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REVIEW: Midnight’s Wild Passion by Anna Campbell

Dear Ms. Campbell:

In your first book, Claiming the Courtesan, I really liked the mix of angsty melodrama with a fresh review of some well-worn genre stereotypes. That mix of old and new kept me reading your books, but with this new one, Midnight’s Wild Passion, it seems the novelty has worn off. I’m not sure whether that’s because I’ve become more accustomed to your voice and your style, or because this new book just doesn’t have the same freshness of some of your previous releases, but either way, Midnight’s Wild Passion was just not wild or passionate enough for me.

Midnight's Wild Passion by Anna CampbellLady Antonia Hilliard has lived for ten years as Antonia Smith, chaperone to the lovely Cassandra Demarest, who is currently enjoying her first season in London.  Her disguise gives her the appearance of unattractive invisibility and her prickly demeanor keeps anyone who might otherwise be curious away – she is known as “the dragon of chaperones.” Well, anyone but Nicholas Challoner, the reprobate Marquess of Ranelaw, who seeks out the lovely Cassandra as part of a family revenge plot, but quickly perceives that the bigger prize might be the deceptively plain chaperone. Who is this imperious young woman and why does she feel the need to hide behind obscuring spectacles and an ugly cap? And why does every encounter he has with her feel like a promise of something challenging and lusty?

It’s not until Nicholas breaks into Antonia’s room that either of them begin to understand the depth of their mutual attraction, which Nicholas is more than happy to encourage but which Antonia will do almost anything to stem – including taking a fireplace poker to Nicholas’s face and head. Antonia, you see, is in her current fix because she let her passions run wild a decade ago, with a young friend of her brother’s who promised to marry her but merely ruined her and left her, penniless and disgraced, in Italy. When Antonia’s father refuses to have her back, she is forced to fend for herself, and has spent the past ten years grateful that her cousin, Godfrey Demarest, recognized her on the way back to England and took pity on her, offering her a place in his home. The same Godfrey Demarest who was, in his own youth, responsible for ruining Nicholas’s own sister, and on whom Nicholas now seeks revenge.

Writing this all out makes me realize how much I like this set-up. First there is the link between Antonia as the young woman who was ruined and Nicholas as the once-helpless brother who had to watch the same happen to his sister. Adding in the fact that Nicholas represents exactly the kind of man who ruined both Antonia and his sister generates just enough irony to promise some great angst and drama.

If this were an older book, Nicholas would likely remain a diamond-hard rake until the last paragraph; however, the road Campbell chooses here is both more interesting and more difficult. She starts to transform Nicholas somewhat early in the novel, which nicely advances the romantic connection between him and Antonia but undermines the dramatic tension around the revenge plot:

 

“Antonia, stop it.” He abhorred her desolation and the corroding shame beneath it. With sudden violence, he ripped off her spectacles and flung them onto the desk. “I don’t care that you’ve had a lover.”

“If that’s true, you’re the only person in Creation who doesn’t,” she said bitterly. Her eyes were glazed with betrayal and misery…

He grabbed her shoulders and fought the urge to shake some spirit back into her. Dear God, why couldn’t she be angry? He couldn’t endure this biting sorrow. …

“What does it matter? You know the most important fact. That I’m a whore.”

“Antonia, my darling,” he groaned, and dragged her against him, lifting one hand to press her head into his shoulder. His gut coiled with crippling grief. Her suffering shredded him to ribbons, The protectiveness he’d always refused to acknowledge surged like a boiling wave. He’d rather cut off his own arm than hear her denigrate herself. “Don’t do this.”

Anyone who has read an Anna Campbell book will recognize the dynamic here: the heroine is a “fallen” woman who is ashamed of her sexual passion, and the hero is put in a position where he is trying to free her to enjoy her sexuality (with him, of course). In terms of the book’s plot and character development, it creates a dilemma, because as long as Nicholas remains a cruel rake, the more dramatic tension the reader experiences as he pursues his revenge and threatens to ruin – again – Antonia. But keeping him on that road also makes it difficult to sustain sympathy for him or to forge and trust on the part of the reader that Nicholas and Antonia make a suitable romantic couple. And yet, in bringing him down the path of softening and of bringing him to a recognition of his own emotional needs, it also undermines a lot of the built-in revenge plot tensions.

Without spoiling some of the ways in which Campbell attempts to re-infuse that tension into the book (and there are several that prevent interesting possibilities and challenge the pattern I expected as I was reading), I will say that even as I admired the introduction of an interesting twist, increasingly I felt like these twists were being thrown into the path of the speeding plot, diverting my attention for a time but ultimately leading me back to the same question of how the promised conflict was going to be sustained or replaced in a way that keeps me glued to the book, waiting for the impossibly possible resolution. The last twist felt particularly out of left field, and I am still not completely certain why it was included outside of its ability to effect a final resolution of the love match. Also, I’m still not certain why Antonia must maintain her disguise for a decade, especially since very few people knew who she was before her scandal (her family is from a remote part of Northumberland), and much of the plot relies on that presumption. And strangely, when I look back on the book it seems like not a great deal actually happened, despite (or perhaps because of?) the many paragraphs were devoted to the mental lusting, the mental shaming, the mental blaming, and the mental misgivings and fears of what could happen.

