Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Anna Campbell’s Untouched -- Review

Nutshell plot: Grace, a poor but well-born widow, is mistaken for a prostitute and kidnapped to a secure manor to supply sexual services to an imprisoned, perhaps mad, nobleman. A gender-reversed Cinderella story, right down to the ugly stepbrothers. (Warning: watch for a mild spoiler ahead).

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I think the circumstances that drive the plot are pre-posterous. True, the treatment of illnesses, physical and especially mental, could really result in almost anything in those days but the kidnapping and the whole “hump or die*” ultimatum delivered to Grace and the sheer evilness of the uncle and his henchmen verged on parody.

There was nothing funny though about the scenes in which Grace was brutalized. It’s a pretty dark book. Frankly I find it pretty hard to believe that a) Our Hero could have survived his imprisonment with so much humanity intact and b) Our Heroine would fall so smack in love in such a strange situation. Maybe it’s some kind of weird permutation of Stockholm Syndrome, I dunno.

Getting past those barriers to the suspension of disbelief however, I love Campbell’s writing and the way her characters unfold. Here’s the v. mild spoiler (highlight to read): When Grace first appears, the bits of information we are given about her background that lead the reader to assumptions about her class and family rank. Eventually, these assumptions take a beating… and then shatter, in a bit of a preview of what Matthew must feel when he finds out. Even though the reveal is a surprise, it’s not an out of the blue, deus ex machina event – enough meaty bits of information are given to us gradually, building over time, so the Big Thing is not such a stretch after all. (Sorry to be cryptic – I’m trying not to spoil too much!)

The most interesting conflict in this story is that, after becoming acquainted, the characters are very inclined to, erm, add benefits to their friendship, but there are major, important reasons for each of them not to. Grace has insisted to The Bad Guys that she is not a woman of loose morals. She can’t win – if she refuses to sleep with Matthew, she’s to be handed over to the horrible Monks and Filey for rape and death. If she does sleep with him, she betrays herself, her upbringing, and eventually she believes, Matthew himself.

Matthew on the other hand, has other demons. He is very nearly powerless against his uncle, the author of his imprisonment, and thus desperately needs to be in control of himself. Not sleeping with Grace is a way of exercising that control and of thwarting his uncle. But at what cost? He has no doubt that the hump-or-die threat to her is not an idle one.

And so, they contrive to sleep together – literally – but not have sex. If it weren’t for the raging attraction between them, this was so crazy it just might have worked. However, this attraction ratchets up the stakes for both of them: contradictorily, it becomes even more important to Grace that Matthew not take her for a whore; and for his part, he has even more reason to treat her well. The strain has an almost Gift of the Magi-esque symmetry to it. Eventually of course, they give in to the attraction. Their passion and odd friendship merge into a true love affair. After additional misadventures, sacrifice and pain, the bad guys are defeated and the devoted couple live happily ever after (I don’t think that counts as a spoiler, do you??).

The emotional growth that these characters go through is the really compelling part of this story. Grace comes to terms with her past, and the scenes of reconciled estrangement are moving and ring true. Once the initial mistrust between Grace and Matthew is overcome, the tenderness between them is exquisite. In fact, the chord that sounds between these two once they profess their love for each other is so profound, it occurs to me that the choice of "Grace" as the name for heroine is not accidental. My theology is weak (coughcoughnonexistentcough) so I peeked at some articles on the theology of the state of grace, which, yeah, interesting but way too deep for me. I still suspect there is an allegory or a parable or something deep and literary like that to be drawn, but that task will have to go to someone who is more knowledgeable about the subject than me. I'm reasonably sure it's in there, though.

It's hard to find a good spot to excerpt, at least I think so, because the scenes are so layered I'd need to snip pages and pages to really give you a good sense of what I love about Campbell's writing. But I'll give it my best shot -- here, Matthew is trying to convince Grace to escape:


"I can't leave you." She wanted to sound strong, invincible, but the words emerged as a choked plea. "Don't make me go."

His face constracted with pain. "Let me save you, Grace. Give me this one gift." Then, in a low, shaking voice, "For God's sake, allow me this if nothing else. I have nothing else."

His last statement cut through her resistance like a knife through butter. She fought back tears. She wouldn't cry. She wouldn't cry.

Acrid shame flooded her. Her defiance tortured him to his limits and he'd already borne so much. She expelled her breath on a muffled sob. "You break my heart."

He understood immediately that she'd acknowledged his right to banish her. He stepped forward to take her in his arms. "I wish to God it could be otherwise, my darling."

"When I'm free, I'll get you out of here," she said fiercely, tilting her head so she could see his face.


I love how instantly and perfectly she understands his need to save her, and puts that above her own desires to stay with him and try to find a way for them both to leave together. There's more, but if I don't stop here I'll end up posting the whole chapter, which is generally not recommended. You can read the first scene on Cambell's website though.

Last month, RNTV ran a spotlight on virgin heroes, and this was one of the featured books. The review includes an interview with Anna Campbell on the topic.

This is for sure a little different from the usual pattern, but in all honesty I didn't find it all that big of a deal. I liked the way Campbell handled it; I think it was right for his character. His learning curve was perhaps a little unrealistically steep, heh, but I'll concede that much and more for the sake of the romance fantasy.

Untouched is the book that put me over the top for dark and tortured. It's very dark. There is enough torture here to be disturbing, if not graphic (ie, most of it takes place "offstage"). So if you're looking for light and breezy, this ain't it. But these are characters that will stay with you for awhile. They're worth the effort. I recommend.

And I have Tempt The Devil in my TBR pile, but I need a break first. I swear, I'm gonna read nothing but fluff for awhile. (Or this. It might make my brain hurt, but it doesn't make my soul ache.)

________________
*If you don't get the reference, go to the link and skip to about 7:00 in the clip. It's good to be the king.

11 comments:

Tumperkin said...

I'm tempted by this one - I quite like OTT plotlines but Claiming The Courtesan didn't really blow me away - have you read CTC? How do they compare?

Nicola O. said...

As a matter of fact, I did a review of CTC here: http://alphaheroes.blogspot.com/2008/11/never-say-never.html

I did like it very much, although the hero-is-a-rapist element is a deal-breaker for a lot of people.

What I love about both books is the character development, how slowly and believably it unfolds even as the characters struggle against themselves and each other. I also like that she deals a little bit with the repressed sexual mores of the times, in that the heroines do struggle a bit with owning their sexuality.

vanessa jaye said...

This one has been languishing in my tbr pile for months. You've just convinced me to dig it out.

Tumperkin said...

I just read your CTC review. The hero-as-rapist thing I was fine with - I think that plotline can work in historicals - but I'm afraid the characters didn't work as well for me. Having said that, it's a debut novel and I did feel it showed promise, albeit it was pretty Old Skool.

Barbara said...

This plot sounds like something I might actually like. I liked JR Ward's Story Of Son, which seems to have a similar type of plot. Well, minus the prostitution.

Nicola O. said...

I noticed the similarity there, too, Barbara!

I don't think it's a spoiler though to assure you that Matthew (in Untouched) is NOT, in fact, a vampire. ;)

I will say that if the heroine being in a position to rescue the hero deflates your enjoyment of a book (not for me, but some people have said this) both stories would be no-goes on that account.

Rikki said...

I skipped like half of the book only to find that I didn't like the ending, LOL. Whether because I skipped so much and had no clue what was going on or whether I wouldn't have liked it anyway I'll never know. But I have Tempt the devil in my TBR pile as well (lured into getting it by raving amazon customers). Maybe we can discuss it at a later date...

Nicola O. said...

I must admit I really never skip pages! I might skim a little. I might put it down and never finish. But I'm too much of a control freak to skip. Rikki, depending on what exactly you skipped, the ending could definitely feel weird. But I like it.

Barbara said...

Ok thanks to your review I read, Untouched and adored it!! Thank you!

I should get my thoughts up soon on it. LOL, you did a great job with this review. I read soooooo many that I can't believe I remembered this one perfectly.

Anyway, thank you again!

Nicola O. said...

Barbara, I'm glad you liked it!

I'm really finding that if I don't write the review within a few days of reading a book, it just doesn't happen. I end up getting stuck after the title and, "um, I really liked it?"

Barbara said...

LOL. I'm working on my review now. I finished the book last night. At three AM mind you, lol. But the book was pretty much as good as I had hoped it would be :) Again, thanks, I might not have ever read the books if I hadn't come across your review.

~Barbara

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