Maybe I was insufficiently identifying with him.
AJH: Well, he’s slightly hard to identify with because his two modes are Scheming and Self-Loathing. I’m probably over-sensitive about this stuff, to be honest. And I realise it’s a romance novel so there has to be some sort of healing but the abuse was so extreme and his reaction to the abuse was so deeply embedded in his character that having him suddenly be “all better” felt really … just icky to me.
Elisabeth: I guess I had a slightly different reaction. It didn’t feel icky to me. I just felt rather cheated as a reader. I mean, the romantic arc was set up as: boy needs to turn girl into a princess, girl needs to turn boy into a human being. But the resolution of that was unsatisfying. I almost wish she had completely left out the abuse. It was clear that the Uncle or whomever was not only a child abuser, he was a bad man on every level. Why couldn’t that have been sufficient?
AJH: I love that categorisation of the arc. But, yes, the Uncle was just cartoon shithead. I expected him to be trying to rape the furniture by page 250.
Elisabeth: And the thing is, there was a perfectly lovely historical, political conflict to be had there. The monarchy versus democracy thing could have been explored further, I thought. Maybe that’s just my colonial roots. And Ross seems to be great at that! So why throw this other thing in there and then handle it… not well?
AJH: It might be another reach exceed grasp type thing. Because actually: there are unusual things about the heroine and there are also unusual things about the hero. I mean, yes, sexual abuse is a fairly common hero trauma but he’s completely consumed by it in a way that makes him surprisingly vulnerable a lot of the time. To say nothing of sexually frigid. And he spends most of the book politically disempowered. And, at the end, while you say it’s unsatisfying (which I agree with) it’s also kind of impressive that he gives up on princedom to come and essentially be a house-husband. All of these things add up to something that could be rare and kind of fascinating. Except it, err, doesn’t seem to have worked for either of us?
Elisabeth: Well, a house-husband who sits in the House of Lords… But yes, you’re right. It didn’t work.
AJH: Sad face.
Elisabeth: There was one small facet of it that grew on me though. Ross has a way with language that’s incredibly interesting. She’s way overboard with the extended metaphors and figurative speech, but… I kind of enjoyed it by the end. She described a latch as rattling and panting and “giving a plaintive whine”. There’s a dog behind it, of course, but that was just clever and pretty. It’s a little bit crazy-making at first, but it’s the main reason I’d be willing to try another of hers.
AJH: Well, there’s this bit about, err, dead months you quoted which actually really stood out for me as well:
The clean-boned fingers tightened slowly on the gilded wood. One by one his knuckles shone stark and polished in the candlelight. Then he opened his hands and stood up. He walked to the window. The latch creaked as he turned it. A drift of moths fluttered, clinging to the window frame, then launching erratically as night streamed back into the room. Ghost moths landed on his jacket and hair, fuzzy, fluttering gray-golden petals. A hawk moth bumped, heavy bodied, against his hand. Lappet moths, with their dead-leaf wings and feathered antennae, shriveled and died in the candle flames.
The style was honestly part of the reason I thought I was in the 70s. It’s kind of like eating an entire box of Godiva truffles. Occasionally delicious but way, way too much.
Elisabeth: Too much can be kind of fun sometimes…
AJH: I agree, too much can occasionally be just right. And I did enjoy the sheer gilded excess of this poor tormented man covered in moths for no reason. I feel bad because I’ve trashed the book but I was genuinely totally committed to it and drawn into it when I was reading. And I do believe a lot of what it was trying to do, or could have done, or perhaps might achieve for a more generous or just plain different reader was admirable.
Elisabeth: So, any other thoughts about My Dark Prince?
AJH: Well, I kind of want to know how you virginity check a princess. I mean, it’s just casually mentioned as something that Princess Sophia cheerfully consents to in order to get an annulment. And I’m sure it probably did happen in History ™ … but just, how the hell would you figure that out?
Elisabeth: I sort of just assumed the lady’s maid’s testimony about the chicken blood was sufficient? Maybe I’m naive…
AJH: God, I hope so. It sounded hideous and bizarre. And, err, on that happy note. Any final thoughts?
Elisabeth: Well, just that one of the things I love best about All About Romance is that there are all these old, old reviews from when books first came out…and this one got a review! So there’s a slightly different perspective on My Dark Prince, maybe a tad more positive if people are finding the premise engaging.
Next month, we’ll discuss Jordan Castillo Price’s Meatworks. We’d love to have you join the conversation.