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REVIEW: At Her Service by Susan Johnson

Dear Ms. Johnson:

075820940101lzzzzzzzI’ve re-read some of your backlist titles so many times, the cover fell off the paperback copies. I think you were writing erotic romance before erotic romance was even a commonly used term. What I loved most was the lush beauty of the writing that some might even accuse of being ponderous at times. Yours were books I tended to savor, reading each word carefully to fully imbue myself in the experience. In recent years, though, my experience with your books have been less than satisfactory as you moved more to writing straight contemporaries to the point that I actually stopped reading them.

I bought this because I wanted to read another Susan Johnson historical. I wondered whether part of my problem with these books were my intimacy with your writing. The plot, the rhythm, the texture of the characters, their conflicts, were all done by you before and done better. The emotional journey in At Her service was so similar to previous books that it made for tedious reading. To a new reader, someone who has never read a Susan Johnson, perhaps the quirks and repetitiveness wouldn’t be an issue. Perhaps readers do look for the bull with the red flower tromping on the car in every book if that is a signature scene akin to the constant blowing up of someone’s car in Stephanie Plum series.

Hugh D’Abernon, Marquis of Darley, finds Aurore Clement from Alupka on the roadside with a broken wheel. He offers to take her into Sevastopol. There are some nice details added such as Darley asking Aurore whether she likes her stirrups “European or local” which lends immediate authenticity to the story. Darley is pretending to be a Tartar but is gathering intelligence about the Russians for England. Aurore Clement is spying for France but because she is born and bred in Crimea is assumed to be a Russian sympathizer. Aurore’s brother, however, signed up to fight for the French and is languishing in a hospital, a wounded prisoner. Aurore needs to get authorization for Etienne to be taken out of Sevastopol and she’s ready to do whatever with whomever to get that waiver.

After a dinner party wherein Aurore gets her brother’s release without offering much of anything, Darley proffers his farmhouse in Simferopol as a recuperating point. Aurore agrees and thus begins the pattern of many past Johnson books. The two are wildly attracted to each other. Darley is a “cunt hound” as he is charmingly described by a Russian general. Aurore is less free with her favors but she is experienced. They have no compunction about acting on their desires but ostensibly want nothing more than a good time. They fight strange and unwelcome feelings of attachment but circumstances through them together, pretty much forcing them to have sex time and again.

Basically the story is vague illusions to marathon sex scenes interspersed with details about the Crimean War. (Even the Sister of Mercy makes an appearance). While I appreciate the hinting at sexual congress at times from the full blown second by second accounts, the “he did” “she did” and “they were pleased” type of writing gets almost comically bad. To wit “He moved then and she did in reply and so it went–but not for long.” Later on:

“She threatened him and whined, tried artifice and subterfuge.
But he did what he did, intent on amplifying and heightening her resulting orgasm.
When he finally allowed her to climax, she was visibly shaken.
Pale and overwrought, drained.”

My imagination isn’t even engaged at that point. (It was engaged during a late exchange where there was reference to animals and that no boundary was not exploited when the hero was younger. I’m not sure that was necessary because I did start to wonder what the hero meant). Worse than the vague excuses for sex scenes were the lack of detail given to the character arcs. We are provided little opportunity to get to know the characters other than that they are spies and like to screw. Aurore loves Crimea and Hugh lost someone a long time ago but that’s it. They were flat, not even two dimensional.

The war as an excuse for all actions which could have been a good concept had it actually been explored by having the characters question whether they were affected by the war or whether they used it to excuse actions which were not normal, profligate or otherwise inexcusable.

One thing that I do enjoy is that the women in your books are never doormats. Aurore is fiercely independent and makes Hugh come to her at the end, appropriately so. Further your heroines are unapologetic about their joy in sex and their experience with it. In a genre that seems to glory in inexperience, the converse is a nice change. Ultimately, though, the brevity of details leaves out too much for the reader to fill in. D

Best regards,

Jane

This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon or ebook form from Sony.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

12 Comments

  1. Sherry Thomas
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 16:11:28

    Susan Johnson is the last author I found via random shelf roaming, way back in 1998. I swallowed my doubts about mantitty covers and picked up WICKED, got intrigued by the backblurb, and then had to buy it because the bookstore was closing at 11pm and I couldn’t stop reading.

    I went on a total glom and bought just about her entire backlist.

    And other than an absence of buttsex, I still think very few erotic writers have managed to outdo SJ for pure sexiness–and occasionally pure perviness.

    That said, I haven’t read her in years. She just doesn’t write the same books she used to anymore.

  2. Danielle
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 16:46:53

    She’s one of my favorite authors, I already have this book pre-ordered.

  3. Ann Somerville
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 17:03:59

    she was visibly shaken.

    One of my pet peeves in writing. If it’s the other person describing it, then of course it’s ‘visibly’. And if it’s the person themselves, then….

    Better to leave the sex out, than put in scenes so distancing from the action.

  4. GrowlyCub
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 17:41:12

    I gave up on her after ‘Taboo’, I think, or maybe the one after that one. The old magic just wasn’t there any more, which is a crying shame. [Hmm, I just checked my Readerware database and I actually own 'A Touch of Sin' and 'Legendary Lover', but have no recollection or reading anything past 'Taboo'.]

