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REVIEW: Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell

Readers were arguing about Anna Campbell's debut, Claiming the Courtesan, before it was published. An Avon historical that was actually offending readers? This I had to see. And as I sat down to read, I expected to be shocked, looked forward to it, even, because I was really craving a book that shook up my sensibilities for a change.

Unfortunately, Claiming the Courtesan wasn't that book, but it wasn't a bad book, either. For a first book it was compelling and promising, with some fresh phrasing and a bold use of the old captive heroine motif. Sure the hero is a brooding, tormented nobleman –" the duke who fears he's as crazy as his father and mother and who seeks the healing effect of the heroine's body and soul. But this heroine isn't quite the virginal innocent nor the feisty TSTL aristocratic lady, and her relationship with the possibly insane duke kept my jaded self riveted for the first half of the book. As for the second half . . . well, I'll get to that.

Justin Kylemore, aka Cold Kylemore, has spent the last year enjoying the fruits of a five-year pursuit of one of the most notorious courtesans in London, Soraya, aka Verity Ashton. We meet them on the last day of their contractually-arranged relationship, and the eve of Soraya's secret plan to flee London with her bodyguard (aka her brother Ben disguised as an Arab eunuch) and take up country residence as a chaste and anonymous widow. Justin, however, has no plans to end this satisfying liaison, instead deciding hastily to marry Soraya and thwart his mother's plans to make her ward a duchess. When Justin discovers that Verity has fled without a forwarding address he is extremely angry and betrayed.

So what is a bereft and slightly crazy duke to do? Spend three months tracking his lover down and kidnapping her at gunpoint, then taking her to his remote childhood home in Scotland to punish/worship her foreverandever. Verity isn't flattered at the duke's obsessive attentions, though, and Justin has to contend with a combative and reluctant captive ensconced in a place that still echoes the torments and trauma inflicted on a young child by an abusively unstable father and ruthlessly ambitious mother.

Despite the extremely melodramatic dimensions of this set up, I was completely sucked in by this part of the novel, partly because it was just so extreme. Verity regrets her life as a courtesan, and once she is Justin's captive, she refuses to give him the pleasures of her body willingly, both because he has taken away her will and because she has never viewed sex as a real pleasure to be experienced. Justin, though, wants more than Verity's physical surrender; he wants the passion he identifies as Soraya's, because he has convinced himself that she is his salvation. Justin doesn't like it when Verity is passive or remote. Verity doesn't trust Justin when he shows her kindness. Justin realizes that he is acting unforgivably, but he keeps pushing himself on Verity, who represents a bewitching combination of innocence and experience Justin craves. Verity, on the other hand, tries to remain unfazed by Justin's fluctuations between angry kidnapper and smitten paramour.

In the most fundamental way, Justin is trying to force seduction on Verity. Part of Justin wants to punish Verity for leaving him, while another part is disgusted by his actions, wanting instead for her to truly desire and care for him. Yes, it's twisted, but Campbell doesn't shy away from the unsavory aspects of Justin's character or its effects on Verity. She doesn't use this motif to conveniently have Verity connect with her inner vixen. “Anything you take, you take as a thief,” she tells Justin, even as he pleads with her: “Verity, think what you do. It doesn't have to be like this. The pleasure we shared was a miracle.” She cannot be convinced, however: “That implies something freely bestowed” (pp. 127-128). Even more complicated for Verity, however, is the fact that her body isn't unresponsive to Justin's after a year as his mistress, and she is ashamed of these sensations, especially knowing he violated her. And although Justin is well aware of how far gone he is, he keeps to his course, disturbingly accepting of his own self-disgust.

This portion of the book is uncomfortable, and it made me uneasy to think about how these characters were actually increasing their emotional intimacy within this unnatural and unequal situation. That Justin has a ton of past trauma and raging night terrors doesn't mitigate the wrongs he does to Verity. That Verity sees sex as somewhat debased doesn't mean that she needs to be forced to experience pleasure as a way to enjoy it without guilt. Much internal dialogue ensues during this section of the book, as Campbell lays out in great detail the complex and sometimes unsavory relationship between Verity and Justin, as well as their own internal –" even parallel — conflicts. Both characters are emotionally masked and they each find an internal balance through battling with one another.

