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REVIEW: Healing Heart by Thom Lane

Dear Mr. Lane:

TL_HealingHeart_coverlgAs I immediately emailed to you when you sent met his book, “Good God, the fairy godmother of cover images likes YOU, doesn’t she?!” I adore this cover, as I did the cover of the first Amaranth novel. (Anne Cain did the art. One might almost say “Of course, Anne Cain did the cover art.” I’m not sure she’s capable of doing a bad cover.) And while I read the novel in one sitting, unable to put it down, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Dark Heart and, despite its labeling on Loose Id, I wouldn’t call it a BDSM novel as such.

Coryn is a newly trained Master Mage, a healer. On his travels one day, he stops three men from slaughtering a plague-ridden slave. He heals and claims the slave as his own, then goes to the plague-ridden city Elverton to help the people there. Days later, he has healed so many people, he himself is dangerously weak, but he’s not closer to figuring out where the plague came from and how it’s spreading, which is when he calls in more of his Guild, healers and necromancers and other mages.

Healing Heart was no less lovingly crafted than Dark Heart, but the issues I had with Dark Heart were not superseded in Healing Heart by the romance or the brilliance of characterization. Instead, they became the story for me.

In Dark Heart the disturbing fact that slavery is the foundation for the world you create was subordinate to the explicit domination/submission dynamic between Lucan and Tam. Even though he was a slave, Tam was much more submissive to Lucan than anyone else, because that’s the reaction Lucan specifically brought out in him. This dynamic was very well-depicted and lessened my issues with the slavery aspect of the world you’ve built (as morally questionable as that lessening might be). In Healing Heart, however, I don’t know if I was too aware of the troubling issue of slavery in the world you have created and therefore unable to sink into the book, but the book seemed to me to be more about solidifying the world-building around and justifying the existence of slavery in Amaranth than in demonstrating that Coryn and Raff specifically had a D/s relationship. Maybe it was because Coryn was so young and needed to remind himself how to treat a slave, but the beatings inflicted on Raff seem to be much more about supporting the system of slavery, rather than an expansion or expression of the sexual relationship between the characters. What I’m trying to say in my long-winded professorial way is that the beatings and whippings in Healing Heart were about Raff being a slave, not about Raff being Coryn’s sexual submissive. The beatings and whippings, in fact, had nothing at all to do with the sexual relationship between Coryn and Raff (unlike in Dark Heart) and as such, the novel itself was much more difficult to enjoy, because I felt complicit in supporting a world based in an unquestioned, unchallenged system of slavery.

This also, to my mind, made the novel NOT a BDSM novel. The relationship wasn’t one of sexual domination/submission, but societal D/s, with a strange sort of sexual equality, as much as there can be in a novel about a slave and his master. This quote, for example, would be an interesting depiction of a voluntary D/s relationship:

Oh. Yes. I’d forgotten that chain. I subsided, feeling the tug of it now almost as a comfort. It’s good sometimes to have no choice at all. Maybe that’s why we love our masters, us poor doomed besotten boys: because they take away all our choices, because they name us and dress us-’or not, as they choose-’and feed us and work us at their will, love us back if they choose to. I don’t know. I only did know that I would wear one man’s chain gladly, proudly, as I wore his tag; that I would kiss his feet and serve him all my life if he would let me, if he would keep me. That I would love him whether or not he ever returned that love. That I would settle for a smile, for an occasional touch of affection. And live without even that if I had to, because I belonged to him regardless.

Helpless, hopeless, my master’s boy entirely.

Except, it serves instead to naturalize the slavery. Once a character becomes a slave, they apparently lose all desire to be free. Raff’s only been a slave for three years, and yet he never questions his status. Ever.

Maybe my hyper-awareness of the issues I had with the book made me unable to turn off the literary critic in me, but I thought that the writing didn’t seem as smooth with this book as with Dark Heart. Mainly I noticed a lot of repetition. If you made a thematic point once, you made it three times, often within about three pages, and that got a little wearing. Trust your readers. Your writing is good enough that you should be able to trust us to get the nuances of theme threaded through the novel.

Once again, though, the characters shone through. I loved Coryn, confident in his powers, but so very young and inexperienced. I loved Raff, a cheeky, mouthy young man who chaffed at being a slave. I loved seeing Lucan and Tam again, in scenes that were necessary to the plot, not just a revisiting of previous character for the mere sake of seeing them again. The characters almost made me forget my major problems with the world in which they lived — almost, but not quite.

But the depth of the characterization made it difficult for me to trust the depth of Coryn’s and Raff’s feelings for each other, because the love that bloomed between them seemed abrupt, unexplored, and mainly founded on hero-worship and idealism, rather than based on the characters’ personalities. Lucan and Tam in Dark Heart loved each other because of who they were, their life experiences until that point, and their reactions to each other. Coryn and Raff seemed to love each other because of proximity, hero worship, and narrative necessity — they had to to make it a romance. Late in the story, Coryn thinks:

What good could it do a slave to learn that his master loves him? It changes nothing, except that it might go to his head and make him behave foolishly, give his master cause to regret the confession or even the emotion.

No, better to stay silent and let the boy stay ignorant, keep him strictly and never let him guess.
Besides, I could never know if he loved me in return, not truly. He’d probably never know himself. How do you tell love from duty from obedience from fear, when they’re all so intricately bound together? Or love from desire from simple physical pleasure, from the sensual touch and the physical strain and the erotic rush?

I was sure, entirely, on my own account: I loved him and owned him and wanted him, all three. But I could never be sure of him. So no, I’d not say a word.

I would expect this concern to be overcome by the end of the story, some sort of reciprocal acknowledgment given between the characters. And while I believed they would be happy together and would stay together, I wasn’t convinced by the emotional depth of their relationship.

All this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. I enjoyed the medical mystery (where DID the plague come from?) and I enjoyed seeing Coryn grow into his power and knowledge of himself. I liked Raff as a character — he wasn’t brave, but did what he needed to do anyway, as best he could. And I will probably still be reading more Amaranth novels, as they come out. While I was definitely squicked by the society’s unquestioning reliance on slavery and the narrative’s own lack of undermining or questioning of the system, I’m fascinated to see how you’re going to continue to build Amaranth and the characters there. I’ll also be reading it because this novel more than the first reminded me of nothing less than Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, not only in the particulars of the world itself, but in the writing and the voice of the story. And I loved that aspect of it.

Grade: C

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased in ebook format from Loose ID.

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

10 Comments

  1. leela
    Sep 10, 2009 @ 16:27:17

    Good to see I’m not the only one who pulled back during the second book. I liked the first, with the same slight equivocation, but the second prompted a struggle here, as well, for the same reasons you mentioned.

    On a more professorial note (because I like the long-winded-ness, durnitall), I seem to recall the author is British; I wonder if that lends a slightly different cast to the concept of slavery. IIRC, in the UK, slavery was outlawed in the early 1830s after major political pushes; maybe that means it doesn’t leave quite the same conflicted undercurrent as being an American (especially one raised in the Deep South). Certainly, the changing law had major impact, but that’s not quite the same as a history in which ‘slavery’ also conjures thoughts of Antietam and Chancellorsville.

    Bluntly, I just can’t divorce ‘slavery’ from ‘evil’, except for cases of sexual slavery — that is, consensual on some level. I guess the fact that we fought a horrific war to get rid of that pernicious kind of evil just makes it a lot harder to even remotely equate such a system with anything pleasurable, let alone romance. That leaves me wondering if for non-American authors — raised without a pervasive sense of the US’ darkest days — the terrible reality is more easily distanced and dismissed.

    In the first book, I could squint hard and read the text as though both protagonists were consensual within the paradigm; it didn’t hurt that the slave-boy made no bones about the fact that his life had been upgraded, to some degree, thanks to being taken into what seemed essentially like a bordello/hotel of some kind. (In other words, he seemed to have chosen the life, on some level.) The second book, Raff’s life was substantially de-graded by circumstances, and those in turn were so, hrm, arbitrary that it seemed… repugnant, I guess. Disgusting, even. Like hiding in there was the notion that just anyone could up and be branded a slave just because someone else randomly has a bad day.

    I was able to finish the book only by thoroughly convincing myself that what I’d read, I hadn’t read, and that instead Raff was sold to pay his family’s debts. At least then it’s indenture or peon-hood, and works on a personal level: if you can’t pay with cash, you pay with time served. I can at least accept that, because it lets me believe there’s an honor to the exchange, an agreement between equals prior, inequals during, and equals again at the end, when debt is paid in full.

    The book’s system as presented, though, lends itself too much to an injustice I recall from studying the Antebellum South, where even a free black could be randomly apprehended as an escaped slave and auctioned off, solely on the grounds of the color of his skin. In fact, several times Raff mentions that’s what he’d expect would happen if he were to try and escape.

    Then it’s not personal any more, it’s broadly systemic, and he’s not benefiting at all, himself: he’s just a cog, and in someone else’s wheel, at that. Which is part of the problem, as well, because it removes his agency as a person, and thus also as a character. He’s not acting because he chooses to act, so much as acting as he sees another wanting him to choose to act, and by the end, the story felt less like “Coryn and Raff fall in love” and more like “Coryn falls in love with insert-character-here that’s obediently fallen in love with Coryn in return”. Not because Raff can or cannot or does or does not love, but because I-as-the-reader couldn’t get around the fact that slavery equals no freedom, and that includes freedom to love.

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  2. allison
    Sep 10, 2009 @ 23:57:48

    I had this on my “possibilities” list but I think I’d have the same issues. I was a bit squidgy with the first one’s slavery aspects and if this one has more, I’m not certain I’d like to get it.

    I do have a question – I’ve noticed in the recent m/m reviews that dearauthor has stopped tagging them with “m/m”. Is there a reason for this?

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  3. NKKingston
    Sep 11, 2009 @ 03:39:18

    Internet crash ate my comment! Ugh.

    I seem to recall the author is British; I wonder if that lends a slightly different cast to the concept of slavery. IIRC, in the UK, slavery was outlawed in the early 1830s after major political pushes; maybe that means it doesn't leave quite the same conflicted undercurrent as being an American (especially one raised in the Deep South).

    As a Brit, I think you’re right. There’s a lot more distance to slavery over here: slavery in England was banned in 1102, in Scotland 1778, on British ships 1807 and across the empire 1833. When it was, the impact on most people actually living in Britain was economic, not social. Slavery already had a slightly dual meaning to a native Briton anyway: slavery was a punishment under the law, which affected predominantly white citizens, but imperialism meant enslaving on a racial basis. Basically, it’s been out-of-sight-out-of-mind in this country for a long time, and it’s always a shock to find a reminded (like bank architecture in Liverpool – nothing says “we got rich from slavery” like putting statues of slaves around your greco-romano columns)

    I think what you see in British works is a stronger sense of colonial guilt. It was something we did to people in their own countires, or countries we sent them to, so it was always at a remove from a Brit living in Britain. The difference between 1933 and 1934 was they stopped using the word slave, but you wouldn’t say much else changed. Hence the reason for colonial guilt; it wasn’t slavery in name, just colonialism, but it has the same oppression/racism discomfort as slavery does to an American. Slavery as part of immediate society is at the same remove culturally as America or Rome; I imagine an American writing about an commercial company ruling a country and exploting its resources, including its population, would be have the same intellectual distance. To a Brit, unless it’s deliberate social commentary that’s going to be a very delicate topic.

    Something I wasn’t sure about from the review: is it racially based slavery, or something social like crime, war or poverty?

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  4. Joan/SarahF
    Sep 11, 2009 @ 06:22:30

    @allison: No, that’s just me forgetting. I’ve gone back and fixed as many as I could find of my reviews. Thanks for pointing it out.

    And @leela and @NKKingston, what fascinating comments. What does it say about me, though? I was born in South Africa, moved to the US when I was 14, and my literary specialty is late 18thC/early 19thC British writers. :) I’m a pure mutt–maybe that explains my complete ambivalence about it. I love thinking about cultural memory and what it can do to people without them even knowing that anyone else in another country might think differently about things.

    @NKKingston: The slavery is…arbitrary. The main characters who were slaves in both Dark Heart and Healing Heart were arbitrarily forced into slavery, one as punishment for stealing (but not by a judge or any official process), one on the whim of a business rival/father of woman-of-interest. So there doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid slavery, or anyway to know if, when, or how you yourself will become a slave, OR anyway to get out of it once you are. Which is all extremely disturbing, too.

    Ann Somerville makes the much more coherent point in her review and other discussion of the book that it’s all about consent. She’s much harsher on this book than I was, and I think I would be too, if I hadn’t read the first one and seen it work. If this were my only exposure to the world, I probably would have been revulsed as she was.

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  5. NKKingston
    Sep 11, 2009 @ 07:25:30

    So there doesn't seem to be any way to avoid slavery, or anyway to know if, when, or how you yourself will become a slave, OR anyway to get out of it once you are. Which is all extremely disturbing, too.

    I think I’d find that really interesting, but in a non-romance context. Not that romance can’t be do intense and psychological, but when it’s got that level of lack of control/consent it’s an aspect of psychology I’m more comfortable exploring in, say, fantasy or horror.

    ETA: I have to hold my hands up and say I’m no social history expert or anything, those were generally my observations as a middle class brit. I was halfway through writing a novel set in 50s Lesotho and realised that I just couldn’t justify the setting to myself, not with two white protagonists and the fact I’ve never even been there.

    ETA2: do my comments look like they’re falling off the edge of the box to everyone else, too? What am I doing wrong?

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  6. roslynholcomb
    Sep 11, 2009 @ 13:51:55

    I think this is why I struggle so with books set in the antebellum south, I just can’t deal with that whole era. Which is odd, because I just wrote a novella set in that time period. At least they’re free and working on the Underground Railroad. I struggled with that aspect of Octavia Butler’s Parable stories. In the story set in post-apocalyptic America civil collapse had led to a return to slavery. Slaves wore what was more or less shock collars, and it skeeves me the hell out. Much as I love those books and the slavery issue is really very traumatic for me. I think that’s the reason I avoid BDSM books period. For me, I can’t imagine being a slave of any sort as a sexual turn-on.

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  7. beth
    Dec 19, 2009 @ 03:32:19

    I read both this and Dark Heart because of your reviews, and I really enjoyed both of them. I liked Dark Heart best because I found the characters more compelling. I adore Tam, he’s clever and resourceful and brave, and he pretty much does what he wants to do knowing he’s risking punishment, and he doesn’t whine about it when he gets it.

    Unlike a lot of people, apparently, I thought the slavery issue was well-handled. On the one hand, it was definitely sex-fantasy slavery — no STDs, no pregnancies, anal sex with no messy aftermath, and I doubt that slaves in, say, classical Athens ran around naked as much as Tam and Raff do. Nobody seems to be born into slavery, and all the slaves we see are in at least their late teens. Yet despite these blatantly unrealistic qualities, slavery in these stories has emotional weight. Contrary to what somebody said above, Tam definitely doesn’t feel he’s better off as a slave than as a free man. He can’t stop himself from crying his first night with Lucan, when he finds himself feeling “suddenly and unbearably lonely” and longing for another kind of life — an experience he claims to share with every slave he’s talked to about it. He acknowledges that he’s better fed and housed than his not-friend Brion, but he still would prefer to be free. He might prefer to be Lucan’s slave than free, but that, I think, is a measure of his feelings for Lucan rather than his feelings in general about freedom and slavery.

    Raff doesn’t have the same issues — I think because from almost the very start of Healing Heart, he belongs to Coryn, and whether it’s love or hero-worship or just that Coryn has black hair and blue eyes, he wants to be with Coryn. It’s Coryn that the system claims an emotional toll on. He’s in the process of shedding his father’s values (that his father is so generally awful is a clue, I think, that we’re not meant to take his attitudes about the treatment of slaves uncritically), but he hasn’t completed that process yet. He acknowledges that being enslaved is not a positive thing for Raff or for Tana and Sana. He also thinks that because Raff is his slave, he’ll never really know whether Raff loves him.

    So on the whole, I don’t see the stories as saying that slavery is an ideal way for these guys to relate to each other at all; it’s more that their feelings for each other are strong enough to transcend the slavery. And you know, given the legal and social status of women in all those historical romances, is its message really all that different?

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  8. Sarah Frantz
    Dec 19, 2009 @ 08:22:17

    beth: Thank you for such thoughtful commentary, Beth. I sorta kinda agree with you and I’m very glad you enjoyed the books. I still think I’d have to say that the first book dealt with it much better than the second did and that actual slavery is…not an ideal way to explore BDSM slavery.

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  9. What Sarah’s been reading, August-ish - Dear Author
    Aug 30, 2011 @ 21:01:38

    [...] stories set in slave universes, but that’s when they’re obviously fantasies, and I still prefer for there to be some indication that the narrative disapproves of the slavery. This book was, [...]

  10. What Sarah’s been reading, August-ish
    Mar 25, 2012 @ 09:46:54

    [...] stories set in slave universes, but that’s when they’re obviously fantasies, and I still prefer for there to be some indication that the narrative disapproves of the slavery. This book was, [...]

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