The storytelling of Carrie Lofty’s intricately plotted historical romance, Scoundrel’s Kiss, is immensely engaging, encompassing a complex romance fired by robust conflict and gritty emotion. High action and adventure layer the never-relenting intensity with movement and changing vistas. However, as a rendering of Castilian frontier society during the Reconquista – the southward expansion by the Christian Kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula (now Spain) as they captured the formerly Visigothic territories held by North African Muslims since the early eighth century – the mediaeval setting is an intriguing illustration of the paradox that a wealth of accurate detail does not automatically equate to historical authenticity. These rich and absorbing contrasts inspired a two-part post that is as much about the topic of historical accuracy in fiction as it is about Scoundrel’s Kiss – specifically, its treatment of history. An unusual and very readable romance that held me fascinated despite, not because of, its portrayal of history, Scoundrel’s Kiss epitomises all the reasons I do not assign grades.
Due to the dual nature of this post I have divided the material into two sections. Today’s installment is a general evaluation of Scoundrel’s Kiss. The second part will combine a discussion of the use of history in this historical romance together with my thoughts about historical accuracy. [Edited to add: that second post is now up, titled On The Matter Of Historical Accuracy In Fiction]
1201. A stranger from far-off England, Ada of Keyworth makes her living as a translator in the cultural centre that is Toledo, but she is in trouble. Pain and shame have made her dependent on the release found in narcotic poppy-tinctures, and her mounting debts have finally put her on the auction block to be sold as a slave.
Gavriel de Marqueda is seeking an escape from his violent past through membership in the Order of Santiago. His novitiate is drawing to a close, and only a last test stands between him and his final vows. He is to save a soul for the Church. But the foreign woman rescued from the slave auction does not want redemption, only forgetfulness. Their desperate battle of wills pushes both of them to the breaking point, where lethal danger forces them into a mistrustful, seductive alliance.
The scarred borderland in the heart of the Iberian peninsula becomes the testing ground for more than Gavriel’s vocation or Ada’s independence. With treason swirling around them, is love simply another betrayal – or is it salvation?
Spoiler warning: One of the strengths of Scoundrel’s Kiss is how integral history is to the plot. Trying to extricate and comment on history-related issues without exposing details and developments at times proved beyond my capability. An end spoiler and a little-known historical fact incorporated in a story twist have been marked with a spoiler warning in red.
Carrie Lofty has paired her dramatic historical setting with a romance that matches the former’s dark and conflicted undertones. Scoundrel’s Kiss charts the companionship that grows between two very damaged people whom circumstances have forced together against their will. Physical intimacy develops out of needs that are unrelated to romantic love, but it helps nurture a tentative partnership and eventually a loyal friendship. Short on romanticism, this is a dark-toned story where couplehood grows out of shared ordeals and love comes as the well-earned dessert. While intriguing ideas are not always smoothly implemented, Scoundrel’s Kiss is about as far from an anemic, run-of-the mill romance as one could hope for.
When was the last time you read a romance with a sexually lead-taking, belligerent drug-addict for a heroine? Lofty goes against romance convention and tackles addiction without too much prettification. Ada of Keyworth is a woman whose demons drive her to extremes. As a character, her moral ambiguity made her unpredictable and challenging. Not created to win easy sympathy points, at times her character tested my patience and understanding but she always kept me curious and interested, and quickly grew into the main focus of my involvement in the story. I thought it a clever idea to make her a translator since Toledo at that time was one of the centres of translation of scientific and philosophical texts from Arabic to Latin (and in the mid-thirteenth century to Castilian). Her prodigious linguistic talents do seem weakly utilised, though, because the plot limits the need for such skills to an ability to speak Castilian (Castellano, the Ibero-Romance language that developed into modern Spanish) and read Arabic. Nevertheless, having this intellectual strength take primary importance in her characterisation and be the reason she earns notice and admiration from other characters is another way Scoundrel’s Kiss distinguishes itself favourably from the average historical romance narrative, which can seem fixated on looks (whether beauty or plainness).
As a romance heroine in general, Ada is a strong and memorable character: caustic and self-absorbed but capable and ardent. It was truly exciting to read a romance that resists the trend for writing universally likeable heroines and instead creates high interest through a focus on individuality. Looking at Ada as a character in a historical, however, practically nothing about her convinced me she was mediaeval. Interestingly, in Scoundrel's Kiss the author is portraying more than one woman on the fringe, yet in fundamental ways only Ada seems disconnected from the real issues of women in their society. She also displays shock and bewilderment about several commonplace aspects of mediaeval life, making her seem frustratingly clueless. I felt she could be transplanted to another period, including the twenty-first century, without making her seem out of place. Bluntly put, in the context of a mediaeval world she and Gavriel often appear to be imbeciles.