Part of the issue for me was that I never felt that Antonia and Nicholas transcended stereotypical characterization. Antonia was the strong woman who had been brought low by circumstances and shackled to an unjust shame from which the hero’s love and desire must release her. Nicholas was the passionate rake with a sad, dark story who is shackled to an unjust sense of worthlessness from which the heroine’s love and desire must release him. And while Nicholas actually seems to precipitate much of his own character growth (a welcome change), the fact that much of Antonia’s shame is discharged through Nicholas’s urging was troubling to me. On the one hand I’ve enjoyed this theme in other Campbell books because it seems to cut against the whole virtue = virginity equation you still see in more than a few Romances, but on the other hand I find it problematic that the heroine does not really make this transformation through her own agency. And because I never felt that the novel challenged me to see more in these characters, I felt the subversive potential was ultimately eclipsed by genre stereotyping.

I do find some of Campbell’s word choice and sentence structure fascinating, largely because I’m often goaded into wondering whether certain phrases are needlessly complicated or even sound. For example, while I liked this phrase very much – “[h]e carried mayhem in his soul” – this one – “[f]oreboding oozed an icy path down her backbone” – presented me with a conflict between frozen ice and oozing liquid. And I experienced that back and forth throughout the novel, which further distracted me from the substance of the story and the characterizations instead of plunging me recklessly into the passion and the wildness.

While I did not think Midnight’s Wild Passion was a bad book, for me it just did not shine. C

~Robin

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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!

13 Comments

  1. dick
    May 10, 2011 @ 10:49:02

    “[Those] many paragraphs [that] were devoted to the mental lusting, the mental shaming, the mental blaming, and the mental misgivings and fears of what could happen” were what, for me, diminished the effectiveness of the book. How many times does an author think a reader have to be told the same things to get the point?

  2. Lynne Connolly
    May 10, 2011 @ 11:09:20

    As a lifelong glasses wearer, I have to ask – why the hate on glasses wearers in the romance world?

  3. Bianca
    May 10, 2011 @ 11:28:51

    @Lynne Connolly: Oh, I know. I hate how that’s Hollywood/Romancelandia shorthand for “she’s plain.” Because then, during the magical makeover montage, the heroine takes off the glasses and the ugly cap and she instantly transforms from Rhea Perlman into Angelina Jolie. Yeah, okay, lolz.

    Good review, Janet! I’ve never really been a fan of Anna Campbell (too much sexual shaming for the heroines), but I was thinking about picking this one up. Still on the fence, but it is disappointing to hear that the characters are not well fleshed out and the plot suffers from contrivances. :/

  4. Sunita
    May 10, 2011 @ 14:53:08

    I think I’m too literal a reader sometimes. Those last two examples of the writing style created strange visuals in my head. A soul that looks like a bucket and green slime running down the heroine (or maybe a banana slug trail) are not my idea of evocative. At least not in a good way. Oh well.

  5. cead
    May 10, 2011 @ 16:06:44

    @Bianca: Yeah, and then it turns out that she doesn’t really need glasses to see after all, somehow. Grrr. I hate that too.

  6. Joy
    May 10, 2011 @ 17:41:26

    I didn’t really see Antonia as ashamed of her passion so much as completely attuned to the fact that the results of indulging it outside of society’s rules were loss of her family and (if it weren’t for Godfrey Demarest) a likely lifetime of prostitution. And that if she indulged them again she could lose the precarious life she’d managed to build up in the meantime, bringing shame on Godfrey and his daughter. And historically this is a fairly realistic take. I mean it’s all very well and good to say that heroines should be sexually self-actualized, but in the historical milieu a lot of the time scandal could lead to a lack of livelihood, and a loss of your place in society or your family. I have always found the primary attraction of the historical is seeing how people behaved when social rules were a lot more strict (or different in other ways than they are today), and for a single woman of good family in this era to openly “follow her passion” outside of marriage usually amounted to scandal that reflected badly on her family and pretty much trashed her ability to make a respectable marriage, and marriage generally is how women of that class were financially provided for.

    Anyway–I liked this book a lot. I found that Ranelaw’s maturity and awakening early in the book added a good deal of emotional depth, even if it took tension away from the revenge plot.

  7. Robin/Janet
    May 10, 2011 @ 18:49:25

    @dick: After a while it felt like padding to me, actually.

