REVIEW: Spoil of War by Phoenix Sullivan
Dear Ms. Sullivan,
When Jane put out the call for site improvements, I saw several people suggest more ‘Indie’ reviews. And I was inspired. I’ve been suffering from some lackluster reading, and I thought that reading and reviewing some Indie books would be an interesting challenge. So I started with yours.
You might want to stop reading right about here, because this is not going to be pretty.
(Also to anyone else: if you are easily triggered by rape discussion, you might also want to stop reading.)
I don’t know how I happened upon your book, but I do remember being struck by the cover (and the dead-eyed stare of the couple). I was intrigued when I skimmed the blurb and saw that this seemed to be historical fiction mixed with romance, and the hero was King Leodegrance of Arthurian legend (Guinevere’s father). An Arthurian prequel. Interesting. The reviews were universally positive on both Goodreads and Amazon, and I skimmed the pages and it started out in an interesting manner and you seemed like you could write, so I purchased. There was a warning about adult situations, but I don’t expect historical fiction to be all sunshine and puppies, so I was fine with that. Perhaps this would be one of those ‘Indie treasures’ everyone keeps talking about.
I was wrong.
Before I get into the story itself, I did want to comment that editing always comes up in conversations about Indies. Upon reading this, I felt it was obvious you had not hired an editor. There were commas in places that should not have commas, random capitalization, and misspelled words like “probbing” instead of ‘probing’ and an egregious “fagging courage”, which should have been “flagging”. The errors aren’t ugly enough to make one stop reading, but they did jar me from my reading on a regular basis. Luckily, the grammatical errors were overshadowed by the terrible history this ‘historical novel’ has, and the awful, awful storyline.
This book is the story of Elsbeth, and set in the preceding years before King Arthur unites Britain. Sort of. I’ll get into the historical timeline later. For now, go along with it. Elsbeth is the daughter of a duke who is at war with the new king, Leodegrance. King Leo lays siege to Elsbeth’s castle and kills or enslaves everyone there, and Elsbeth herself is taken as a ‘spoil of war’, hence the title.
This story starts out with a heroine that I thought would be strong and likable, and quickly descends into “what the fuck did I just read” territory. This book was so bad I emailed friends and told them what I was reading, just because I had to share the sheer insanity of what was on the page. There are so many things wrong with this storyline I don’t even know where to begin. When the castle is being conquered, Leodegrance’s men (and Leo is the hero, mind you), murder people left and right, and the ones that are left are ‘enslaved’ to take back to Cameliard aka Camelot. Her nursemaid’s dead body is defiled by a soldier, and our hero tells her:
“It’s the nature of war, my Lady.” He laughed, and the sound was not pleasant. “Truly you can’t be so naïve?”
“But she was old and – and – “
“Dead? She’s also still warm. Some men prefer women with the fight taken out of them. And some men will use whatever’s available to quench the passions aroused in them by the fighting. Get used to it, Lady. It’s the way of war.”
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
It gets worse – there is an eleven year old girl in the castle named Ruth. Ruth is raped by someone in Leo’s army when they enter the castle (I guess all the dead old ladies were taken), and the king sees that she is pure up until that first rape, so he decides to save her as a gift for his true friend, Ector. Ector, you see, likes them young and “before their womanhood” so Leo saved her for him.
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
Despite these charming qualities, Elsbeth is attracted to King Leo and they share a few smoldering glances over dinner, even as she is torn over what is to happen to her. They are heading to her chambers when Leo is called away. He sends her back to her rooms with one of his guardsmen, who is drunk. The drunk guardsman then proceeds to throw Elsbeth down on her father’s bed and rapes the hell out of her. Leodegrance returns while the guard is raping Elsbeth. And when he sees this, he is annoyed.
“The Duke’s daughter is mine,” Leodegrance told him. “Go find a scullery wench to sate your appetite.”
While Elsbeth is still sitting on the floor, sprawled, Leo notices her virgin blood staining her thigh and then he gets mad.
“Trystan, get this traitor out of my sight. Take him anywhere, I don’t care. And know that he’s no longer welcome in Cameliard.”
So to recap: rape is just annoying, unless you took her virginity before the king could. Then it is a real offense.
At this point, I’d like for the heroine to stab the hero’s eyes out with a hot poker. But instead, he gets into bed, and lays his sword down between them. Instead of taking this and carving out his liver, she lays down into bed next to him and tells him her name.
I would say this is spoilery, but we are only in Chapter Two.
From here, the “what the fuck” continues to get worse. King Leo is smitten by Elsbeth, and vows not to sleep with her until she won’t fight him. She doesn’t have to be excited about it, just not fighting him. Elsbeth declares she will never sleep with him because he killed her father and enslaved her. I rally, thinking she is going to show some sense. The next morning, our heroine is out in the courtyard and views what is left of her people.