With so much emotional drama front-loaded, however, the second half of the novel suffered from a lack of momentum and the burden of conflict-manufacturing clichà©s, from Justin's scheming mother to Verity's needless self-sacrifice. While I'm glad Verity and Justin (Truth and Justice?) didn't arrive at page 375 with “I hate you –" I love you,” I wanted the plotting of the novel's second half to be as intense as the emotional tenor of the first. I was also somewhat ambivalent about another heroine who, if she can't be an actual virgin, is ashamed of her sexuality in substitution for her missing hymen. Again, though, Campbell did something interesting by having Justin refuse to judge Verity for her past: “Verity is sweet and virtuous and Soraya is a woman who goes after what she wants without regret and fear. Those two women unite in you” (p. 242). For me, though, the first half of the novel did not unite seamlessly with the second.

There is definitely a strong sense of emotional justice in this book, and a relatively traditional Romance novel-y finale for Justin and Verity, which makes me think this book will appeal to mainstream Romance readers. I anticipate that some will dismiss it as a mere bodice-ripper, although I think it is more a meditation on bodice-rippers. That said, I understand why readers who do not like rape or forced seduction might hate this book. In general, I am one of them, and the only thing that saved this book for me was the way Campbell honored Verity's honor by not making what happens to her about love or mutual desire or absolving Justin of the need to grovel in a major way. I also know there are readers who believe that rape in historical Romance is “historically accurate,” but I am not one of them, and I did not feel Campbell was letting herself off that easily, either. Claiming the Courtesan has a very daring dimension to it, and hopefully Campbell will continue to push further at some of the old genre conventions in future books. In the meantime, B- for this one.

Best regards

Janet (aka Robin)

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

21 Comments

  1. Meljean
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 15:31:09

    I think the second half was a little more successful for me (although I agree that it didn’t keep the same intensity as the first half) but otherwise, you’ve described almost exactly my reaction to this book.

  2. Janine
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 15:51:19

    Hmm, you guys are making me want to read this book, and I didn’t have much interest in it before.

  3. Jane
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 15:56:11

    It’s a pretty compelling but very dark read. It’s hard to say how the second half would have been better. I thought that the “suspense” or”action” part of it seemed contrived.

  4. Janet
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 16:13:43

    When I sat down to write the review, a mere 36 hours after finishing the book, it was already fading for me. The first half of the book still remains vivid for me, though. Like Jane, I don’t know what, specifically, would have worked better for me as a reader. More of whatever Campbell did with the first half to raise all the foundational cliches to the transcendent heights she did, IMO.

  5. Jorrie Spencer
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 16:48:15

    Huh, interesting review, though I don’t know that I’ll be picking it up.

    I am reminded of Pat Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold, though perhaps they have nothing in common? THaTH was a very good book, despite the fact that I could never see the hero as the hero after he forced the heroine. (Obviously I have forgotten their names.)

    I will say that it does give the impression thatt the author is actually exploring what a truly tortured hero might do, whereas in much romance—romance that I enjoy—a tortured hero is still bounded by morals that have not been affected by his dark past.

  6. Janet
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 17:09:59

    Janine: I think you might find this one interesting and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    Jorrie: It’s funny you should mention THATH, which is one of my most favorite books in the genre. I almost put a sentence in the review that CTC didn’t have the depth or the subtlety for me that THATH did, but IMO Campbell is definitely closer to Gaffney than to many, many, many, many, many other authors who use the rape/FS trope in Romance. The book CTC actually reminded me of the most, at least through the first half, was Kresley Cole’s A Hunger Like No Other, which also featured a pretty angry (and Scottish) hero who wanted to punish the heroine by kidnapping and sexually dominating her. But in the case of the Cole book, by the time the two actually have full-on intercourse, they’re strongly connected to each other, emotionally and physically, and it’s clearly not rape. Similar dynamics early on, though.

