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REVIEW: Virgin Slave, Barbarian King by Louise Allen

Dear Ms Allen,

037329477801mzzzzzzz.jpgI had planned on reading this book anyway because 1) I like a previous book of yours I tried and 2) I just had to support the era in which you’d set the story. After all, I can’t remember the last book I read that features Visigoths! When we all got together and decided on a mass blog review of the book, I did have some moments of unease. I mean, look at the cover which features an obviously nekked hero and a heroine, though completely clothed, toting water as a slave. And then there’s the title. Oy. All it needs is a secret baby to complete the image that so many people have of romance books. And where’d the crystal chandelier come from on the cover?

The romance/relationship is pretty standard captive romance fare. “You’re my slave..no I’m not….yes you are….no!…yes, you must work for your keep…I can’t do anything…you’ll learn or not eat…” Julia learns the joys of living with barbarians while Wulfric is so understanding of her. He caters to his ‘slave,’ is hurt when she expects the worst from him, wants to comfort and soothe her fears and keeps his raging needs under control. He’s also a leader among strong men, adored by women, is kind to children and animals. The man’s a saint. I had to agree with young Berig about who’s the slave here and who’s not. Plus the fact that the name Wulfric is far too close to Wulfgar. And his pet wolf appears to need only a little more work in order to earn his CDX.

I kept waiting during the early part of the book so see if Julia’s family would ever try to find her. Honestly, I don’t think her family missed her more than they would a lost handkerchief. But then they’re a standard awful family who have never made Julia feel loved. I know this makes the story easier and shorter to write but it would have been much more interesting if Julia was torn about leaving a family or fiance for whom she gave a flip.

I liked the language you included throughout the book and wonder where you got the translations. Is this a form of early German? I liked the historical tidbits and for the most part thought they were worked into the story very well. Though I did get bored during the slow slog of the Visigoths down the Italian peninsula and while they waited for transport to Africa. The travel time did little more than give Julia time to appreciate how wonderful the Goths are.

I did like that the book is not totally littered with misunderstandings. Yeah, they don’t declare their feelings for each other but at least on everything else, they talked. Julia was willing to admit Wulfric is a good and honorable man doing what he thinks is best, though not necessarily what he wants.

I did find the catfight scene to be improbable. Julia’s a tiny, little thing and her chances of beating a large Visigoth woman would seem to me to be exactly zero. Though I’m sure the men would have wanted to see it. And did Wulfric’s almost fiancee have to be such an obvious Other Woman stereotype? Simpering to him yet turning on Julia in the blink of an eye? It gave her no depth.

Julia does learn some politics and scheming to get away from magistrate with whom Wulfric dumps her and lull her parents before the Great Escape with Wulfric. I was kind of hoping for something more dramatic then but I guess simpler is easiest.

I did like that this is not an overnight romance though the lusting starts fairly early. The book spans some months and lends credence to Julia and Wulfric finally falling for each other despite the reasons each has not to.

I thought Wulfric’s views on love and honor to be Typical Man. I thought Julia’s declaration of love – yelled to Wulfric while he’s fighting for his life in a battle — to be silly. And this kind of typifies my overall feelings for the book. There are parts I like which then got balanced with things that seemed to be taken straight from Romance Central and that I’d read 100 times before. The whole ends up being a C+ though I wish it had been more.

~Jayne

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Dear Ms. Allen:

037329477801mzzzzzzz.jpgLike Jayne, I had purchased this book before the Bindel assertion that Mills &Boon books, such as yours, were perpetrating patriarchal propoganda and before the Teach Me Tonight crew had the brilliant idea for the cross blog spectacular. The one positive thing I can say about this book is that I didn’t find it to be advancing the agenda of the male patriarchy and the suppression of females. I did find it to be promoting a lot of other unfavorable stereotypes, however, but probably my biggest complaint was that this book was totally a yawner for me and had it not been for the commitment I made to review it for this internet spectacular, I would have tossed it after the first three chapters.

I won’t rehash the plot and bore the readers. Instead, I’ll just address why I found it tedious to read at times and also how anachronistic and implausible the story was. It wasn’t implausible because it lacked good historical detail – there was plenty of that. It was implausible because Julia Livia, a daughter of a respected Roman citizen, is kidnapped by the Roman’s greatest enemy, a Visigoth. Instead of showing much of any fright, concern for well being, worry about her family, despair over her condition, she almost immediately falls for her Visigoth captor. Within a day, she is having lustful thoughts about Wulfric and it seems that her fears that he was uncivilized were completely allayed by the fact that Wulfric had chests full of ‘Rhenish glass and the silver platters.’