Today, the sun looked down on the tattered remnants of a conquered people. Miserable as her night had been, theirs would have been far worse. At least she had slept on a bed beneath a warm fur. At least she hadn’t been hurt – not physically anyway. And what had happened to her had no doubt happened to every female above the age of ten. Every male, too, if the rumors she’d heard were true.
You will recall she was raped savagely the night before. I guess that does not count as being hurt.
As they ride away from the now-destroyed castle of her father, Leo puts Elsbeth on the horse in front of him and as they bounce along…she gets turned on.
Elsbeth, sitting sidesaddle, grabbed at [the horse’s] mane to steady herself. Found herself steadied instead by Leodegrance’s strong arm which circled her chest. Circled her so that the full swell of her breasts rested against his forearm.
She gritted her teeth, hating the king even more. Knowing he could have asked his horse to change to a smoother gait. Knowing why he didn’t. Hating him because the rising and falling of the horse’s stride, coupled with the jouncing of her breasts against his arm, sent peculiar sensations through her abdomen and loins. Sensations so powerful that she had to press her thighs together to keep from crying out.
Nor was Leodegrance indifferent to those same sensations that burned through her. She felt himself clutch at her, drawing her against his iron strength, matching himself to the rhythm of the horse.
You will recall she was just raped the night before. And before that, she was a virgin. And now she is dry humping her captor on horseback.
They make it to Cameliard and Leodegrance introduces Elsbeth to his wife. I’m going to let that sink in for a moment. His wife. He makes it painfully obvious that Elsbeth is going to be his mistress, and the wife is okay with it, because she doesn’t want the attentions of her husband. She’d rather sit up in her rooms and read Sapphic poetry. Elsbeth is moved into posh quarters of her own, and 11-year-old Ruth (remember her?) is moved into the room next to her. This is critical to remember, because as the mental will-they-wont-they continues between Elsbeth and Leo, every night, Ector the guardsman goes to 11-year-old Ruth’s room and rapes her. Every night. And Elsbeth can hear it, since their rooms are adjacent. Her reaction?
Invariably, each night before he left, Ector would call out, “God grant you a good evening, Lady.” And invariably, Elsbeth, hidden behind her door, would blush, knowing that Ector knew she could hear.
Part of the blush was infuration, too. Knowing that she could hear every groan, every slap of flesh on flesh, nearly every drawn breath, still he came and still he went as if he were but a doting grandsire visiting his grandchild. No decency, no modesty, no Christian humility.
And she hated him, too, because no matter how hard she tried to ignore what was going on each night in her antechamber, her body wouldn’t let her. It yearned for the feel of another’s flesh on hers. Yearned for the breaching that made Ruth gasp each time it happened.
Recap: our heroine gets off on hearing a man rape a child.
We are only on Chapter Three at this point.
I won’t go line by line through the rest of the book, though the insanity never stops. Instead, I’ll give you a brief recap of the rest of the story because I would not wish this book on anyone.
You will be relieved to hear that the 11 year old gets pregnant by the much older Ector, tried to stab her uterus with a hot poker to kill the baby (but was prevented from doing it), and then a month later dies of a miscarriage. So now Elsbeth, who was having feelings for the king, no longer loves the king because of Ruth’s death. He then whines to her that his wife is less to him than a jaded whore, and can’t Elsbeth just sleep with him? He has needs.
Eventually they kiss and make up. Later in the story, a young, handsome knight named Patrise shows up while the king is gone away doing war things. The queen falls in love with him, but he wants Elsbeth. And when he gets his first chance, Patrise rapes Elsbeth.
The queen walks in mid-rape and Patrise says Elsbeth came on to him. The queen blames Elsbeth and they are no longer friends. When the king goes off to war, Elsbeth is scared to be left in the castle with evil Patrise, so she asks to stay with the camp followers and tag along in the war party. Patrise goes with the war party as well, finds her with the camp followers and rapes her again, and this time, Leo finds them mid rape. Elsbeth declares that the hero should not be mad at her, because it’s not what it looks like.
Leo is, of course, mad at her and ignores her for days. Elsbeth decides to leave the camp, so she steals a guy’s armor and dresses up like a boy, and gets caught up in the battle, since there is a war going on. She is discovered by the enemy, so they capture her and drag her to their leader, Uther Pendragon, who is an old and crusty man who is into BDSM. At this point, her newest captor holds her down so crusty old Uther can rape her. Repeatedly.
And then Uther ties her to a mattress in his tower and whips her and rapes her for several days, sometimes in front of his men. She is left tied to the mattress at all times. After days of this, the castle is taken by King Leo’s men and Leo walks in with his new best friend, Patrise. They kill Uther and discover Elsbeth still tied to the BDSM bed. Leo realizes when Patrise grabs her boob that Patrise is not his buddy after all, and maybe he should not have blamed Elsbeth for all the rapes.
