REVIEW: The Windflower by Laura London
Devon Knows How They Make It So Creamy – The Windflower
(Apologies if this title makes no sense to you – go here and be illuminated)
If The Windflower was a person, it would be this person:
And, you know, what’s particularly excruciating about that? Every instinct I possess was screaming at me to get the hell away from the manic pixie dream girl but, God help me, I kind of somehow ended up liking the damn book. Not liking it would have felt like spitting in the eye of a kitten.
The heroine of The Windflower is, I shit you not, one Merry Wilding (yes, that is actually her actual name, but I personally prefer to think of her as Rainbow Sparkles). She’s a sheltered, gentle-hearted eighteen year old who initially possesses that grossly overrate,d and previously discussed, superpower of making all men everywhere instantly want to rape her. However, like a particularly deadly Pokémon, she quickly evolves the far more effective ability of making all men everywhere instantly want to protect her. Even ships full of hardened, ruthless pirates. Because that’s just how superlatively wuvely she is.
I honestly had no idea how to respond to her. With all my heart, I wanted to hate her but it just wasn’t worth the effort. It would have felt like hating candyfloss (this may be a theme). Even though she does stuff like this:
[Merry] snatched up the silver-seeded head of a thistle. She held it before her, flourished a hand over it, and said in an important voice, “This, my dear, brother is a crystal ball.” (p. 15)
Oh God, I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.
To be briefly serious, Rainbow was, in some ways, not completely uninteresting, though whimsical innocence rings a bit one-note as a personality goes (although, let’s be fair here, definitely an advancement on Good Hair). She starts the novel in one place, literally and figuratively, and ends it in quite another, and I felt there was a genuine sense of development there. It was intriguing to watch the lessons about virtue and femininity taught to a gently-raised young woman collide with the harsh truths and realities of life – and I think it’s just about arguable that Rainbow manages to adapt and grow and, eventually, thrive without sacrificing too much of herself or her ideals.
She is, however, very young when the novel opens and, frankly, acts it – partly due to upbringing, partly due to historical period and partly, I uncharitably suspect, because the authors find her just darling. But considering she is presented, and seen by pretty much everyone, as a sexual object I found it personally unappealing. I’m honestly not that into eighteen year olds in general (nothing against them, by the way, it’s just, given I am not eighteen, it’s on the borderline of not okay) but eighteen year olds who act like they’re fourteen? Eeew, no, I’ll leave that to Humbert Humbert. But I do recognise The Windflower is essentially a bildungsroman for Rainbow, and the novel makes it quite explicit that the book shows us only one segment of a much greater arc:
At age eighteen Merry Wilding was not so talented. Most men would have been happy to stare at her by the hour; only the kind ones would be equally content to listen to her talk; that would come later in life.
Maybe I’m letting the side down, but I genuinely can’t imagine a situation in which I’d be happy to spend hours ogling a woman if I wasn’t also happy to talk to her. It’d be creepy for her and boring as hell for me. That said, I think I kinda liked this little paragraph. One of the (probably quite obvious) ideas I am coming slowly towards is that the romance we see on the page has to function successfully as microcosmic representation of a potential lifetime in order to make the HEA plausible to me. I think The Windflower has been the only book I’ve read so far to address that idea directly. But, then again, I’m not entirely sure whether that’s really a good thing. I mean most of the romances I’ve particularly enjoyed have addressed the same concept indirectly by, y’know, presenting characters in whose on-going happiness I was able to believe. But, given the massive disparity in power and experience between the hero and heroine in The Windflower, I appreciated this acknowledgement of future growth.
