by Phoenix Sullivan, historical (2011)
Dare To Dream Press, $2.99, ISBN N/A
Phoenix Sullivan's Spoil Of War is a controversial book, to say the least, because it contains rape and a secondary character who engaged in sexual intercourse with an eleven-year old girl. Perhaps I should be offended, but that part of me that is tired of democratic peace-loving heroines running wild in a Walt Disney version of the medieval era is intrigued enough by the fuss to give this book a go. I'd either have the time of my life or a brain hemorrhage, judging from how polarizing this book is, but hey, I'm a big girl, so the author can give me her best shot.
Elsbeth of Olmsbury is in trouble. The late King Marchand of Cameliard and her father, Duke Gunther, had been at odds with each other ever since they could remember, but their constant feuding and warring had an element of "respect thy enemy" kinship to it - both men seemed genuinely fond of each other despite their antagonism, and the two forces had never really overcome each other. Now that King Marchand had passed on, however, his heir King Leodegrance is a different story. He genuinely wants to crush Duke Gunther, and now Elsbeth finds her home overrun by the enemy's forces with herself alone at the mercy of Leodegrance.
You know what's pretty terrifying about this story? No, it's not the unpleasant elements in the story, it's how the story makes sense where I am concerned. I am not outraged by the rapes and brutality - this is a story set in a time of war, and as such, these things happen and the author doesn't sugarcoat that at all. I am not offended by the scenes of an eleven-year old girl being forced to sleep with a soldier - we are talking about a brutal setting where the concept of pedophilia doesn't exist. I don't see the problem with the hero condoning such antics among his men, because if he is a nice guy, he wouldn't had savagely warred with and conquered his neighbor without compunction. Elsbeth's behavior, which is considered passive by some readers, also makes sense to me. As an 18-year old young woman, alone and defenseless, she has no choice but to latch on to the leader of her enemies - this makes sense as his protection is the only thing keeping her from having to share the fate of the other women in the castle. What else can she do in such a situation?
It's not that the other folks are wrong - there are plenty of horrific scenes of violence and brutality here, but I personally don't find them gratuitous. The author doesn't go into graphic detail when it comes to those scenes of rape and necrophilia, but different people will have different idea of what is or isn't gratuitous, so you should proceed with caution.
Back to the book. On the other hand, the author tries to take some short cuts to make life easier for herself, and that is when the story doesn't make sense. For example, Elsbeth is aroused by the sounds of Ector having sex with the eleven-year old girl Ruth. I find this rather puzzling because it wasn't long ago that she was subjected to rape and the sight of her people being sexually abused by Leodegrance's men. Her reaction doesn't make sense - after what she had been through and what she had seen, she shouldn't be thinking of how amazing it would be when someone boinks her. One of the strongest and most enjoyable aspects of this story is the initial friendship between Elsbeth and Lynette, Leo's wife, because these two women have some very pragmatic conversations that only show how similar their predicaments are despite the considerable difference in status between wife and mistress - they both have no say in whom they end up with, and they both have to adapt and cope in order to survive, even if this means forcing themselves to turn a blind eye on the suffering of others. Unfortunately, it isn't long before Lynette is reduced into a stereotypical villain just to free up Leo for Elsbeth, and I feel really cheated as a result.
Leo and Elsbeth has a complicated relationship, and it's one that is handled very unevenly by the author. Sometimes there are some really good scenes between these two that merely hint at the tempestuous emotions Elsbeth harbors towards Leo. But there are also many contrived scenes where Elsbeth is somehow in love with Leo no matter what. Ultimately, I'm confused by what Ms Sullivan is trying to do with Leo and Elsbeth. This is not a romance novel, despite how it somehow gets classified as by online booksellers, and it shouldn't be. There is not enough insight into what is going on in Leo's head to pass him off as a standard romance hero, and therefore, the biggest problem with this story is the portrayal of Elsbeth's love for Leo in a romance novel style. The author could have gone for darker types of love - perhaps Elsbeth come to love Leo for his bloodthirsty nature, or maybe she loves him in a pragmatic "I love the power I have over you" way, or... I don't know, something that will explain her relationship with Leo better than the "He's so hot and dreamy!" thing that occurs here.
Spoil Of War is, at the end of the day, an intriguing read. It's a big and ambitious epic historical tale, a down-to-earth reinterpretation of the myth behind Unther Pendragon, and I think I actually like this book for the risks it attempts to pull off and the occasional brilliance here and there. It's too bad that the romance-novel style tropes, so out of place in this story, prevent the relationship between Elsbeth and Leo from being fully believable.
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