When Urania was young/ All thought her heavenly/ With age her eyes grow larger/ But her form unmaidenly

Monday, March 10, 2008

DBD - Happily Ever Abattoir

So my kind in-laws sent me a care package with a book (and 5 filmed Shaw plays) and I sat in my bare CHU (Containerized Housing Unit, aka the middle third of a trailer) and read it in an afternoon. Bernard Cornwall's Lords of the North, one of The Saxon Tales, an historical series set in the Year of Our (though not the pagan protagonist's) Lord 878. And so I wanted to talk about what happens when you have strong men and lovely women whom they like as more than just friends, all in a period piece, yet not a Romance. Why not?

Well, the quotation from Entertainment Weekly on the back says it is, "Soaked yet again in nasty political intrigue [and] rip-snorting battle...Glorious." As an aside, the whole idea of rip-snorting seems to me more than faintly appalling. The front cover has a quote from the Washington Post: "Superior entertainment that is both engaging and enlightening." Now that may be a pat on the cheek with a back-hand sting, but how many historical romances get a Post blurb, regardless of the author's tireless research and wealth of details placed first on 3X5 cards, then inserted edgewise into the story at regular intervals? At least I assume some authors do that.

So, what makes the manly Lords of North "superior?" It's not any more serious about the gulf between our friends of the ninth century and us - as entertainment, the last thing it should give us is a hermeneutic head-pounding double vision when we're looking through the eyes of a character about to engage in love or war. Uhtred - the Saxon raised by Vikings - does kill helpless former enemies, but manly readers know that's a necessity, this being many centuries before the indefinite incarceration of combatants. Unlike The Bad Guys, our man doesn't rape peasant women or kill innocent civilians, his Word is His Bond, and generally responds the way we would hope our own golden-scarved boy scouts would rise to the occasion if thrown up against berserkers in pointy hats. It's remarkable how he anticipates 21st century morality so presciently.

There's a love interest, Gisela, although he does have an once-and-future nun Hild around as a paramour until the book brings him together with the G-girl. So what makes this a nonromance, other than the focus on Uhtred rather than the heroine?

Well, no sex for one. He and Gisela do have a night, discreetly mentioned and never described, partly as a way to invalidate an unconsummated marriage-by-proxy. Even the rapes are always offstage and the brief allusion to newly enslaved women's tunics being pulled down so their breasts could be examined was brief and dry enough that not even an 11 year old boy would get much of it. I'm grateful I could read Kate's handy guide to sex in Romance before I wrote this, because there's none of that stuff. We like Gisela, because she's also a sardonic pagan and looks good in chainmail. But the book is narrated by a very old Uhtred, who is apparently on a third wife or so - a Christian he doesn't like nearly as much as he liked Gisela. He's also pretty rundown by that point - no happily ever after, but only the simple delights of being really, really old and infirm in the Dark Ages. At least he's still a lord, but I suppose if he weren't he'd have been dead, feeble peasants being a good not in great demand.

So, as best as I can make out this is superior entertainment because there's no boring repetitive sex. God knows the literary variety bores me. There is, of course, much bloody combat. The fight scenes are the chocolate chips in the ice cream and the longsword "Serpent-Breath" is the object of much more loving description and consequent reader-lust than the worthy Gisela and Hild put together. The chapter from the next book in the series thoughtfully placed at the end of the present volume out of sheer generosity, well "Kill them all," I shouted, "Kill every last one" should indicate which bodily fluid is of interest to Cornwell's readers, an abundance of which would convince them to plunk down another $13.95 for the trade paperback. But the climactic fight is just a tad over 2 pages, and one moves around so much more on a horse waving a sword (or two - our man also has Waspsting) than during the most strenuous session on the divan.

Yay boys! Boo girls!


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