  7. Bev(BB)
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 17:22:12

    Hehehe, Call me a rebel but I ain’t reading this book and I ain’t calling her Janet. So there. ;p

    Ahem, that was me posting just so I could read the comments. :D

  8. Dear Author.Com | Read Enough Romances and Rape Is No Longer Rape
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 18:10:36

    [...] Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell [...]

  9. Jorrie Spencer
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 19:02:19

    The book CTC actually reminded me of the most, at least through the first half, was Kresley Cole’s A Hunger Like No Other, which also featured a pretty angry (and Scottish) hero who wanted to punish the heroine by kidnapping and sexually dominating her. But in the case of the Cole book, by the time the two actually have full-on intercourse, they’re strongly connected to each other, emotionally and physically, and it’s clearly not rape. Similar dynamics early on, though.

    Oh, interesting. I did read A Hunger Like No Other and liked it very much. I thought Cole very deftly navigated the opening third, so that the hero, while extremely aggressive, did not cross the line (for me). I also think the paranormal aspects—their mate bond, his Lychae nature—allowed their relationship to develop as it did. If it were contemporary, say, I don’t think I could have bought such almost-abusive, barely-in-control behavior. The paranormal allowed for circumstances that would not be available in “real" life.

  10. Robin
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 19:40:11

    I thought Cole very deftly navigated the opening third, so that the hero, while extremely aggressive, did not cross the line (for me). I also think the paranormal aspects—their mate bond, his Lychae nature—allowed their relationship to develop as it did.

    I’m feeling too lazy to log back into this site as Janet, but I wanted to respond to your point here, Jorrie. Cole’s book really got me thinking about how the not quite human aspects of Lachlain and Emma seemed to change the terms. In a way, I think that becomes a psychological buffer, much like the “in the past” of historical Romances does. Because we know as we’re reading that it’s all a construct — that the rules are created by the author and not by some incontrovertible natural law — but it definitely seems to ease the effect, doesn’t it? I think that’s why I completely understand why readers can stomach rape in historical Romances more easily, even though I don’t think it’s more “historically accurate.” Clearly we need something to make it feel less *real*, I guess I’d say, in order not to be completely outraged. Cole’s book worked for me, too, but it was because all the threats never panned out. Had Campbell not made it clear that Justin was wrong, wrong, wrong, I would not have made it through the book, I imagine. Because surprisingly, perhaps, I am not a big fan of rape or forced seduction in Romance, even though both tropes are really interesting to me on an intellectual level.

  11. Jorrie Spencer
    Mar 30, 2007 @ 20:49:49

    Cole’s book really got me thinking about how the not quite human aspects of Lachlain and Emma seemed to change the terms. In a way, I think that becomes a psychological buffer

    I guess. However, these different terms can also allow me to believe in the healing of a character, when I wouldn’t believe that someone could get past long years of being brutalized in a comtemporary situation. The paranormal, when handled right, helps me suspend my disbelief in a lot of situations.

    Cole’s book worked for me, too, but it was because all the threats never panned out.

    Yes, though in another book, those threats could be enough to turn me off.

    I just realized that A Hunger Like No Other reminded me of some of Shannon McKenna’s work—and she does write contemporary. So, it all depends.

  12. Rosario
    Mar 31, 2007 @ 09:13:35

    Hmm, you guys are making me want to read this book, and I didn’t have much interest in it before.

    Same here. I didn’t have any interest in it, actually, but this review intrigued me.

  13. Janet
    Mar 31, 2007 @ 10:42:26

    Rosario: I am a very outspoken critic of Avon. And while I know that some people think this book is a step backwards, I really saw it as a book *about* those old-style books, if that makes any sense. Yeah, it still had some Avon hallmarks, IMO, but I thought the first half was more, more, more — and in a good way. I expect this book to offend readers who have a real sensitivity to any kind of sexual force in Romance.

    Yes, though in another book, those threats could be enough to turn me off.

    I just realized that A Hunger Like No Other reminded me of some of Shannon McKenna’s work—and she does write contemporary. So, it all depends.

    I agree with you on the threats thing. As for Shannon McKenna, interesting catch. She wrote one short story about a biker guy, and a friend of mine refers to that as the “mask of civilization” story, because McKenna seems to be playing with women’s desire for the “bad boy,” and on what actually happens when you get a “real” bad boy who has had the “mask of civilization” stripped off. That so many women really want the bad boy without all the darkness that in real life often goes along with that.