To a great extent I felt that Julia Livia’s focus on the superficial reflected the superficiality of the overall story. There was no serious introspection at the differences between Roman and Visigoth cultures. Instead, the cultural conflict comes down to Goth=Good and Romans=Rotten. After all, the young Roman men might stay physically fit, but it was only for posing for statues were the Goth’s physicality was necessary for their survival. The Romans were more interested in looking good than being good was the message I was sent and therefore it was okay for Julia Livia to not experience terror and despair at the thought of being forcibly separated from her family.

I also thought how interesting it was that Julia Livia showed no emotion over the sacking of cities that went on during the Visigoth’s determined march south through Italy or the slayings of “criminals”. The lack of nuanced writing in the portrayal of the two cultures was symptomatic of the problems I had with the entirety of the story.

For me, the lack of interest was as a result of the perfunctory storytelling. Without any depth to the characters, I was not emotionally engaged. Further, unlike Jayne, I thought that there were “as you know Bob” moments. Illustrative is the scene involving the hair cutting.

In the early part of the book, Julia Livia is left alone at the camp. She lolls around and refuses to clean up the tent or wash any clothes and Wulfric returns home to a mess. After he cleans himself, Julia Livia studies his long hair and suggests that she cut it. She picks up the scissors and is about to cut his hair when Wulfric and his young page like companion, Berig, go crazy. To cut one’s hair is to besmirch his honor. Julia Livia apparently hasn’t noticed that everyone’s hair is long, not just Wulfric’s (which goes against Wulfric’s statement that Julia Livia is so observant and that is one of the things he admires about her). But I asked myself why Julia Livia would engage in cutting Wulfric’s hair or be concerned that his long hair would adversely affect him in battle if she can’t be bothered with any other aspect of his life.

This read as a contrivance to me as did so many other parts of the book particularly the ridiculous scene in which Julia Livia and her rival for Wulfric’s love engage in a girl fight during the funeral of an important Goth. I had little belief that Julia Livia could beat a fly let alone a young Goth woman. There was still another ridiculous scene in which Julia Livia declares her love for Wulfric. That was probably a wall banging moment for me.

The writing, for all its historical overlay, had a very contemporary voice. At one time, Julia Livia is overwhelmed by Wulfric’s “charisma”. Julia Livia “conjured up” something.

The one part of the book I enjoyed was watching Wulfric council with the elders and his small struggles to determine whether to challenge for the kingship. He did appear to be wise and thoughtful although I failed to get a sense that he truly loved his people or the land. Any actions we saw of Wulfric directing attention toward anyone was to a select few – not enough to convince me that he was doing anything for the greater good. I know that is what I was supposed to believe, but the paucity of details in that regard let me interpret things differently.

This sanitized, superficial story isn’t a good one for Bindel to use to uphold her argument that these types of books perpetuate the idea that women exist for the purpose of man but neither is it a shining example of the genre. C-

Best regards,

Jane

This book can be purchased in mass market or ebook format.

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There are many other reviews of this book around the internet which I will add links to in a bit. SB Sarah posted hers today as part of the internet extravaganza coordinated by the Profs at Teach Me Tonight.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

10 Comments

  1. Aoife
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 20:54:19

    Your reactions more or less mirrored mine, except you both actually finished this. I may go back to try again, at some point, because I think my expectations were too high (I loved the idea of the time period, I had liked the other Louise Allen book I had read, etc)but I knew I was in trouble when Julia did the whole feisty thing on the first few pages. Feisty I cannot handle.

  2. Sarah Frantz
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 21:27:47

    The one thing this exercise has done for me is show me again how different are the tasks of reviewing and literary criticism. I love your reviews and SB Sarah’s review, and as I read them, I was thinking, “Wow, I just couldn’t do that!” I don’t have the patience. I don’t know what it is about the review process that I wouldn’t have patience for, when I can sit and analyze a book for hours (mine took about five hours), even when I don’t like the book.

