REVIEW: Broken Wing by Judith James
Dear Ms. James:
Kristie J. emailed me not too long ago and asked me if I had read your debut release, Broken Wing. She was so enthusiastic about the book that even though I hadn’t yet read it, I made sure I did ASAP. And it is a very promising first novel, reminiscent of many books in the genre I love, from Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and The Star to Laura London’s The Windflower, even to Christine Monson’s Rangoon, but also compelling in its own vision. While I was not as blown away by Kristie by Broken Wing, I did enjoy it quite a bit, can certainly recommend it, and most definitely look forward to your next book.
Gabriel St. Croix has been raised – if that is the proper term – in a Paris brothel, a child abandoned to the darkest desires of human nature and grown into a man almost resigned to serving them for the rest of his days, however many there may be. Numbing himself through alcohol, relieving his despair through self-cutting, Gabriel has two jobs: playing the roles demanded by the wealthy men and women who purchase him and protecting young Jamie’s innocence as long as possible. Although the boy is sibling to one of England’s peers and heir to a peerage himself, he has mysteriously ended up at Madame Etienne’s and would certainly face a life like Gabriel’s if not for the young man’s surprising protection.
When Sarah Munroe and her half-brother Ross, the Earl of Huntington, finally locate their brother at the brothel, they are shocked that he has not been harmed or debased and are more than a little grateful to Jamie’s stalwart friend, honoring Jamie’s insistence that he will not leave the brothel without Gabriel. Reluctantly but resignedly, Ross strikes a deal with Gabriel, securing his agreement to help James for a year to transition back to life as an English peer in exchange for ten thousand pounds. Gabriel has already begun to wonder if his own life will be worth protecting after Jamie leaves:
Gabriel’s breath stilled in his chest. Miraculously, he was being offered another chance, and despite his best efforts to strangle it, hope was born again. He knew he shouldn’t trust it. Vile temptress, she betrayed him every time, leaving him weak and wounded in ways too cruel to endure without the familiar palliatives of brandy and blood. He also knew, deep in his soul, if refused her now the offer would not come again.
It is no easy transition to life beyond the brothel, however, and Gabriel suffers terribly under the weight of his own past, his own conviction that he is not worth the respect and growing affection Ross and Sarah show him. But as the months progress, as Gabriel experiences life beyond the brothel, Sarah’s unconventional manner, along with her mannish dress and startling beauty, attract Gabriel, but her blunt interest in his past, along with her habit of pushing on Gabriel’s most painful spots, makes their relationship prickly. The young widow finds Gabriel similarly alluring, although her own experience with her husband has not left her with much desire for further romantic attachment. That she and Gabriel grow closer and closer is not surprising considering his unacknowledged hunger for affection and acceptance and Sarah’s own experiences with loss that have made her adept at assembling a ragtag, makeshift family for herself.
What is surprising is that Sarah and Gabriel’s initial love story is only half the novel, setting the stage for the adventure story that follows, a story driven by Gabriel’s need to prove himself to Sarah and the slightly more conventional Ross, who is none too thrilled that his sister finds her soulmate in a former “catamite and a whore.” The young man who once believed that his life was worth no more than the money people paid to degrade him grows into an accomplished privateer under the tutelage of Sarah and Ross’s “cousin,” the colorful pirate Davey, who pledges to help Gabriel earn his fortune for the fair Lady Sarah.
Plenty of dangerous escapades ensue, and eventually Gabriel ends up halfway across the world, presumed dead by his adopted English family, enslaved on the Barbary coast in circumstances that draw him back to his early years, slowly deadening almost all the signs of life his adoptive family had allowed him to hope for and realize. How he and Sarah work themselves back to each other consumes the last part of the book, which finds Gabriel improbably but decidedly back in Paris and London, wealthy beyond his imaginings but deader perhaps than he was before his initial bargain with Ross.
If it sounds as if this novel covers a great deal of ground – thematically and geographically – then I have accurately rendered its scope. Indeed, that is one of the book’s greatest points of interest and its Achilles Heel, as well, signaling a profound ambition of storytelling but also a need to account for months and years passing unattended by the narrator and great swaths of on page action. While I relished the late 18th century setting, the reach from Paris to Spain to the Barbary Coast (how many Romance novels tackle this important area, despite the fact that England was involved in the Barbary Wars on and off within fifteen years after the start of the 19th century), I also got frustrated by the voice-over narration employed to cover that ground:
Two years passed, Napoleon Bonaparte had amassed a huge force in the Mediterranean port of Toulon, sending shivers throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire. England, Spain, Sicily, and Portugal, all potential targets, had breathed a sigh of relief when he had turned to the east, setting the French flag over the pyramids of Egypt. Days later, the battle ships that had accompanied his transport fleet were caught at anchor by the British at Aboukir Bay, and all but two of them were lost in the Battle of the Nile. The Egyptian debacle had given the British strategic control of the Mediterranean, and handed Napoleon his first defeat, leaving his troops stranded, cut off by sea from rescue or reinforcement.