    As for her long works, I was so impressed when I read her first book, Behind Closed Doors, because — as someone who generally reads Romance for the heroine– she had given Seth this amazing, IMO, inner voice. None of her later books have been able to compete with BCC for me, and even in that book I wanted to kick Seth in the balls quite a few times. That was one of those books where I did not find the bullying particularly romantic, but I understood it, and I think it was a dynamic that actually forced Raine to stand up for herself. But generally speaking, I tend to recoil from the scenario of the bullying hero who breaks down the sexually inhibited heroine so that she can finally get her rocks off. At least in BCC, McKenna shows us how harrowing it is for Raine, especially at the beginning, when she feels like she’s completely in over her head and Seth is taking out on her all sorts of things that have nothing to do with her. I vascillate, though, between seeing that book as a heinous example of the bullying guy as “hero,” and as an insightful take on that same dynamic as in the biker guy story. I don’t know — maybe it’s both. I haven’t even read her latest because a friend told me that too many terrible things happen to the heroine, and that’s a really hard one for me to get past.

  14. Jorrie Spencer
    Mar 31, 2007 @ 14:04:11

    Hey, someone should review Shannon McKenna here at Dear Author!

    My favorite is also Behind Closed Doors, though I vividly remember the biker story and I enjoyed Out of Control. What fascinates me with McKenna is that in another author’s hands I swear I wouldn’t like the books, let alone read them, but when she writes, I am riveted. (I can’t get any more specific than that, because I don’t remember the details now. It’s been a while. I’ll have to pick up another McKenna at some point, though.)

  15. LesleyW
    Apr 01, 2007 @ 10:21:32

    Oh, interesting. I did read A Hunger Like No Other and liked it very much. I thought Cole very deftly navigated the opening third, so that the hero, while extremely aggressive, did not cross the line (for me). I also think the paranormal aspects—their mate bond, his Lychae nature—allowed their relationship to develop as it did.

    The reason I could accept the hero’s behaviour in the first third of the book was because he had been burnt alive for the past hundred years or so. (I think it was a hundred going on memory). He was clearly not in his right mind, and he did sever his own leg.

    Obviously this was only possible because of his paranormal nature.

  16. Janet
    Apr 01, 2007 @ 11:02:48

    Obviously this was only possible because of his paranormal nature.

    I remember reading that first scene in the book and thinking, “oh, I’m going to hate this book,” but by page 50 or so, I was completely sucked in. Everyone has her own line as to what’s too much in a hero. As I said below, I have a real problem with some of the bullying heroes in Romancelandia who, while they might never physically harm the heroine, are autocratic, nonetheless, and remain that way, with the heroine either learning how to “handle them” or humor them. That makes some women feel cherished and protected — it makes me feel claustrophobic. Objectively speaking, I think it’s clear that Campbell’s book is NOT endorsing rape. Subjectively, though, how readers respond to it will vary — obviously. I didn’t ever fall in love with Justin, myself, but I understood why he and Verity were together, which was enough for me to like the book.

  17. The Good, The Bad and The Unread » Blog Archive » She’s the type of girl that likes to get around
    Apr 02, 2007 @ 06:10:51

    [...] Author has a review up here…. very interesting and gives even more reasons you might want to try the book [...]

  18. Eva Gale
    Apr 14, 2007 @ 20:59:41

    You should pop this back up because as more people are reding the book becuase of all the hoopla, more people are weighing in with opinions.

  19. Sunday links « Jorrie Spencer
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 06:11:46

    [...] few-’I’m talking about the rape in romance discussion spurred on (I think) by Robin’s review of Claiming the Courtesan at Dear Author. There was further discussion with Jane’s post A Reader in the [...]

  20. Dear Author.Com | Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell
    May 09, 2007 @ 04:01:25

    [...] Claiming the Courtesan. Arguments raced round and round the blogosphere; discussions sprouted from here to Jennifer Crusie's blog. After reading comments from people who reviled the book to comments [...]

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