Of course, it does also mean that we’re stuck with Rainbow at a time in her life when even the book admits her only remotely redeeming quality is that she’s easy on the eye. And, uh, I don’t know quite what to make of that. She spends most of her time being vulnerable, threatened and literally naked – and I was quite confused about how I was supposed to be responding to her. Under no circumstances did I want to be her, or be in her position, and she’s so desperately fragile and out of her depth that trying to fancy her felt borderline immoral (even on top of the “you are basically a child” thing). There were so many loving descriptions of her bare, shivering flesh and her delicate blue-veined eyelids that I felt I was kind of being invited to get off on her helplessness but, uh, no thanks.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d normally be extremely enthusiastic about getting off on someone’s helplessness (um … that sounds bad) but this just felt icky to me. It’s not even about consent (wow … that sounds bad too) it’s about the way her genuine distress is sexualised by the narrative and the way that pity for her plight is always tinged with titillation. I can entirely see why being, ahem, brutally captured by very clean, sophisticated and attractive pirates would be anybody’s fantasy but if that is the fantasy being explored here, I personally found the very real threat of gang rape a bit of a mood killer. Threats to Rainbow are, with the exception of the hero, clearly meant to be taken seriously but, at the same time, she is so very much presented an object of desire, even and, perhaps, especially, in extremis, that it just left me in a hopeless mire of who is this for, and I was completely unable to find a comfortable space of identification.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the hero. I think my reactions to this aspect of the book are probably best described in dialogue:
Me: Okay, Windflower, you’ve lumbered me with a whimsical 18 year old with breasts instead of a personality, I kind of need you to work with me now.
Book: “He was tall enough to have to stoop as he entered and he had black, heavy-lidded, deep-set eyes … intense and sleepy at the same time. The face was impassive … with heavy cheekbones and a broad brow … His long hair was midnight black, thick and unruly … and the same hue as his silk shirt.”
Me: OMFG, Windflower, maybe we can be friends after all. I just love a man who chooses his shirts to match his hair.
Book: Hee! Sparkle! I’m just teasing you, he’s not the hero.
Me: Oh, right. Bugger. Well, fine, if you can squander that on a secondary character, I can’t wait to see what you can do with the hero. What have you got for me, Windflower?
Book: “The younger of two [had] nothing of youth in his coldly Scandinavian face, with hard, milk-blue eyes and lips that looked as though they had never known a smile. His hair was dead straight, almost white … and so long that it touched his hips … Merry saw pale stripes on the … skin of his naked back that she shudderingly realised had been inflicted with a whip.”
Me: Okay, pederasty not my thing, but since Merry is, like, 12 I guess I can go with this tigerish, deliciously abused young man. Come on Windflower, let’s dance this dance.
Book: Hee! Sparkle! He’s not the hero either, doofus.
Me: You’re kind of worrying me now, Windflower. If Johnny Depp isn’t the hero, and Jailbait Sephiroth isn’t the hero either, who does that leave?
Book: A twonk called Devon! Yay!
Okay, look, to be fair to Devoncakes, he’s not that bad. He’s not devoid of self-irony, and full of cute, wry observations about why it’s not good practice to rape women when they’re suffering from seasickness, and he actually goes around dressed like he’s a pirate at a fancy dress party, which I personally found hilarious and endearing:
Hips down, he was encased in denim trousers that revealed more of his lean musculature than Merry knew was good for her to see. Hips up, he was bare, discounting an open leather vest… (p. 202)
He’s also got an impressive line in sexytalk:
“Devon, what do you mean to do?”
Cradling her in his arms, his mouth on the hollow below her ear, he said, “Fill you with honey, love.” (P. 176)
I’m assuming what he means by “honey” in this context is … his dick.
Actually, since we’re on the subject of Devon’s, err, honey, The Windflower has some of the most bewilderingly written, err, erotic scenes I think I’ve ever read. I know I keep saying I don’t like to pick things apart at the sentence level and I’ve proceeded to do precisely that two weeks in a row but …
Under the press of his body, Merry ached in colors … she tingled every hue in the prism. The world was a collection of sweet and vivid light beams, and she was one of them, and mindless, a spinning miscellany of liquid cells. (p. 155)
You what? Look, I’m not really criticising here, I have no idea how it would feel to be kissed senseless against my will by a lavishly beautiful pirate dude (though feel free to apply at this address) but what does any of this mean? What is a spinning miscellany of liquid cells? And what has that got to do with the sweet and vivid light beams? And the tingling prism? Is that a euphemism for what Anna Steele prefers to call merely down there? Oh, come back Brandon Birmingham and your carnivorous purple flowers, your internal coherence is greatly missed.
