Monday, July 2, 2012

All Through the Night

I've been on a historical romance binge lately, for reasons that will remain shrouded in bosom-heaving mystery, so brace yourselves for a tsunami of corsets, carriages, and historically inaccurate sexual relationships.

Let's back up for a second, though, so that I can offer a few disclaimers to this review and all others that deal with the romance genre. Disclaimer the first: there are two types of romance novels, those that are romance first and novels second and those that are novels whose plots focus primarily on romantic relationships. Disclaimer the second: love and sex are two of the most fundamental human preoccupations, right up there with food and shelter. Therefore, anyone who dismisses romance as an unworthy subject for fiction simultaneously demonstrates their complete ignorance of what literature is.

Disclaimer the third: there are writers of all skill levels in every genre, including romance. True, for every hundred thousand E.L. Jameses there's probably only one Jane Austen, but that doesn't make Jane Austen just magically go away. And last disclaimer: if something can be classified in a genre, that does not mean it's not literature. The Lord of the Rings? Fantasy, but also literature. Heart of Darkness? Horror, but also literature. And Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are two examples of books that are both romance and literature, and I will gladly argue anyone who wants to debate this point with me (Hi, Mom!!).

That said, Connie Brockway's All Through the Night is far from being literature. It is, however, a novel that is primarily concerned with a romance, rather than a few hundred pages of incoherent drivel arranged into a vaguely novel-like form in order to give some cardboard-cutout characters the chance to get it on in a four-poster bed.*

In other words, for those of you too lazy to read the last few paragraphs: romance is not always bad.

All Through the Night is one of those that's not bad at all, although it does suffer from one terrible trope of the historical romance genre. I think I've mentioned a distressing gross-sex trend in fantasy novels, which are generally not published unless someone gets raped by an orc, or molested with a wizard staff, or probed by a nixie, or at the very least bedded by a flea-ridden trollop. Historical romance, which also has its share of flea-ridden trollops, for anyone who perked up during the last sentence, has been going through a similarly annoying everyone-is-a-spy phase. If you took historical romance at face value, you would think that 75% of the population of Regency England was employed as secret agents.**

The heroine, Anne Wilder, a respectable and well-off upper-class widow, is not a spy. It's worse: she's a professional jewel thief in her spare time. Even worse than that, she steals because of her sad, sad emotional issues. Yes, I know. You don't need to say anything. The hero, Jack Seward, is a spy, surprise surprise. When an important letter gets stolen, supposedly by the mysterious thief who's been preying on the Prince Regent's friends, Jack is sent to learn the identity of the thief and recover the letter.

Now, if you can swallow the setup -- and to be fair, Brockway does endeavor semi-successfully to provide a rationale for all of this nonsense -- the book is one of the best in class. If I thought E.L. James were capable of learning how to write a character with more than a quarter of a dimension (see my review of Fifty Shades of Grey below), I'd send her to this book to see how a tortured hero is actually written.*** Jack has the usual fictional-spy baggage: bad childhood, creepy father-figure, war trauma, scars, and so on and so forth. The difference? He also has a distinct personality, something too often missing from heroes of this kind.

And although Anne's success as a thief may be just a little unbelievable, on a level with unicorns flying out of my left nostril, she's a fantastic heroine: witty, smart, an incredibly sexy tease, and a good mix of the virtues publishers must have in a romance heroine (like generosity and kindness) and entertaining flaws. I think I need to emphasize the "sexy" part again; the sex scenes in this book are hands-down some of the best I've ever read in a romance. This is, as aspiring (and, sadly, also well-established) writers in the genre should take note, because the structure of the novel and the interaction between the original characters leads to sexual tension, excitement, and the reader's investment in what's going on.

Let's recap: romance novels should be novels first, and romance second. Connie Brockway got that memo, while many of her colleagues apparently don't have the skill-set necessary to read it, and so her book gets three and a half stars overall and five within its genre from the Indiscriminate Reader. Meanwhile, E.L. James's three books are in the top four spots**** on Amazon, All Through the Night is currently ranked #219,124, and my desk has a large forehead-shaped dent in it.

* Review of one of the latter bad boys coming soon.

** Sort of like how, if you calculate the probable wizarding population of J.K. Rowling's fictional England based on the number of students at Hogwarts and the typical fertility rate in a first-world nation (not that I would ever take the time to do this, of course), you realize that all of England's wizards are either employed by Hogwarts, the professional quidditch league, or the Ministry of Magic. As a side-note, you also realize that all of them must be at least second cousins, so there's that, too. Maybe that explains Luna.

*** Hint: if he's a handsome playboy billionaire with doctor parents and a private jet, he's probably not that tortured, mmmkay?

**** The fourth item is a box set of all three. Wow, I can't believe I'm oozing this much sadness about a book. Oh my . . . it feels so bad. What is it about box sets? My subconscious is hiding behind the couch hugging herself, but my inner goddess is thinking about feet. A box set. Wow.

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