The spring of 1802, found them in the Atlas Mountains again, fighting for their lives. Several local chieftains, organized, armed, and led by Moroccan insurgents based in Fez, had caught them in a coordinated pincer attack, trapping them in a steep defile with no avenue of retreat. Their captain, guilty of a gross underestimation of his enemy’s ferocity, organization, and numbers, paid for it with his life. The vanguard had been ambushed and slaughtered, and the rear guard was struggling to join the caravan, paying dearly in blood and death each step of the way.
While some readers will likely put these passages down to “info dumping,” I did not object so much to the inclusion of the details as to the way the narrator breaks so abruptly in to the story at these points, throwing me off my reading rhythm and giving me flashbacks to Peter Falk in “The Princess Bride.” And while I didn’t relish the idea of narrowing the scope of the novel, that awkward transitioning occurred too often to ignore, making the book feel more sprawling than grand, especially in the sections where Gabriel is trying to make his way back to Europe. I honestly had to resist the urge to skim some of those chapters, and I don’t know for sure whether what I felt was fatigue or boredom or sheer overstimulation from everything that was happening over various clusters of chapters. The first few chapters, especially, came across to me as so tightly and crisply written in comparison to the later sections of the book that I may have suffered from some disappointed expectations, as well.
The awkward narration contrasted with the fresher, stronger elements of the novel, especially the ways in which my jaded expectations were so often thwarted by the movement of the story. Where I expected Gabriel to remain flinty hard he softened and became painfully vulnerable. Where I expected Ross to transform into the evil older brother, he emerged as an honorable but protective man who cared more about his family’s emotional ties than social propriety. When I expected Sarah to martyr herself to lost love she shows herself to be realistic and mature, determined to live her life as happily as possible.
Sarah’s passion with Gabriel is deep and believable, their growing bond faithfully following a logical character trajectory, providing dimension and authentic emotion to an age-old Romance pairing. Much of this dimension is due to the fake-rakeness of Gabriel, and by that I do not mean that his dissolution was false, but rather that he turned out to be so much more than the whore he believed himself to be initially. There were elements of this novel that reminded me of Laura Leone’s Fallen From Grace, especially in those places where Gabriel struggles to accept that Ross, Sarah, and Davey see a worthy human being in him, where he finds himself carried away by the strength of hope and wonder inside himself. Those sections of the novel are among my favorites because they communicate a vast tenderness, both in the sense of pain and sensitivity:
“Hah!” she chuckled, ruffling his hair, and kissing his nose, “I always thought I could drive a man wild if I cared to try, and right now I"m inordinately proud of myself. Oh, Gabe, I never knew! I had no idea! I never knew anything could feel so wonderful!”
“Neither did I,” he said honestly.
Cupping his face in her hands, she whispered against his lips, “Thank you, my love.”
“Thank you, ma chÃ¨re.” He lay, sated and at ease in a totally unfamiliar way, amazed and wonderstruck. He had pleased his woman, and his own pleasure had been overwhelming, and for once, free of guilt. Hugging her tight he rocked her in his arms until exhausted, warm breath intermingling, they fell asleep in a tangle of loose limbs, silken sheets, and soft words of love.
Watching Gabriel discover and be revealed to himself was so lovely. The small things he needed to learn and their stark contrast to the things he already knew, had been trained. He was educated and musically gifted, not as a sign of his social freedom, but rather of his imprisonment to the whim of one of his masters, a particularly twisted and sadistic man who found entertainment in Gabriel’s more refined accomplishments. So when Gabriel begins to explore the previously uncharted territory of his own heart, there is both heartbreak and magnanimous hope for him and for the reader. The stargazing hobby he and Sarah share becomes a perfect metaphor for the emotional exploration they undertake. And Sarah, who sometimes seems a bit too good to be true, is at least reliably human in her own emotional vulnerabilities, even if she shows more self-possession than I would have expected of someone who had lost so many people and who had the experiences in marriage she did. Had she been more naÃ¯ve, ironically, I would likely not have been so questioning of her emotional steadiness, because I would have seen her more as Leda from The Shadow and The Star. Instead she reminded me more of Sydney from Gaffney’s Wild at Heart, except that Gabriel did not possess Michael’s innocence.
Nonetheless, I am very glad I read Broken Wing, and I think that readers who miss that epic quality to historical Romance and who loved the melodrama of so many of those older books will take to this story. And while I wish the writing had been tighter and the narrative more polished, there are many things that worked well for me in Broken Wing, earning it a B- from me.