    @Lynne Connolly: In this case, the heroine has very distinctive hair and eye coloring (it connects her to her family), and the glasses are meant to obscure the color and appearance of her irises. But I get you with the lack of glasses wearing heroines in historicals. Interesting, that.

    @Bianca: Well, as the comments demonstrate, my opinion is hardly universal. ;D

    @Sunita: This would probably not be the book for you then, lol. Lots of highly figurative language.

    @cead: Campbell actually does something interesting with this, I think. Early on the hero discovers that the tinted lenses are not corrective and it heightens his desire to discover her secrets. I liked that element, even though I agree that she’s playing on the old glasses = ugly stereotype.

    @Joy: I wish I had been able to read the book that way, but I couldn’t because of sentences like this:

    “She loathes to think he read her most shameful desires and schemed to manipulate her through them”

    “To her shame, she knew how those thick golden locks became so tousled.”

    “Only dangerous men made her heart beat faster. Her soul was black with sin.”

    In general, though, I don’t like the cult of virginity in historical Romance (history, as always, is so much more complex and interesting, lol), so I’m always glad to see a heroine who isn’t ignorant or sex and sexuality. However, I agree with you that there are some instances in the genre where the heroine’s lack of concern for her *perceived virginity* is quite ridiculous.

  8. Janine
    May 11, 2011 @ 03:24:21

    @Robin/Janet: I find it fascinating that every time you review one of Campbell’s more recent books, the problems you point out are things that kept Claiming the Courtesan from working for me, yet that book worked much better for you.

    I was just reflecting that, though I haven’t read Midnight’s Wild Passion (is it just me or does that title have a retro late eighties sound?), the self-shaming/blaming you describe sound so much like the self-shaming/blaming that bothered me in Claiming the Courtesan, esp. since that portrayal was in a context where I was somehow intended to believe that the heroine had been a successful and seductive as a courtesan in the past.

    I actually find that type of psychology much more in keeping with the characterization of Antonia as you describe it in this review — it seems like a trait that would be more convincing in a woman of “good” background who managed to hide her “fallen” status by finding work as a chaperone, than in a former courtesan.

  9. Jane
    May 11, 2011 @ 07:18:06

    I started this book but I haven’t been interested in reading the asshole hero. How fast does he turn around?

  10. Robin/Janet
    May 11, 2011 @ 09:32:25

    @Jane: I think he starts to change as early as when he breaks into her room (Chapter 5), but by Chapter 8-9, things really start to shift in the way he treats Antonia.

    @Janine: For me Verity and Antonia are very different characters, and I definitely felt there was less self-shaming in CTC (perhaps in part because once Verity starts to fight Justin, she really has to become stronger and she claims much more personal agency than Antonia ever does). But beyond that, while I agree it might seem that a woman like Antonia would have more cause to be self-shaming, her perceived “sin” was all for love, not money, so I’m not really sure it would be more akin to Antonia’s character. And because I had several issues with Antonia’s character (why was she still in hiding, why does she just assume that her brother — who has now inherited — would have the same view of her as his father, why was she called the “dragon” chaperone when she didn’t seem so fierce, etc.) the self-shaming just served to weaken her character for me rather than make her seem more sympathetic or logical in her feelings. At least Verity really was outside social respectability in a way, whereas Antonia made her father’s judgment a life sentence, even after his death.

  11. dm
    May 11, 2011 @ 10:36:41

    And strangely, when I look back on the book it seems like not a great deal actually happened, despite (or perhaps because of?) the many paragraphs were devoted to the mental lusting, the mental shaming, the mental blaming, and the mental misgivings and fears of what could happen.

    Agreed. Not enough actual scenes in the book. And there was a good deal of repetitiveness even within mental lusting passages.

    Spoilers ahead:

    Two of the plot twists were actually convenient coincidences–and the problem with these is that even if the reader doesn’t recognize them as such, they undermine the reality of the story world, leave us feeling vaguely dissatisfied. The hero stops at a random inn and runs into the heroine’s former lover and learns all about her ruin. Too easy. And considering the population and size of the country, just ludicrous. Then the hero and the heroine emerge from a hackney in the wee hours of the morning and run into her former lover together. Same problems. If these were just two plot points in a book crammed with incident, they might have gone by unnoticed. But so little happened in this story that they jumped out at me.

  12. Robin/Janet
    May 11, 2011 @ 10:48:23

    @dm:

    SPOILERSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

    I was okay with the first coincidence, although I agree with you that logically it was a remote possibility. But the second – yes, that one had my jaw dropping. I mean, he didn’t know about her disguise or where she was staying, so how would he be loitering around the house? By that point in the book, though, I was feeling pretty disinvested in the drama.

  13. Janine
    May 11, 2011 @ 14:42:08

    @Robin/Janet: I see what you are saying. Thanks for explaining.

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