So THEN they fight, Elsbeth helps the king kill Patrise, and they all return to Camelot. The queen hears about her love Patrise’s death, flings herself from the castle wall, which leaves Leo and Elsbeth free to marry. Epilogue is her pregnant with Guinevere, the future queen of Camelot.
Despite this horrible, horrible storyline, there were two other major things that bothered me. One – the rapes. Not only is she raped by every primary male character in the story except for the pedophile and the hero, she is dismissive of it, thinking it happens to everyone. Or when it does happen, she shows no reaction. For all that she cares, they might have sneezed on her. I kept reading, waiting for her to show reaction of any kind – anger, violation, sadness – but she never seems to register any sort of emotion until the hero blames her for it, and then she gets mad at him. If anything, the multiple rapings seem to make her more turned on, which totally baffles me. After she is raped, she gets turned on every time she hears someone having sex. At one point, after she has been raped twice and is following the war party with the camp followers, she is turned on yet again.
The smell of sweat and lust assailed her, wove its way into the symphony of passion that surrounded her, infiltrated her, touched her very core. She rode the crescendo as it swelled around her – eyes, ears, nose overwhelmed by the insistent, rising tide of a magic as old as life itself. Then by touch, too – her own – was she overwhelmed, plunging her into a sweet pleasure, relieved only when the wings of sleep at last closed over her.
Nothing makes me want to touch myself quite like camp followers, after all.
The rape in this book is bad enough, but there is blatant victim blaming as well. When Leo discovers Elsbeth being raped by Patrise for the second time, he turns and leaves in a fury. Elsbeth follows him to try and explain that she didn’t want Patrise’s attentions, and Leo slaps her across the face.
(Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.)
The other thing that bothered me with Spoil of War was the awful historical accuracy. You tout this book as a historical novel. Your website mentions you have a minor in history. And yet…there is nothing even remotely accurate about the history in this book. Most Arthurian history is fairly ambiguous due to the different versions of the legend, so I let the references to dukes and kings and pageantry slide. I blame Malory for that, not the author. I do blame you for the attempts at historical accuracy that have nothing to do with Malory, however.
I had a terrible time trying to place the history of this book. I felt like I came closest when Elsbeth and the queen are discussing Dido, the legendary founder of Carthage. One character states that Dido lived 1800 years prior to them. I did a quick wiki check and learned that Carthage was founded approximately 825 BC. Fast forward 1800 years and that places us around 1000 AD.
This is about 500 years later than most ‘true’ Arthurian legend is thought to be, but let’s roll with that.
Very late in the book, Leo states:
Leo’s eyes blazed into hers. “Just so, my Lady. Now I will bend my blade and sweep all of Britain before me. Then I will lay a land of wealth and greatness at Theodosius’s feet.”
There are three Theodosius (Theodosii?) mentioned in history. Wikipedia shows me:
- Theodosius I (347–395; “Theodosius the Great”), son of Count Theodosius
- Theodosius II (408–450)
- Theodosius III (715–717)
Okay. I still don’t know which one it is. Throughout the book, though, Leo and his people are referred to as Romans. They have darker skin and black hair. They follow the edicts of Rome. Rome fell around 400 AD, remember? There is no ‘consul’ to report back to, as the book references, if they are in medieval times.
Elsbeth is stated to be of ‘old blood’. She has red hair and pale skin and her mother was Celtic. Often in this book, Celtic is confused with Norse, and both are referred to as if they no longer exist. She follows a mishmash of Celtic and Norse gods, referring to Loki and the Norns repeatedly. She curses and rails against the ‘new’ religion of Christianity.
The heroine also dresses in houppelandes, which are late medieval dresses that appeared in about 1380. When the castle is taken, the king calls for his “Carthaginian skald” to sing him a lay.
Carthage fell in 146BC and was razed again in 698AD. A ‘skald’ is a Norse bard (nowhere close to Carthage, I’m afraid) and the Norse were prominent around 800-1100 AD.
‘Roman’ king Leodegrance has a wife from Constantinople in the Byzantine empire. At one point the queen is reading Sapphic poems. In a book. Actually several people have books in this tale. Books would not have been commonly available until after the printing press (~1450).
This feels like historical nit-picking but all the time period confusion had me googling to try and determine when and where this ‘historical novel’ was occurring.
My best guess is that you were attempting to set the story around 1000 AD, but that makes the heavy, heavy use of Romans as the enemy (and your reference to Londinium) as grossly incorrect. I finished the book and frankly, I’m still baffled as to what time frame you wanted this to be in.
I’m sad to say that this book was a failure on all angles for me. Your writing was easy to follow and the story flowed, but I found myself reading more from sheer horror and disgust at the trainwreck unfolding rather than any real desire to find out how the story ended up for the hero and heroine.
I really wanted to give this a better grade, lest all the January reviews seem like endless hate. But I can’t give a higher grade, sorry. If anything, it should be lower. Can you give a grade lower than an F? I am leaning toward F——-.