Anyway, I think I could have handled Devoncakes better (oooh la la) if the book hadn’t been in such a wild tizzy to convince me he was a deep and complex man, as opposed to the vacuous underwear model he so clearly is. The amazing intricacies of Devon’s character are constantly exposited but never actually demonstrated, unless you count his wavering commitment to raping the heroine. To Devon’s credit, he manages to restrain himself on this score but I honestly found the attitude to, well, rape a bit odd. It seems so perpetually imminent – like an asthma attack or something. There are multiple occasions on which Devoncakes nobly summons other people to take Rainbow out of his vicinity in order to prevent him having non-consensual sex with her. But is … is it really that difficult? Does it actually require third party intervention? I mean, I know I’m not stranded on a pirate ship, and I know pirates are not renowned for their polite ways and moral rectitude, but it seems to be less of an ethical qualm for Devon than the fact he’s genuinely unable to control his manly raping urge. That just confuses the heck out of me. Raping someone is not a natural progression from fancying them. It’s not even on the same trajectory.
His attitude to Rainbow is, in general, a bit strange. The book has already established that, at this stage in her life, the girl has some breasts and that’s pretty much it, so it was slightly hard for me to understand why an apparently subtle and complicated man like Devon would go from wanting to rape her to being deeply in love. To be honest, I couldn’t really see why he wanted to rape her either. I’d have thrown her overboard. All right, all right, I’m being unfair here to both of them. Rainbow is not quite that hopeless and they do have a sort of Catherine Morland / Henry Tilney dynamic going on, which I can see is not without its charms. But, personally, I’ve always hated that sort of experience versus innocence, corruption versus purity, intelligence versus sweetness thang. Of course, Northanger Abbey is an ironic deconstruction of those ideas, but The Windflower is just a portrayal, and reinforcement, of them. I do understand why it might be someone else’s fantasy, it’s just totally not mine. I kind of feel romantic partners are not cheeses, you shouldn’t have to put them aside until they mature properly to be worth, um, eating.
Plotwise, The Windflower has some relatively complicated stuff going on, set vaguely against the backdrop of the Second War of Independence. Rainbow, who has already entangled herself with the colonists’ cause, ends up being randomly captured by pirates from the cabin of a dude against whom Devoncakes just happens to have a personal vendetta. Then everything becomes about Merry: she makes a few infuriatingly inept escape attempts, most of which result in her looking vulnerable and being naked, eventually gets stranded on a desert island, then she gets Malaria and it eventually transpires that she was being taken to England in the first place in order to marry some Duke who is none other than … Devon. I call deus ex bullshit. And, frankly, that’s all I can be bothered to say about Rainbow and Devoncakes because they are pretty much the least interesting bit of The Windflower.
My response to this book somewhat confuses me. I was quite frustrated by it a lot of the time, often laughing at it, which is never a good sign, and pretty much permanently poised on the brink of throwing it out the window. But I never did. Truthfully, I laughed with it, just as much as I laughed at it and, even though it drove me crazy, there’s no denying I was completely invested in it. Despite the fact The Windflower is, frankly, batshit to say nothing of absolutely covered in kittens and sparkles and rape, it’s also kind of … weirdly harmless. Even charming. It’s written with such a genuine sense of delight, it’s hard not to feel delighted back. Not enjoying this book was … just beyond me, somehow, so I gave up and went with it, and let my tingling cells dissolve into a spinning liquid miscellany of being quite entertained.
And then there was Cat, who stole the book and – uh – kind of my heart as well. I’m starting to vaguely understand why people write fanfic because I think perhaps one reason I couldn’t warm to Rainbow or Devoncakes was because I was desperately trying to read another book, which may or may not have been The Kinky Pirate Adventures of Johnny Depp and Jailbait Sephiroth. Also, even though Rainbow is an oblivious little muffin most of the time anyway, she’s particularly oblivious and muffin-like when it comes to Cat, so I couldn’t quite forgive her. Rand Morgan delivers her into Cat’s care when she’s first taken aboard and he spends the whole book basically running himself ragged over her – trying to stop Devoncakes raping her, curing her malaria, trying to educate her into the business of Having A Fucking Clue For God’s Sake. And she basically doesn’t notice. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely did not want to Rainbow to end up with Cat (get away from her, Cat, she’s whimsical with dandelions) and it’s clear he loves her (rather than being in love with her) but there’s a particularly grim scene where she incites him to kiss her because Devon has left her all of a fluster. Yes, Merry, good plan, great plan. Make the sexually abused ex-prostitute, adolescent pirate boy kiss you. Please don’t do that. I think I hate you now.
