I promised an update on sexual politics and more in the now tragically out-of-printThe Moon Lord. If you want a glimpse of the writing style, Amazon offers a little excerpt, which should whet your appetite for more, or not, as the case may be. Neither of the reviews I found give the names of minor characters, so I’ll just make them up as needed. So with that out of the way, I’m sure we’re all ready for a romp through a medieval romance.
Now, despite the introduction you may have read about the brave chevalier Tancred de Vierzon and his runins with Richard the Lionheart, it isn’t really his story. Well, it is, but it’s more importantly the story of Rosamund Bourton, mistress of Wynnsef castle. With her ne’er-do-well older brother away on the crusades, Rosamund is capably managing the household, though a fat, ugly, old, wealthy neighbor is trying to gain control of the manor and its mistress. His plans are foiled when Tancred and his troups, back from the crusade, overtake Wynnsef and claim it for themselves. Now things really get intersting. Rosamund, recognizing Tancred by his special symbols (Does this tie into the big Superhero Discussions) and his crescent-shaped scar, realizes she and the women of her household could be in for a rough time. So, in a brilliant flash of anachronistic insight, she calls upon Tancred’s well-known honor and makes him swear that he and his men will abide by what is basically The Antioch College Sexual Consent Code. No man will engage in any sexual activity whatsoever with any female in the household without first getting her explicit verbal consent, and there’s not to be any trickery with getting women drunk or anything like that, because that doesn’t count. The men grudgingly agree and take full control of the castle.
At this point, the plot boils down to a romantic comedy, in which Rosamund learns that this horribly vain and useless Tancred has actually occupied the castle to spite her brother, who had shown himself to be a scoundrel, not exactly news to her, by engaging in some traitorous act I’ve now forgotten, which was news indeed. Now Rosamund finds herself falling for the honorable Tancred in earnest, but he’s just too darned honorable! When she gives him his bath, he won’t allow anything that might give the impression of impropriety to go on, or when it seems he might, they get rudely interrupted. When she sneaks into his room to confront him, he has some Oriental herbs burning to ease his slumbers, and he refuses to take advantage of her in her inebriated state, having inhaled the toxic fumes, despite her repeated pleas that he do so. And Tancred, who originally took Wynnsef to anger Rosamund’s brother, finds Rosamund to be so honest and capable that he can’t help but fall in love with her completely. However, Tancred doesn’t think he’s good enough for such a beautiful and pure lady, because (at least as I recall) he had been tortured and molested by the Saracens who left the scar on his cheek.
Meanwhile, her best friend, whom I’ll call Elizabeth, a novice in a local convent, comes to visit and eventually falls for Tancred’s right-hand man, Mehmet or something like that, who happens to be a Saracen. Eventually Elizabeth gets excused from being a nun by her chipper Mother Superior and is able to get on a horse heading east with her beloved, off to start a multiethnic family. There are several more twists in the Tancred/Rosamund story, which does manage to reach its logical culmination, since this is a romance novel. But then Tancred is driven away by something or other. And Rosamund’s land is going to be repossessed and she’ll be married off to the hideous neighbor, but at the last minute there’s something very exciting that happens instead, and I won’t tell you because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. And what a surprise it is! Ok, not really. It’s a happily-ever-after.
What fascinated me about this book, though, was what seemed like fairly radical content under its surface. I haven’t read enough romance novels to make any kind of informed comparison, but it seemed more overtly political than the books my classmates chose (except maybe the one about the lawyer for the evil land-grabbing corporation who fell in love with the lawyer who wanted to save the lakefront property as a bird preserve). I assume, like superhero comics, there’s a major aspect of wish-fulfillment going on here, and so I wonder if the author was trying to make an explicit point about issues of full consent and the like. And while the middle American readers might not be keen on multiracial couples (or maybe they are, which would be a fine thing in my eyes) they don’t seem to mind love matches between Franks and Musselmen (to use the book’s term) or, according to classmates, Apache and white settlers. If this were a realistic modern story of a woman with strict rules about sex and more pressure from her family than she wants (because Rosamund is more than happy to share the task of running the castle with the right man) who falls in love with a rough but sensitive man of his word who’s a troubled survivor of sexual abuse, I’m not sure whether it would find as many readers. Add in the best friend finding bliss in a relationship her society wouldn’t condone, and we’ve got something pretty much unlike what I’d expected from a romance novel.
The book was not without flaws, several of which I’ve already mentioned. I wasn’t really comfortable with the rape-fantasy aspects of it, although they were perhaps mitigated by the elaborate consent structure. I’m not sure what message to take away from that, that it’s good to have such structures in place but that it’s still nearly impossible for a woman to say “yes” when she means “yes” or what? And then there’s what seemed to me like a lack of historicity. I don’t like my historical stories to be so pristine and easy, although this one clearly had at least some reasearch feeding it. The “Saracens,” both good guys and bad guys, didn’t seem to get beyond cliches, but I suppose they’re not as cliched as the handsome, principled swordsman with a heart of gold. Still, since I had to read a romance novel, I think I made a good choice. It certainly seemed better once I realized the promiscuous characters in several different modern-setting books my classmates chose were named Rose. Usually they save a name like that for alcoholics and suicides! Anyway, those are the bones of it, and anyone who’s interested can read more. I’m almost tempted to try to dredge it up again, but I don’t think I’ll make any special effort. Once may have been enough.