Housekeeping: Based on comments, and Twitter, and everything wah, I’ve compiled the Big List of Awesome, which is – to the best of my ability – all the recommendations, suggestions and ideas that have been thrown my way. The order is largely arbitrary. I tried to prioritise things that accumulated multiple recs, or particularly strong cases, but I was also a bit self-indulgent in that, err, anything that seemed especially exciting has ended up near the top. ‘Pirates’ turned out to be a bit of a magic word but I managed to be fairly self-disciplined when it came to ‘vikings’. There seemed to be a lot more historical stuff than anything else, so I basically spread them out as best as I could. And, at this point, I pretty much lost control of everything so I just added things as I got them.
Please note, the Big List of Awesome is not set in stone. If something isn’t on it, it’s because I missed it, not because I rejected it, so just let me know. If you feel something is way too low, again, just let me know and I’ll move it – I’m tremendously suggestible. Some authors have several titles by their name. I’ll probably just end up going with whichever is easiest/cheapest to get hold of, unless anybody has a better idea. And some authors just have [something by] for when opinion was too divided for me to be able to come up with a recommended text or people were just saying READ ANYTHING IT’S ALL GREAT. Feel free to poke me if there’s something particular you think I should be reading.
Finally, I reserve the right to skip about, go off list, change the order, or follow the impulse of the moment. Also I may die of old age before I get to the bottom. Sorry about that. Here’s the list in PDF if you want to see what’s coming up.
O that I were a glove upon that hand: Lord of Scoundrels
It’s my second article and I already have a confession to make: my dominant emotion, at least initially, when reading Lord of Scoundrels was a heady sense of relief that this thing was actively good and I hadn’t made a terrible mistake. Don’t get me wrong, The Flame & The Flower was an interesting experience, but then so is tweezering your nasal hair. However, Lord of Scoundrels is simply and straightforwardly delightful in pretty much every conceivable way. I read it in one two hour sitting like Edmund Pevensie with a box of Turkish Delight and then felt weirdly like I wanted to hug someone, couldn’t cope with it and went off to make a stir fry instead. So it was all good.
Here’s what goes down (errr… not like that): The Marquess of Dain, a very alliterative cad known thankfully not very often as The Blight and Bane of the Ballisters (both the blight and the bane, you go, err, boyfriend), has been raised in what I like to think is a fairly standard English fashion: emotionally distant father, absentee mother. Despised by his father and packed off to Eton, he has soon amputated any redeeming or pleasant qualities from his personality and is therefore prime romantic hero material. As the book opens, he is engaged in some kind of hardcore debauch-em-up in Paris, from which the heroine, Jessica Trent, is obliged to rescue her Very Stupid brother. Jessica and Dain are instantly infatuated with each other, so much so they end up Going For It at a formal ball and are caught in what I believe they call ‘a compromising position’. Needless to say, they end up having to get married. They fall in love. There are slight complications involving a Russian icon, an evil queer, and one of Dain’s illegitimate children but, basically, the good end happily and bad unhappily.
For me, this was very much Jessica’s book. She is basically the best person ever and I love her so much I can’t even. I’m not quite sure if that’s because she is objectively fabulous or if poor Heather set the bar so low that earthworms could hurdle it, but Jessica was a complete and comprehensive reversal of all my expectations. I don’t know enough about the genre to address this properly (and feel free to pick me up on this) but it seems to me the Heather Type heroine – childlike, stupid, waiting patiently to be sexually awakened by an utter wanker – is still very much extant. Ana Steele is basically a Heather, right? And, therefore, from my very limited perspective, Jessica seemed wildly, and wonderfully, subversive. And I want to marry her.
The part of me that is a curmudgeonly git did occasionally question her historical plausibility but most of me didn’t care. I mean, what kind of soulless monster would I be if I responded to the sublime and spirited Jessica Trent with “Well, technically dear, I think you should be a bit more oppressed”? I fell in love with her at pretty much the precise moment Dain does, which is on page 34. They meet, by chance, at an antique shop and – being an arse – Dain tries to scandalise Jessica by showing her an obscene watch, depicting a man performing ‘a sexual service’ for a woman. She is, of course, far too awesome to be remotely phased by this and the conversation unfolds as follows:
“You want to buy it, Miss Trent [...] I strongly doubt your elders will approve of such a purchase. Or have English notions of propriety undergone a revolution while I’ve been away?”
“Oh, it isn’t for me,” she said. “It’s for my grandmother.” (p.34)
Reader, I literally LOLed.
Jessica then spends the next four hundred pages continuing to be amazing beyond all reason. She’s sexually attracted to Dain and is totally okay with it. Although he’s the one with the sexual experience, their initial marital encounters take place at her instigation because she has a powerful and entirely healthy desire to bonk her husband. When he tries to make sex about power and control, she refuses to let him. When he treats her badly, she shoots him. When he tries to bully her, she laughs at him. When Evil People show up trying to cause trouble, she completely thwarts them by being sensible. Instead of freaking out because Dain has spread a wild oat, she insists on his taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the kid. And she’s not afraid to say ‘I love you’ first. She is just consistently strong and decent and clever and funny and passionate and, oh my bloody god, what the hell is she doing married to an almighty bellend like Dain?
Blight, Bane and Bellend of the Ballisters.
Sigh. But maybe I’m being too harsh on him. To give the man his due, he is about eighty million trillion gazillion times better than Brandon. If we have to take not raping people as an actively positive quality rather than a baseline standard of normal decency, then Dain is way up there. He is, in fact, consistently worried about accidentally hurting Jessica or taking her without her explicit consent, which is, err, nice of him. Of course, it’s not without problems either, since it also denies women the right to make a choice (in this case, to have sex when they want it). But, then, he is living in 1828 and if you’re unsure if a woman wants to sleep with you, it’s probably best to err on the side of ‘probably not’ over ‘I’ll just put my dick in and see what happens.’ And, anyway, Jessica soon puts him to rights. By ripping his shirt off. (And I’ve just noticed I’ve written an entire paragraph without mentioning how much I love Jessica… in case I’ve been too subtle on this point, I really really love Jessica).
The other thing that helped me stomach Dain being a pillock was the fact he was explicitly being a pillock, and there seemed to a strong degree of recognition, both in the text and in Dain’s messed up little noggin, that this was a bad thing. Again, perhaps it was a misreading on my part, but I got the distinct impression that a lot of Brandon’s awfulness was meant to be sexy and secretly appealing. So, for example, his jealous rages and controlling behaviour were a reflection of the true depth and intensity of his wuv for Heather. Whereas, with Dain, it’s nothing but harmful. It gets in the way of his love for Jessica to say nothing of his personal happiness, and she basically spends the whole book challenging him over it until she manages to sex-bash some sense into the stupid man.
And at least we get some explanation as to why Dain is acting like a tosser all the time. Brandon was apparently just kind of like that. I’m a bit dubious about the whole ‘people were mean to me so now I’m mean to them’ approach, since I don’t think you should get a free pass to dickhead, but I genuinely felt for Dain during the prologue. And, quite frankly, it would be ragingly hypocritical of me to take a strong stance against difficult people finding love. Dain’s backstory is a banal sort of tragedy in many ways, which I think is why it moved me. It’s an accumulation of disregard and petty cruelty, rather than any great or terrible drama. His father is clearly a shitty human being but he’s not Satan incarnate either. And the things that conspire to utterly break Dain are actually far more subtle and socially driven than anything as simple as his father’s failure to love him. What Dain’s upbringing teaches him, in the worst possible way, is what it means to be a man. And, in his world (and, let’s face it, the one we’re living in right now), men are not supposed to be emotional, neurotic, vulnerable or loving. By nature, Dain is all of those things but he learns very quickly that they will never be valued.
No wonder he’s wrecked.
Although, I know some people who went to English public schools and I am telling you, the dude got off way lightly. Stuff goes on in those places that practically violates the Geneva Convention.
To understand Dain, however, is not necessarily enough to like him. I mean, after he and Jessica get caught in flagrante at the ball, he actually does that thing (look, a trope!) of immediately concluding that she’s an evil trollop trying to inveigle his ring onto her finger. I wouldn’t mind but it’s so ludicrously implausible. In my head, I was like “dude, you’ve met Jessica Trent, screw your inner pain, there’s no way on earth she would do something like that, will you use some of that extensive fortune to buy yourself a clue?” Thankfully, Jessica shoots him not long after. Possibly I was just too committed to Team Jessica to be able to endure someone treating her badly but I was never really convinced Dain was worth her trouble. But, y’know, if he was what she wanted, then I’m glad she got him. I’m not sure if that counts as a romantic win, but it works for me.
I also think the ball sequence highlights one of my (very minor) problems with Lord of Scoundrels. I know it’s primarily the story of a relationship between two people, and that’s fine, but I felt the plot was a bit lacklustre across the board. Things happen, and thankfully they were all a lot more interesting that the extensive bathing and shopping sequences of F&F (Jessica and Dain don’t go shopping once – respect) but it’s all a bit vague and unsatisfying. There’s something going on with a Russian icon, Dain gets a psychosomatic dead arm that requires some wibbly psychological healing and a child adoption to fix, and some background characters make half-hearted attempts to stuff things up. Although I absolutely loved all of Dain and Jessica’s interactions, their road to matrimony feels a bit forced and they waver tediously through an extensive series of slightly irritating misunderstandings (while still clearly fancying the pants off each other). But, again, I have limited scope for comparison.
Once again, I was slightly disconcerted by Weight Determined Morality (WDM). I know we’re in fantasy land, where the wang never runs out of juice and all women have amazing hair, but whose fantasies are really being addressed here? Surely attractiveness – like people, in fact – covers a broad spectrum. It’s not so much that all the heroines are thin, it’s the fact that, although not all evil people are fat, all fat people are evil. Except Bertie Trent, I suppose, who is merely stupid. There’s also an evil queer in Lord of Scoundrels (see panda comma sad).
His weight remains undisclosed but he smells bad. Thankfully he’s only really in it long enough to get punched by Dain and orchestrate the final segment of the plot. I think he’s just meant to be a guy with no redeeming features, but ‘bisexual’ does not belong on a list with immoral, cruel and smelly. To be fair, he’s not explicitly bisexual but it is pretty clear he fancies dudes. I think the exact phrase is ‘rutted with just about anything’ (p.42) so perhaps it’s actually lack of discrimination that is being condemned here. All the same, I feel I should point out that rutting with just about anything is a generous and public minded trait that should be admired and celebrated, perhaps with parades.
But that’s enough with the picking of the nits, for those are nits and did not, in any way, impinge upon my genuine enjoyment of the book. On the other hand, I really can’t write about Lord of Scoundrels without mentioning two of the secondary characters. One of the (many!) ways in which this book left F&F howling in the dust clutching its nads was the deft and effective way it made me care about pretty much all of the characters. However, this turned out to be both and a blessing and a curse because a couple of backgroundy type people drifted into the text and completely stole it. The first was Genevieve Trent, Jessica’s equally fantastic grandmother, and a femme fatale par excellence. She is gorgeous, witty, dangerous and as sexy as all hell with a string of infatuated (often much younger) lovers. She is also heartbreakingly under-used.
And then there’s this other guy, described by the (apparently!) heterosexual hero as “about as beautiful as a man could be without looking remotely like a woman” and later called the most beautiful man on three continents. Yes, I’m shallow but he sounds awesome. Again, he’s only in the book for about three taunting seconds, time he uses mainly to makes gnomic utterances:
“Women do not lie, my lord Dain,” came a faintly accented voice from the door. “It merely seems so because they exist in another reality.” (p. 39)
I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret this but, having given it some thought, I now see there’s only one possible explanation: The Comte d’Esmond is an alien (possibly a psychic alien, because he says numerous odd things that eventually come true).
So I think what I’m saying here is this: I enjoyed the hell out of Lord of Scoundrels, but I would also love to read The Adventures of Genevieve Trent, Regency GILF & The Comte d’Esmond, The Hottie From Outer Space. Maybe they could fight crime?
Everything I learned about life & love from Reading Lord of Scoundrels: I’m weirdly into Grannies, gloves are shockingly erotic, fat people are still evil, bisexuals are evil too, sometimes men just need a good shooting, Jessica Trent is the best.