    I did pick up most of the contemps this last year, which are pretty chicklit-ty, but didn’t annoy me near as much as whichever one was the last historical I read. The contemps were fun, quick reads, that were forgotten as soon as I closed the books, which is not the most ringing endorsement I can think of…

    I wish she’d write another one like Pure Sin or Forbidden. I love those two and I re-read them often.

  5. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 17:50:53

    I appreciate Susan Johnson’s talent for making me care about two characters who seem to do nothing but have sex. Even if the heroine faints from climaxing a thousand times and the hero is still an utter dog at the end, I’m totally invested in their happily ever after.

    Like you, I haven’t been as fond of the contemporaries…

  6. Anthea Lawson
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 18:29:56

    I have to agree with the above calls of “distancing” and “unengaging.”

    I picked up this book a few months ago, and I have to say, I’m not planning on reading any more Susan Johnson. Although “any more” implies that I actually finished this book, which I did not. I found the writing thin, there were constant POV problems, and the characters seemed to me completely flat – cardboard cut-outs of “romance hero” and “romance heroine.”

    Willing to give her another try, if someone can recommend a richly-drawn historical of hers with characters that actually come alive for the reader. Maybe the ones Growly mentioned?

  7. Joan/SarahF
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 18:53:12

    Anthea, try Silver Flame (my first) or Blaze or Forbidden. Or even in order: Blaze, Forbidden, and Silver Flame. They’re great and it’s such a pity she doesn’t write like that anymore. More footnotes, is what I say.

  8. Heather
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 19:07:54

    Used to just LOVE, LOVE, LOVE her stuff, and as you said, she was writing erotica long before many of my current fav’s. Now I find her contemporaries, well, sleezy, nothing really romantic about them at all. When authors dramatically change like this, I often wonder if they have a ghost writer?!?!?!?!

    Her Braddock/Black series was just wonderful, and for any of your who would like to try her older stuff, I’d say start there (Forbidden, Blaze, Silver Flame, and Brazen)…there was a final part to this series “Force of Nature”, but I’ve not read it yet.

  9. Gennita Low
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 22:08:35

    My favorite book of hers was OUTLAW and all her Kuzan series, especially the one with Alexandr. I loved her books and still glom the old ones. I think the sluichiness (sp?) in Legendary Lover killed all my desire to read her newer historicals.

  10. Jane
    Dec 23, 2008 @ 22:10:12

    @Gennita Low I love OUTLAW. Pure Sin is another favorite. The Braddock Black series with Forbidden being my favorite. Love the lawyer heroine.

  11. Keishon
    Dec 24, 2008 @ 12:24:32

    Best Susan Johnson book for me: Pure Sin and I can’t remember Outlaw *cries* I haven’t read her in a decade but she was the first.

  12. Anita C.
    Dec 26, 2008 @ 04:55:12

    Susan Johnson’s deterioration is so sad, and unfortunately, mirrors quite a number of romance authors I used to find so compelling. If you read her first five or so (mostly the ones set in the American West in the 1800s), you’ll find rich stories with massive detail that show an incredible knowledge and research. The plotting was good, the characters were attractive (as well as their bodies and faces), and the eroticism she could evoke in her love scences just left the page scorched! I learned a lot about unconventional sex from her in the 80s!

    But she turned a corner about 10 years ago, and her writing abruptly went down hill. And then she switched to contemporaries, which made it even worse.

    Unfortunately, I have similar feelings about Iris Johansen, Tami Hoag, Jane Feather, and Linda Howard. Maybe there’s a correlation between moving up (up?) into hardback, and losing your inspiration. Or maybe it’s more time presssure and money hungry editors?

    Hoag was good in hardback for 3 or 4 books, but then started her decent; Johansen switched to contempoary in her first hardback and they’ve been bearly readable since then (although I did see an ad last month that she might be returning to historial fiction); Howard kept up her feisty heroines and clever dialogue for awhile but her last 4 or 5 books haven’t been up to par; and Jane Feather – well, I can hardly bear to think about how skiimpy her novels are, and she was an especial favorite. Heather, you may have it! They’re employing ghost writers, and incompetent ones at that!

    When I remember Johansen’s lush historicals, with their sweeping, dramatic locales and exotic, dashing romantic heros (especiallly the Wind Dancer trilogy), it makes me want to weep. Feather’s “v” series titles (“Vows,” “Vice,” “Velvet”) were SO GOOD, sexy and interesting, with interesting moral issues framing some of the stories. And I loved Hoag’s playfulness with her contemp. novels – my favorite is Still Waters, when the town’s new smoking and drinking widow arrives in town to take over the newspaper she just bought. She’s immediately accused of murdering a leading citizen (and womanizer) because he accosted her on her way into town and tried to look down her dress. When she and the sheriff go to the widow’s house to pay their respects, the widow’s church society friends dump molded jello on her front! It was one of those scream with laughter moments you never forget.

    If any of you has a working hypothesis as to why this phenomenon happens, I’d love to hear it. (I never saw it in Balogh or Cruise or Roberts), and Patricia Gafney (who always wrote well and with such grace) just keeps getting bettere and better.

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