While there were no Nora Roberts novels anywhere (and, going by what my sister tells me, still aren’t), there were plenty of Catherine Coulter and Johanna Lindsey titles to choose from, right at my neighborhood bookstore. And so, I was exposed, at a fairly young age, to the wonders of the over the top, old skool crazy sauce.
Back then, lacking all that many options, I would re-read those books until they came apart. At one point in the late 90s, I owned all of Ms Lindsey’s backlist, either in translation or the US paperback edition (with the original Fabio covers, thank you very much).
Being one of those people who keep books unless they find them absolutely, irredeemably offensive, I was greatly surprised to find out, a couple of years ago, that I had purged most of my Lindsey books. Which is why, seeing recently that Defy Not The Heart was on sale for a couple of bucks at amazon, I snapped a copy, and read it.
Now you get to see what I think of this novel–almost three decades later.
Defy Not The Heart, by Johanna Lindsey
I don’t know about anyone else, but I sincerely lament the fact that, for the past decade or so, historical romance seems confined to one place, one time period, and one socioeconomic class: the Regency. Back when I started reading romance, we had novels set all over the place–we had Romans in ancient Britain; we had British explorers in Asia and Africa; we had Westerns from the Gold Rush to the Civil War and beyond. These days? I’ll say that over 90% of historical romance published is confined to those nine years, to London, the Season, and balls.
So let us enjoy a something just a tad different.
It is the year of our Lord 1192, and, somewhere in England, our young heroine is in a bit of a pickle. She’s the only heir to a large and rich estate; her father is dead; her overlord is somewhere in the Holy Lands with Richard Lionheart; and she’s still unmarried. In other words, she’s the perfect target for many an unscrupulous baron.
Here, have the original blurb (from Fantastic Fiction):
England, 1192. Lady Reina de Champeney’s cerulean eyes gazed with scorn as they fell upon the golden giant of a man before her. This was the knight Ranulf Fitz Hugh, her kidnapper, who was pledged to deliver her into the worst kind of bondage: marriage to the craven Lord Rothwell. But Reina was no acquiescent girl to accept fate’s whim. To save herself from the union forced upon her, she offered Ranulf a bargain: Become my husband yourself. In exchange for your protection, I will make you a great lord. The nuptial bed was part of the bargain. But Reina believes she is not the kind of woman that her husband wants. For the passion that consumes them both cannot long be denied–even though gravest peril surely awaits them on the heart’s trail to a destines and turbulent love.
Even with the many issues–the over the top crazy sauce being but one–there are so many things so right about this book.
For example, our hero is described as being every woman’s dream. He’s tall, muscular, and almost beautiful–in that manly man way, of course. All he has to do is look at a woman, and she’s his for the taking.
Which means that he has never had to make any effort to actually, you know, please a woman. With him, it’s pretty much, wham, bang, done. Which, in turn, doesn’t sit well with Reina, our heroine.
“She was right about what he was used to with women. Getting right to it was necessary when the moments were stolen, for a servant or villein rarely had any free time to herself. And they had always been easy to come by, costing no more than a cheap bauble or a decent meal, or nothing at all because they found a man his size a novelty and wanted to try him.” (page 203, kindle edition)
So our hero tries to woo his wife and, after a couple of pretty spectacular failures, there’s a wonderful scene where Ranulf goes to the town whore for advice on how to properly bed his highborn wife, which descends into farce before a lovely resolution.
Then, there’s the fact that Ranulf has all the issues–daddy issues, abandonment issues, class issues (he’s a bastard, after all), first-lover-was-a-world-class-bitch issues, and more. He is self-aware enough to realize that these issues he has, which were basically part of that boulder on his shoulder, are an actual problem now that he is married.
Doesn’t mean the issues magically disappear, for all that the plot is contrived enough to present Ranulf with all the opportunities to grow the hell up. But he actually works at it.
As for Reina…well, she doesn’t. No issues for her.
Oh yes, there’s a lot of the cliché sassy, feisty, reckless heroine. She is by no means perfect, and no one pretends that she is. She’s not even particularly pretty–and no, it’s not one of those “everyone knows she’s beautiful but her” things. (That’s one of the tropes that drive me up a wall, by the by.)
See, Reina doesn’t indulge in a lot of TSTL behaviour, for all that she’s a managing baggage. She’s seventeen or eighteen years of age, yet she behaves like an adult. She was raised to know her position entails responsibility for all the people that depend on her and live in her holdings–from her vassals to her villeins to, yes, the whores who live in her towns.
She marries Ranulf not because she’s bowled over by his ‘manly man beauty,’ but because, in the straits she finds herself in, he’s the best possible candidate. Yet she does not think he’s the best possible candidate because he’s heroic or handsome–he’s the best choice because his self-interest will prod him to do his best for her people and her holdings.
So she makes her bed, and while she’ll bitch about it, she’ll sleep on it. And I love her for that.
Beyond this, the interactions between Ranulf and Reina are, almost invariably, fun. Just plain, unabashedly, fun.
Which goes a long way with me.
We have a fairly important secondary character who is gay, and while (again) there is a bit of the cliché–he’s our fair maiden’s best friend and confidant, good with hair and clothes, and so on–there is also the novelty of giving him the dignity of individuality. I’m sure some readers don’t see it this way, but please hear me out. Theo is promiscuous not because he’s gay, but because he, the person, just can’t/won’t control his lust. We are told that he’s been beaten by previous lovers when he cheats on them–which implies that those lovers expected fidelity, which in turn means that no, not all gays are sluts, any more that all the castle’s female servants are sluts. Theo is. Edwina is.
The history is sorta sketchy, but enough political and economical background is given that the reader understands both Reina’s urgency to marry, and the dynamics between lord and lady. These, in turn, are the reason for Ranulf to examine some of his issues and prejudices.
There are some glaring anachronisms–for example, Ms Lindsey has Reina wear braies. Which, no. For a long time before, and a good long time after, European women would wear their skirts (however many layers the period dictated), and nothing else.¹ There is a reason why the expression “light skirt” is still used.
And there’s Clydon’s sheer size. Mind you, it’s crucial to the story to make it as rich as possible, but unfortunately, it seems Ms Lindsey based it on the magnificent Stirling Castle at its peak–which came a handful of centuries later.
I mentioned way up there that I first read this in a Spanish translation–to which I don’t have access now, more’s the pity. The English version was entirely new to me, and oh, my! 😀
I read somewhere, fairly recently, that the trick to make the language match the period is not so much to use old fashioned words, as to change the sentence structure–more formal, what have you. Ms Lindsey uses both to convey the period–whether she’s successful for native English speakers is not for me to say, but it makes for an entertaining read for this transplant.
And I’ll give it one more: it made me pay closer attention while reading.
So, on its own merits, and because of my sentimental attachment to it, Defy Not The Heart gets a 7.75 out of 10
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¹ The rag, as far as I know (which is, admittedly, little) was worn with a belt–much like early disposable sanitary pads.