My impression of the character of Gavriel underwent fewer revisions than was the case with Ada. Tormented and patient, he seemed sympathetic almost from the start. I say almost, because the description of his initial encounter with Ava caused me to lay the book aside for several days. Gavriel lusts after her from the second he first spots her, a sluggish opium addict on the display block of a slave auction in a brothel. Enviously mistaking her drug haze for serenity, he imagines what it would be like to have sex with her. This (anguished) lust never relents: it is the steady theme of all his interactions with her and the world. Still, self-denial and long-term goals intervene to keep stereotypical scenarios in check longer than I expected. Moreover, he quickly redeems himself, nursing Ada conscientiously and with kindness as she suffers withdrawal symptoms, and refusing temptation as Ada uses her body to deliberately provoke him into breaking his religious pledges.
Gavriel is an interesting anomaly in the mediaeval romance genre, where heroes typically are the ultimate warriors. The narrative tears into shreds the romantic shimmer that often seems to surround military Orders in fiction, chiselling out a hero who grows more tormented with every page. His past is genuinely traumatic, much more so than Ada’s, and for once the reasons have nothing to do with a woman’s love or betrayal. More to the point, the rather funnily conceited “He had been as brave as ten men that long day” actually segues into thoroughly unexpected self-condemnation: “[he had been] slaying enemies with glee and impunity. His bravery had bordered on bloodlust, devoid of thought or humanity.” I cannot recall the last time I read about a historical romance hero who has a personal problem with killing or who wishes to embrace the monastic life in order to atone for a violent past.
I would have been more impressed if the narrative had made this resolve a true character dilemma. Disappointingly, Gavriel has barely started agonising about his need for redemption when, sword in hand, he is off killing again. Repeatedly. Not once does he actually make the choice to lay down his sword. When faced with a fight, he does not give abstaining from violence a fraction of a thought. Any guilt or regret he suffers afterwards is shown to be due to fear of having his entry into the Order rejected; we do not see him torn by ethical concerns. As a result, Gavriel’s brooding fear of the violence in himself seems employed mainly for emotional effect: his (very real) self-loathing is tied to past events, not to current deeds, making his psychological suffering clear but voiding his story arc of actions that bear out the sincerity of his commitment to non-violence. That eventually distanced me from deeper emotional engagement with his torment.
Then again, intelligent he is not. Significantly, had Gavriel not been given the obliviousness of a 21st century visitor about matters a genuine mediaeval person in his place would have known, the plot would have had to look quite different. For example, the Order of Santiago, which required that its novices must study its Rule in full once a month, would have made certain rights and obligations quite clear to new recruits, and mistakes, omissions, and errors would have been immediately noticed by the community and corrected by the proper authority. Only in a fictional mediaeval world could Gavriel remain so egregiously deluded, but it certainly does not help that he haplessly accepts things at face value and never questions or talks to obvious and readily available sources of information.
In addition, I never managed to make sense of why exactly a man who is determined to leave fighting behind is seeking entrance into a military Order whose first duty was to bodily defend Christendom against the Moors. The monasteries belonging to the Order were in effect military garrisons charged with guarding and patrolling territories vulnerable to Muslim incursions. Membership was, in essence, a crusading undertaking. Secondly, Scoundrel's Kiss keeps referring to Gavriel being a clergyman, as if membership automatically turned laymen into priests or clerics. This is wildly misleading. Freyles caballeros ("friar knights"), which is what the Rule would make a swordsman like Gavriel, were expected to fight. (There is a special clause (XI) in the Rule which deals with "pusillanimous" knights, and the mental fitness of applicants was assessed.) Only those who were already ordained priests or simple clerics were admitted as freyles clérigos (canons): the priests had the cure of souls, clerics assisted during the Divine Office and Mass, and both knew Latin, needed also for administrative and legal tasks. Applicants who were neither knights nor clergymen could become freyles legos, lay serving brothers. Taking into account the scorn the Rule displays for ablebodied knights who shun battle, I rather doubt the Order would have been impressed by Gavriel's intentions.
It can be difficult to balance intense emotion in a romance so that passion and drama do not not teeter into melodrama. In Scoundrel’s Kiss a slight tendency for hyperbole and florid similes at times pulled me out of the story by reminding me of the stereotypes of genre fiction. Both Gavriel and Ada possess some larger than life traits that owe rather more to fantasy than seems necessary. Ada is not merely a polyglot: employed as a translator in the household of a noblewoman, she is a linguistic genius who after barely a year of study (p.2) has mastered idiomatic Castilian (p.32) as well as half a dozen other local languages, and is able to distinguish sundry regional Arabic dialects (p.248). Gavriel is “as brave as ten men” (see above), and as for his looks, “not even a master sculptor could recreate the sharp, strong bones of his face, the cut of his jaw and the straight length of his nose” (p. 108). Instances such as these rang as falsetto notes in a resonant narrative style that for the most part does an exceptional job with emotional tension.
I wondered whether the author would at all exploit the symbolism of translators and translation. The notion seemed conspicuous and rife for potential in a plot and setting that involve the meeting of Jews, Muslims, and Christians, of locals and foreigners, of Castilian, