by Louise Allen, historical (2007)
Harlequin Historical, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-373-29477-0
Virgin Slave, Barbarian King catches my interest due to its setting. It is set in the fifth century when men wear loincloths and run around waving swords and spears.
This one takes place when the Visigoths invade Rome. Our heroine Julia Livia Rufa, the virgin in our story, and her maid were sent by her mother on what Julia recognizes as an "insane errand" - to leave the safety of the town to reach the Basilica to locate her father and the other men who have been missing for almost twelve hours since the Visigoths started their attack. Predictably, this mission doesn't end well. Poor Julia is about to be dragged off by two men for their brutal entertainment when lo, our hero Wulfric the Wolf King shows up to save her.
I smack the palm of my right hand against my forehead when Julia, upon being rescued by the fellow who has identified himself as one of the folks who are besieging her city, asks him whether he can escort her to the Basilica so that she can find her father. Instead of smiling and telling her, "Of course I will, my dear!" like she clearly expects him to say, he announces to her that he's making her his slave.
"I am not a slave, I am not going with you! I am a noblewoman!"
"You do not appear to be in any position to argue." The infuriating man strolled towards her.
"You mean you would let your wolf savage me if I try to escape?" Julia enquired sarcastically. "I wouldn't be much use as a slave then."
Let me see, Julia has just witnessed the death of her household slave that was accompanying her, she had been roughly manhandled by two men who clearly wanted to do vile things on her body, and now she's enquiring sarcastically? My, aren't we all so sanguine today. Is this really a Visigoth invasion taking place or is this some kind of rehearsal for a period Roman drama where the bored actors and actresses can barely stay awake as they mouth some ridiculous and contemporary-sounding lines? Speaking of contemporary-sounding lines, these people use phrases like "make love" and "have sex" in their conversations, so if you're big on historical accuracy, you may want to watch your step when you read this book.
That's my biggest issue with this story - I don't find it believable. The characters seem to be happily playing out a badly-scripted drama set in those old days. I appreciate how Ms Allen tries to make Julia a strong heroine, but with Julia often openly sassing and defying Wulfric during her captivity, I don't know whether to think of her as someone with a death wish or someone who is just pretty dim. Perhaps in a different story, say, such as a story where Julia is the naughty hellion who is constantly exasperating Wulfric who is now a rake nobleman, her behavior will be plausible. But she's supposed to be a slave, a sheltered young woman who is now a prisoner of war, who is torn from her family, et cetera, so, apart from a scene of tears or two early on in the story, her behavior in this story is mostly anything but believable.
Fortunately for Julia, Wulfric is a nice fellow. I don't know how he turns out so nice and gentlemanly - maybe his barbarian daddy sent him to a civilized boarding school in England using some time-machine, who knows - but he's such a sweet fellow who takes his time to seduce Julia. Likewise, as Julia charms the hearts of the folks around her, these people are soon trying to get Wulfric to marry Julia. Only towards the end when the author needs some drama to nudge awake any reader who is this close to falling asleep (ahem) that some suspense regarding Julia's safety finally surfaces.
By then it's too late where I am concerned. While this book is pretty readable, I find that there is too little in this story that feels remotely real for the setting and storyline. From the modern-sounding phrases peppering the conversations to the unrealistically well-behaved hero to the heroine who implausibly is allowed to get away with her sassy and feisty acts of defiance, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King may set out to be a grand romance set in a turbulent time but there is too much of a disconnect between what the characters say, think, or do with the situation they are supposed to be in. I have a feeling that this book would have worked better in a different (less ambitious) setting that doesn't involve war, such as one where the heroine is a Regency-era countrified tomboy thwarting our secret agent hero's attempts to stop her father's smuggling ring.
At the end of the day, Virgin Slave, Barbarian King feels way too artificial for my liking.
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