|Aren't her shoulders cold??|
Author: Johanna Lindsay(author website)
Age Group: Adult
I'm of two minds with this book. One part of me wants to shudder and 1-star it. The other wants to give it 4, on account of its heroine, Kristen.
She is his enemy and his prize - a wild and lusty hellion to be tamed by her dashing conqueror's kiss. But though maddened with desire for the golden-haired Viking temptress, noble Royce, in conscience, cannot force his exquisite prisoner to submit. For only Kristen's willing surrender can quench the blistering fires that sear his tormented soul - and heal a heart consumed by passion with a soothing balm of rapturous, unconditional love.
Kristen Hardraad is a strong willed, drop-dead gorgeous Viking maiden (Aqua eyes! Long, flowing, blonde hair!), who longs for adventure and man she can marry and love. So she stows away on her brother's ship while he's on a trading voyage, with the intent of finding herself a man in one the ports he'll visit (because, you know, none of the men who are throwing themselves at her and worship the ground she walks on at home are good enough). Well, it turns out brother-dearest told a white lie when he borrowed daddy's ship. No trading for them, they're going VIKING! (Did anyone else know Viking was a verb?) This doesn't turn out as well as they hoped. Half the crew are killed, and the other half, Kristen included, taken prisoner to work as slaves. Kristen is separated from the crew, and finds herself working in the house of Lord Royce. Kristen and Royce are drawn to each other, and Kristen knows she's found her man. He just happens to be her captor.
OK. So, fair enough. We're off to an interesting start. About a fifth of the way through the book they eventually meet for the first time (golly, this started off slow). Royce assumes that Kristen, being a sole woman on a Viking ship, must have been onboard to, ahem, service the ship's crew. So there are lots of longing stares, denied attractions, and "I can't be attracted to you because you're a Viking whore and Vikings killed my family and affianced! *Angst, angst, ANGST!*"
My problem with this book is quite simple, really: rape is never, ever, ever OK.
When they inevitably fall into bed, it plays out like this:
Royce: "I'm going to bone you whether you're willing or not."
Kristen: "Oh, well, I'd prefer that I not be raped, so I'll say yes, and then it's not rape, right?"
Royce: "Oh, yeah... totally. Now take off your clothes, wench, and get in my bed, wench."
Royce: "Moan, groan, Uh-uh-uh! WTFery? You have a HYMEN?! You tricked me! DUPLICITOUS WENCH!"
Kristen: "Uh, yeah. I thought if I was a virgin you'd rape me."
Royce: "Well, yeah. But I totally would have raped you either way."
So. He's going to have sex with Kristen whether she wants to or not? Despite the fact that, yeah, she wants to, he doesn't give a damn either way? My issue is this: willingness and intent to rape is surely just as bad as the act itself. The dude set out with the intent to force himself on her, and IT. IS. REPUGNANT. Royce sees it as not rape, because she's a slave, and he's her owner, so he can do whatever the fuck he wants. So, you know, it's OK 'cos the law's on his side. Never mind, well, that you're a douchebag. I get that, taken in terms of historical context, yes, Royce's stance is—however sickeningly—'justified'. And you know what? I DO want historical accuracy in my novels, sure, but it's a romance novel written in fairly modern times for modern readers. I don't get off on rape.
I've never read a romance-novel sex scene that made my stomach turn instead of tingling. I wanted them ('them', because there are MANY) over, or not happen at all. In one particularly disturbing scene he forcibly ties Kristen up after she's fought him to the extent of attempting to physically harm him, rather than going to his bed. But, oh, she winds up quite enjoying it, thank you, so it's OK.
I can't articulate my frustrations with this aspect of this book strongly enough. It's disturbing, and wrong. It rankles so badly because Kristen is awesome. She's a strong woman, and a great feminist role model; I love that she achieves this not by hating men, or compensating for her physical weakness. She's actually physically strong, sure, but it's her mind and spirit. She doesn't cry, she doesn't pity herself, she doesn't let anything break her spirit. She acknowledges the only person responsible for her situation is her, and takes it as it comes. She's fiercely devoted to those she loves, and she's not an emotional manipulator (which both Royce and I loathe).
There's actually one particularly awesome event in this book, where, after Royce is gravely injured, and both he and Kristen are captured, she's about to be raped (not willingly, this time). Fighting off, and incapacitating her captor, she defeats the guards with a sword she's stolen, and breaks Royce out of the dungeons. A total reversal of the damsel in distress scenario.
But I keep coming back to the kind-of-consensual-rape. We've all heard of court cases where—and I shit you not—the "but she totally wanted/enjoyed it" story has been played as some kind of sick, twisted defence for the rapist, or as an attack against the rape victim's credibility. It's why I can't make myself be OK with this element of the story. Rape is such an incredibly serious issue and such an heinous, violent act, I can't justify it as being OK, in any situation. There is no "she was asking for it," or, "she enjoyed it," (or he, for that matter). Any way in which rape is somewhat justified detracts from a violent, hateful act that destroys the lives of thousands of women, children, and—yes—men, around the world every year. I can't swallow this element of Hearts Aflame without feeling it somehow cheapens the suffering of rape victims everywhere.
I guess the event in this book may not technically be rape. It was—more or less—consensual. But it could have been, and would have been, if our so-called-hero didn't get his way. How is that romantic? Attractive? Appealing? Despite his good qualities, and they're many, I couldn't see Royce as anything besides a would-be rapist.