REVIEW: At Her Service by Susan Johnson
Dear Ms. Johnson:
I’ve re-read some of your backlist titles so many times, the cover fell off the paperback copies. I think you were writing erotic romance before erotic romance was even a commonly used term. What I loved most was the lush beauty of the writing that some might even accuse of being ponderous at times. Yours were books I tended to savor, reading each word carefully to fully imbue myself in the experience. In recent years, though, my experience with your books have been less than satisfactory as you moved more to writing straight contemporaries to the point that I actually stopped reading them.
I bought this because I wanted to read another Susan Johnson historical. I wondered whether part of my problem with these books were my intimacy with your writing. The plot, the rhythm, the texture of the characters, their conflicts, were all done by you before and done better. The emotional journey in At Her service was so similar to previous books that it made for tedious reading. To a new reader, someone who has never read a Susan Johnson, perhaps the quirks and repetitiveness wouldn’t be an issue. Perhaps readers do look for the bull with the red flower tromping on the car in every book if that is a signature scene akin to the constant blowing up of someone’s car in Stephanie Plum series.
Hugh D’Abernon, Marquis of Darley, finds Aurore Clement from Alupka on the roadside with a broken wheel. He offers to take her into Sevastopol. There are some nice details added such as Darley asking Aurore whether she likes her stirrups “European or local” which lends immediate authenticity to the story. Darley is pretending to be a Tartar but is gathering intelligence about the Russians for England. Aurore Clement is spying for France but because she is born and bred in Crimea is assumed to be a Russian sympathizer. Aurore’s brother, however, signed up to fight for the French and is languishing in a hospital, a wounded prisoner. Aurore needs to get authorization for Etienne to be taken out of Sevastopol and she’s ready to do whatever with whomever to get that waiver.
After a dinner party wherein Aurore gets her brother’s release without offering much of anything, Darley proffers his farmhouse in Simferopol as a recuperating point. Aurore agrees and thus begins the pattern of many past Johnson books. The two are wildly attracted to each other. Darley is a “cunt hound” as he is charmingly described by a Russian general. Aurore is less free with her favors but she is experienced. They have no compunction about acting on their desires but ostensibly want nothing more than a good time. They fight strange and unwelcome feelings of attachment but circumstances through them together, pretty much forcing them to have sex time and again.
Basically the story is vague illusions to marathon sex scenes interspersed with details about the Crimean War. (Even the Sister of Mercy makes an appearance). While I appreciate the hinting at sexual congress at times from the full blown second by second accounts, the “he did” “she did” and “they were pleased” type of writing gets almost comically bad. To wit “He moved then and she did in reply and so it went–but not for long.” Later on:
“She threatened him and whined, tried artifice and subterfuge.
But he did what he did, intent on amplifying and heightening her resulting orgasm.
When he finally allowed her to climax, she was visibly shaken.
Pale and overwrought, drained.”
My imagination isn’t even engaged at that point. (It was engaged during a late exchange where there was reference to animals and that no boundary was not exploited when the hero was younger. I’m not sure that was necessary because I did start to wonder what the hero meant). Worse than the vague excuses for sex scenes were the lack of detail given to the character arcs. We are provided little opportunity to get to know the characters other than that they are spies and like to screw. Aurore loves Crimea and Hugh lost someone a long time ago but that’s it. They were flat, not even two dimensional.
The war as an excuse for all actions which could have been a good concept had it actually been explored by having the characters question whether they were affected by the war or whether they used it to excuse actions which were not normal, profligate or otherwise inexcusable.
One thing that I do enjoy is that the women in your books are never doormats. Aurore is fiercely independent and makes Hugh come to her at the end, appropriately so. Further your heroines are unapologetic about their joy in sex and their experience with it. In a genre that seems to glory in inexperience, the converse is a nice change. Ultimately, though, the brevity of details leaves out too much for the reader to fill in. D