Virgin Slave, Barbarian King / Louise Allen. 2007
Back in December, an article appeared in the UK's Guardian noting the 100th anniversary of Mills & Boon Publishers. Julie Bindel penned the now infamous words "mysogynistic hate speech" in her description of M&B books. She targeted in particular Louise Allen's Virgin Slave, Barbarian King. Reaction from romance readers around the blogosphere was swift and vocal. Much of the discussion is neatly summarized on the Teach Me Tonight blog and can be found in the December archive. One result of Bindel's attack on VSBK was the coordination of several reviews in early January and a nifty literary analysis, also at Teach Me Tonight.
So, like the sheep I am I read this book the first of January, intending to post my own review, but I didn't get around to it right away. Then SBTB broke the news about Cassie Edward's plagiarism, and VSBK fell by the wayside. I decided to go ahead and post my review as part of my attempt to catch up and get into a better rhythm of blogging. So here we go:
VSBK opens in AD 410 when the Visigoths are sacking Rome. Our heroine, Julia, outside in the melee, is "saved" by the hero, Wulfric, who takes her back to his camp and makes her his slave. Julia travels with the Visigoths south through Italy and then back north again when the Visigoths' plans to sail to Africa is thwarted by a severe storm that destoys the fleet of ships they were to use. Like any good historical novel, the story is based on the true events surrounding the Visigoths' invasion of Rome and their attempt to find a homeland. As an aside, it was interesting to do some research after reading the book and learn that the Visigoths were a people driven from their own home in Eastern Europe by the Huns. They eventually settled in Spain, although a few settled in Gaul (France).
During this journey through Italy, Julia must acclimate herself to life in the Visigoth camp. And unfortunately, I think this is where the story is the weakest. Julia is a woman who had come from a wealthy, pampered family. She is not used to doing anything for herself. Her family owned slaves. Her transition to being a slave did not ring true. The fact that some members of the Wulfric's tribe accepted her rather quickly also did not ring true. Human life was held rather cheaply in these cultures. Julia's rapid attraction to Wulfric reminded me of a Harlequin Presents novel, so seemed out of place here. Wulfric was a bit better drawn character who dealt with some genuine conflict over the choices his king made as they travelled.
Frankly, what held my interest was the history and the fact the Ms. Allen is a good writer. Her prose is smooth and the history was woven into the story fairly seamlessly; I didn't have to suffer through chunks of infodump. But as other reviewers have pointed out, there is little internal conflict that you look for in a romance novel. After all, it is supposed to be about the relationship. And since so much of that didn't ring true, I wasn't so interested in Julia and Wulfric as I was the Visigoths. When I finished the book I spent a couple of hours reading about the Visigoths in online encyclopedias. In the 1000+ year history of the Romans, the Visigoths were a blimp on the timeline, yet what they did and how they did it was significant and contributed to the eventual fall of the empire. It's worth reading about if you like ancient history.
I commend Ms. Allen for writing about an era we don't normally find on Romance shelves. I see that she's written numerous Regencies. Given my serious love of that sub-genre I was surprised to see I hadn't read her before, but I did find one of her books on my TBR pile. I'll have to get it out. Meanwhile, I will go ahead and recommend this one, with reservations, for the history buffs out there.