Jean, 39, lover of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, reader of comic books, conqueror of genre fiction.
Ohhhh boy. Where to even begin with this one? At the beginning, I suppose: Not the beginning of the book, but my rocky relationship with Ms. Medeiros as an author. The thing is, she has a wild imagination, and her plots are usually her strength. I would read her novels as straight up fantasy or science fiction or horror, if they'd been written that way, because the plots are insane, in the best way.
So, these are all compliments, right? Why worry? Well... I read a reviewer recently say that she's sort of one of the originators of new romance as well as being one of the last great bodice rippers. This is true. And while she has a lot of deftness mixing them, she does also carry a lot of the baggage of the worst bodice ripper tropes. In my Fifty Shades Trilogy review, I referred to a book as a worst-case romance scenario without calling out the book itself; I'm doing that here, and saying it was Medeiros' Shadows & Lace. This was worse. Somehow, this book defied logic, reason and sanity, to outdo that book in terms of badly behaving so-called heroes.
It's not a surprise to her fans. She's hit or miss with this sort of thing, and I sometimes even excuse her badly-behaving males because the book is otherwise so good. I'd read a review that flagged this book for its BBM. And I decided to read it anyway, because I had enjoying one of her other fairy tale retellings, Charming the Prince, so very much. I was so wrong.
The plot is fairly cringe-worthy to begin with: Holly de Chastel is gorgeous beyond the telling of it, and so spoiled, you will want to hit her. She sabotages every attempt her father makes at marrying her off, and this actually ought to be sympathetic, since the idea behind it is that she's tired of disgusting older men who primp and paw at her because of her ASTOUNDING BEAUTY and see her simply as a pretty prize to take and to have. Enter: Sir Austyn of Gavenmore, who is under a terrible curse that makes the men of his family... marry unbelievably beautiful women and then kill them out of jealousy when they inevitably use their beauty to commit infidelity? Huh. Yeah, that's pretty much it. Holly, thinking to scare him off, disguises herself as homely, as as you can imagine, given his, erm, "problem," this only attracts Austyn. (The basic premise is actually stunningly similar to Charming the Prince--what a difference details like characters and motivation can make!)
We spend fully half of the book with Holly in disguise. Which was nice in conception, I think, because the idea was to see them fall in love, without her beauty as a factor. But it also made me tense, because you know that when it was revealed, things would not go well. Also, no hanky panky. Hey! I like my erotic romances!
And things go badly. Things go worse than I could have imagined. To the point where Holly revealed herself to Austyn, it had been mildly boring; her character had been annoying bordering on a change to charming, and Ausyn had been a bit hopeless, sweet, funny, cute. So imagine my shock when, after storming away from Holly and her revelation and declaration of love, he returns to find her washing her costume off in the river. He proceeds to shove her head under the surface to the point of drowning her, letting her come up for air, and doing it again. And again.
In her review of the movie "Splash," famed cinema critic Pauline Kael talked about the "true love test," and how the inevitable betrayal in stories means that one or more of the lovers has "failed." This goes so far beyond failing, I don't even know what to call it. And it doesn't end there! In her soaking wet shift, he drags her through his castle, in front of his household, with the SOLE PURPOSE of humiliating her and turning his friends against her. It works, as they remain hard-hearted, at first, to the fact that he then locks her in the tower where his grandmother jumped after being locked in by his grandfather, and raped nightly by him, and where his own mother was strangled by his father in a jealous rage.
She is understandably emotionally down for the count here. But soon, she gets up, dusts herself off, and begins to plan to "win him back." Because that's the lesson in these things. Man does something spectacularly awful. Blames dark past. Instead of spending the rest of the story trying to win the woman, and making it up to her, the woman has to suffer his ongoing horrific behavior to prove to him how worthy HE is.
He tries to claim that she's been adulterous with the friend who's accompanied her, and throws him in the dungeon. He keeps the maid she's brought with her away. In other words, he isolates her from everyone and everything that might be of even a little comfort. But she shows she's spunky! She's resourceful. And for some totally unexplained reason, she's still in love with him.
So, he succumbs to her charms and her seduction, and he rapes her. Naturally, it's an erotic rape, because she really wants it, as it turns out. Because that's what someone worthy of true love would do. That's sarcasm, by the way. Instead of being horrified, her maids come in the next morning hiding coy smiles, while Holly herself very calculatedly uses it to her advantage and hangs the sheet out her window, so he can't have the marriage annulled after using her. I think were supposed to find all of this cute, and humorous. I did not.
He works to devalue and frighten her so much that by the time his father--yes, the father that killed his mother, is still living with him in the castle, because Austyn is excusing his behavior with ZOMG IT WAS THE CURSE! as well--tries to force himself on/strangle Holly, she's so worried about his reaction, she scrambles to cover herself and begs him not to punish his friend, who ran to save her, for seeing her naked; it was her own wanton fault. She's lying on the floor, half-strangled, clothes torn from attempted sexual assault. The book has the good grace to make this a dirty realization for Austyn.
But that's part of the problem. Everything he realizes about himself, he keeps internally; he shares nothing with her, when he changes his mind or way of thinking. And so there's no way for her to understand that she's changed him, and that he's understanding that his own behavior was been deplorably unforgivable.
So, she's nearly been strangled to death. She'll live with the horrible wounds for the rest of her life, right? A nearly crushed throat, bruises? But, wait! He kisses her, and her neck wounds... supposedly just disappear? I read this passage a few times to try to understand what was happening, if she was just not seeing them anymore, because he's finally kissed her on the mouth and she's delirious with love? Or if it's something allegedly magical (I realize now that I haven't mentioned that, despite the fact that these are fairy tale retellings/mash-ups, they're mostly historical/medieval romances, taking place in the real world, with plenty of anachronism.) But that felt too easy, either way. NO! Let him face one of the consequences of his actions, and that is permanent damage/harm to the person he supposedly loves.
So, he decides to save her the heartache and send her back to her father, and have the marriage annulled nevertheless. Because the best way to deal with the problems your actions have created is to get rid of them and ignore them. He seems SHOCKED by his crazed, homicidal father's confession that he "unfairly" killed his mother, after forcing her to sleep with another man and then succumbing to jealousy; he's shocked by the revelation that his family's mythical curse is a lie, a ruse to cover and excuse the men's disgusting behavior... you know, even though Holly's only tried to tell him this for the entire second half of the book. He decides he really LOVED HIS MOTHER! (now that she's in the clear) and really LOVES HIS WIFE (even though she has no reason to ever want him within twenty miles of her again.
And, naturally, he has to ride to save her from one of the scorned suitors from the beginning of the book. And shows a fuckload of astonishingly misplaced entitlement in declaring Holly HIS WIFE!
While I couldn't fucking care less about the plot or most of the characters at that point, I was not without the ability to be offended. And I was. I was very lucky this was an e-book, because I wouldn't have even wanted to touch a physical copy of this novel by the end. Did they live happily ever after? Eh, whatever. Done and done.