    But there’s the thing: I can analyze a book I despise (did it for my dissertation!), because it’s not about personal taste, but about what I can say about the book’s _______ (construction, organization, historical context, images of gender/class/race, etc.). When I was a baby graduate student, one of my advisers said “It’s not about whether I like the book, but whether I can say anything interesting about it” and I was horrified! Shocked, I tell you! And I promised myself I’d never get to that point. But getting to that point was what learning how to be a literary critic was all about. And I actually ended up arguing in my dissertation that analyzing books we dislike is *important* to understanding the culture we’re trying to analyze. It’s just as important, in fact, as analyzing books we love. I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809), which is so boring and horrible that its Wikipedia page is a completely inaccurate stub. But to me it was as important to analyze that book, precisely because it was the second-most best-selling book of 1809, as it was to analyze Jane Austen, who is absolutely a “better” writer.

    As my husband just pointed out to me as I read this to him, you’ll notice that Laura and Eric and I never said in our posts whether we liked the book. That came up later in comments at our sites and yours. Because in reading the book in order to analyze it, liking it or not was not part of my thought process. In fact, I once read all of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, thoroughly enjoying it because I was reading it to analyze it and it was brilliantly rich ground, only to realize when I was done that I actually thoroughly *disliked* the book as entertainment. Talk about TSTL–Waverley was the worst!!

    So, even though Allen’s book is by no means pure gold, I’m hoping that people are learning that even the worst books (and I will say that VSBK is certainly *not* the worst of anything) can yield interesting insights about the romance genre, its conventions and forms and readers.

    All this is to say that I really love reading the reviews here and at SBTB. You do them so well, but it’s a completely different skill from literary criticism (which is not to say you guys don’t analyze–you do, but in totally different ways from what we do at TMT), and that fact boggles my mind every time I read a really good review, even (especially?) if the book is awful (or, more likely, just not brilliant).

  3. Bonnie L.
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 22:47:39

    Sarah,
    You bring up such a good point about review vs analysis. I remember writing a thesis paper on The Scarlet Letter in one of my English classes. I loved reading and learning about all the symbolism and hidden meanings that could be found in the book, but I just cannot bring myself to just pick it up and read it for entertainment, it is not really my idea of a good time, KWIM?

  4. Barbara B.
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 09:09:26

    Aoife said-
    “Feisty I cannot handle.”

    Fiesty stops me dead in my tracks as a reader. I wish publishers would put a warning label on books with fiesty/fiery/sassy heroines. I’d also like labels for the innocent/pure heroines. Can’t stand them either.

    For bringing the fiesty, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King goes to the very bottom of my 1000+ ebook TBR “stack”.

  5. whey
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 11:14:35

    I tried, I really tried, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter.

  6. hotflashes51
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 12:09:30

    I wrote a kinda review…not really. It isn’t analytical. In fact, it is barely intelligent, no big words whatsoever.

    Though I was curious, I couldn’t force myself to buy this book. I hated the cover and the title. But if Bindle can write a feminist dissertation just by the blurb, hell I can certainly do mine solely by title.

  7. talpianna
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 22:27:17

    Sarah said: Talk about TSTL-Waverley was the worst!!

    Obviously you’ve never encountered Darsie Latimer in Redgauntlet. But the book is worth reading for Alan Fairford, the real hero to my mind, who is semi-autobiographical.

  8. Shannon C.
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 22:56:29

    All this commentary is fascinating. Mostly, I thought the book was rather tepid, though the language thing did fascinate me as well and I also wondered where Allen got her sources for it. I think I’d have liked to learn more about the setting from a couple of characters who weren’t walking romance cliches, though. And, as I’ve said elsewhere, I didn’t like that Wulfric was such a saint, given that he was supposed to be, well, a barbarian.

  9. Lolloser
    Jan 12, 2008 @ 17:47:10

    I really don’t think there is much reason to waste one’s time analysing pure crapola.

    Wulfric is ridiculous. Heroine is ridiculous. The style is passable at best.

    I only kinda sorta managed to sit through it because the plot is very similar to one in GRRM’s “ASOIAF”. Except Martin isn’t crappy author.

  10. lola_brown
    May 16, 2009 @ 02:09:50

    I loved reading this book. From cover to finish i could’nt put it down! I’m fasinated by the language and how Allen weaved it into her story. Yes i did find a few things far fetched, like the cat fight and particularly the last chapter, but i think this just all adds to the stories charm. I’ve read quite a few of Allen’s books and I’ve enjoyed each one of them. I love the wit that all the characters seem to have and to me that has been evident in each of the books I’ve read.

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