Claiming the Courtesan

Anna Campbell
April 2007, European Historical Romance (1820s England and Scotland)
Avon, $6.99, 375 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061234915

Grade: D
Sensuality: Hot

Warning: This review may contain spoilers

First of all, there is no way for me to write this review without offering up major spoilers, so consider this fair warning.

Based on this book, apparently the Powers That Be at Avon think we’re ready for a return to the bodice rippers of old, complete with a mean hero, a powerless heroine, and forced sex. Yes, indeed, not only is her bodice ripped more than once, but the heroine of Claiming the Courtesan is forced by the hero to have sex against her will (and, from my perspective, it's most certainly a rape) and then forced again hours later while she is still weak and emotionally devastated. The second time (God spare us) her body “betrays” her and this act of power and control – and rape, as we all know, isn’t about sexual pleasure – actually brings her to orgasm.

So, why is the heroine so “deserving” of all this anger? Verity Ashton, made her living for a number of years as a courtesan known as Soraya and, from the moment the Duke of Kylemore spotted her, he wanted her for his own. After a number of years, he finally succeeds in his quest and Soraya agrees to a one-year contract. When the book begins, their contract is fulfilled and Soraya disappears without telling the Duke that she is leaving.

The Duke is incensed, seeing her departure as a betrayal. Soraya, it seems, had always planned to return to a quiet life as Verity once she earned enough money to assist and support her family, and, after three months of searching, the Duke finds her in the seaside cottage she shares with her brother. After an insulting proposal of marriage motivated by a desire for vengeance against his mother that Verity refuses, the Duke abducts her. His plan? To make her “pay” for the “insult” of leaving him without letting him know.

The rest of the book largely consists of the Duke reminding Verity over and over again – both physically and verbally – that she betrayed him, that she is a worthless and conniving whore deserving of his vengeance, and that she is totally in his power. For, instance, there’s this:

“You still don’t understand, do you, Verity? And I’ve always considered you to be such a clever little poppet. You have no power. You have no rights. You belong to me. This isn’t London. This is a forgotten corner of a feudal domain. And I am its lord. There’s nowhere to run. There’s no one to help you. If I want you – and we both know I do – I take you.”

Charming, no? With regards to the “romance”, it left me totally and completely cold. The author goes out of her way to let the reader know that both Soraya and the Duke were careful to keep themselves emotionally remote during the terms of their year-long contract, so I don’t believe for one moment that love began to grow then. Frankly, I think any feelings Verity develops for the Duke have more to do with Stockholm Syndrome than with love. And, yes, while I’m on the subject, let me say that it totally creeps me out to come across a book in 2007 in which all the power rests with the man.

As for the Duke, the author gives him standard-issue historical romance bad parents to attempt to explain why he is the way he is, but, to be brutally frank, the reader is given an early clue that he has...let's call them "issues" beyond those of your basic hero. This passage is found on page 23:

"His attention focused on a pair of sweethearts pouring over a shop window. A tall young man and a pretty blonde girl.

How he hated them. How he wanted them dead.

And he wanted them to scream as they died."

Well, o-o-k-a-a-a-a-y, there's just nothing more to say about that, now is there? Add in the fact that he goes from feeling wretched for about five seconds after forcing himself on Verity right on to forcing her to do it again scant hours later, and my sympathies, to put it mildly, were not engaged. Especially after reading this passage on page 174: "He had been a brute, forcing her to flee from him into the night. He'd caught her and manipulated her into surrender. He'd schemed and blustered and bullied. And his reward had been the best sexual experience of his life." Yesiree, that perfect blend of brute force and psychological manipulation is s-o-o-o much better than plain old consensual sex! Then, after all this, in the classic Patty Hearst-in-the-closet kind of way, Verity begins to identify and sympathize with her jailer. And, before you know it, voila! He loves Verity! Verity loves him! I just didn’t buy it. Not even close.

Here’s what hurts: debut author Anna Campbell is a strong writer with the potential to be a really good one. Her prose is distinctive and her story definitely packs an emotional wallop. A distasteful one, for me, however, but vivid and powerful it certainly is.

I am well aware that some readers might label Claiming the Courtesan a new and edgy kind of romance. To the contrary, back in the Bad Old Days, books like this one – the hero and heroine at odds for 90% of the novel, a decidedly uneven balance of power, forced sex (I can't call it seduction), and plenty of bodice ripping – were the norm, though I'll certainly grant you the borderline psychotic hero is a bit on the unusual side. Maybe some readers have missed these kind of books (and clearly this is what Avon is counting on), but I am certainly not one of them.

My job as a reviewer is to let you know why a book worked or didn’t work for me. I don't like mean heroes or victim heroines. I don’t like the idea that women secretly want to be raped, something that is definitely implied when a heroine has an orgasm after a man “rams” and "pounds" (the author's descriptors) into her and leaves her hurting. The honest truth is that I had a visceral reaction to this book – stronger than I have had in a very long time - and, even though I violently disliked the story she tells, that is a good writer. But, for me, this book was a major disappointment as a reading experience and that's ultimately how I have to call it.

-- Sandy Coleman

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