I was, in general, pretty pissed off by the way The Windflower treated Cat, though I think this fed into larger problems with the portrayal of Rand Morgan. I found Rand’s character a bit difficult because, on the page, he’s wildly hot and fascinating, but his general behaviour seems to reflect ideas about personal growth and wellbeing that I find so utterly obnoxious and infuriating it makes me want to eat my own toenails. I know he was meant to be a strange, manipulative character, but he came across like some kind of reverse Iago: motiveless benevolence. Essentially he controls most of the action of the book, for what turn out to be obscurely compassionate reasons, but he basically brings about happy endings by Taking People Out of Their Comfort Zone. The book even ends with him going off to find some other kid to do similar shit to. Oh, it makes me so angry. I loathe people like that. I’m sure Rand is meant to be a morally ambiguous figure, as he’s genuinely frightening and alludes often to all the rapin’ he’s done in the past, but I also think we’re genuinely meant to buy into the idea that, in his mysterious way, he’s a force for good. Sorry, but if you genuinely believe the best way to help someone else is to strip them of agency and play cheap psychological games with them, you’re not morally good, or morally evil, you’re just a wanker. And that does not make for an engaging character.
I didn’t mind him toying about with Rainbow and Devoncakes because I didn’t give a toss about them, but his treatment of Cat made me want to climb the walls. Again, there are times when the book seems fairly clear that Rand’s behaviour is a steaming pile of not okay (like when he makes Cat feel its his fault if Rainbow dies of her stupid malaria) but since Cat ends up in a relatively happy place at the end of the novel, and is clearly somewhat functional in ways he wasn’t when Rand found him, I was left with the sense that The Windflower was overall in favour of sexually abused adolescents being ruthlessly forced to feel things at the whim of someone else, rather than being permitted to come to terms with their experiences and emotions in their own goddamn time, in their way own goddamn way.
Also I felt the portrayal of Rand was just kind of cowardly across the board. The man runs a ship largely crewed by hot dudes and is so clearly bisexual, yet The Windflower kept doing the hokey-cokey on this one, approaching the bisexual event horizon and then freaking out about it. I know you probably weren’t allowed bisexuals in the 1980s but I’d rather not be teased with them. Either have the courage of your bisexual convictions, or stop pissing about. And I know this probably seems a bit inconsistent, as I’ve already said Rand is a wanker, so the B Team probably would want him anyway, but I’ll take hot, morally dubious, slightly wankerish bisexual over all the other fat, evil bisexuals I’ve met in this genre so far. I was similarly irritated that his complicated, messy, incredibly dodgy and yet oddly affectionate relationship with Cat was later revealed to be, to a degree, a fiction invented for the boy’s protection. Oh come on, Windflower, for God’s sake, just own it: they’re blatantly having wickedly hot, borderline abusive sex all the damn time. I don’t have to see it on the page but don’t run away from it screaming.
Something I did, like, however was the fact that Cat’s happy ending was more of a beginning really. He unites with his family and they send him off to Oxford and into his future. One of the … problems isn’t quite the right word here … but difficult things about the conventions of the romance genre, as I have seen them in action, is the way love takes primacy over absolutely everything else. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, these books are romances after all, love is simply the chosen focus (like dragons in fantasy, or galactic politics in sci-fi). It is the journey, it is the end of the journey, it is the reward and the solution. But, of course, there are some situations where love is not, and cannot, and should not, be the outcome for a particular character – Cat, being one such, where even thinking in terms of ‘solutions’ is deeply wrong. Emotionally, however, it was a little bit difficult to come to terms with because, as I’ve grown accustomed to reading romances, I’ve also accepted the idea that – in these books – love is always the best possible ending for anybody. However, putting that aside, I found it unexpectedly pleasing and affirming that The Windflower does not turn from the possibility that HEA can, and should, mean different things for different people.
Everything I learned about life & love from reading The Windflower: I may be a pederast. Pirate captains should concentrate on plundering not psychology. Men get moral virtue points for not raping women. Unicorns are symbols of overwhelming virility. And so are rutabagas.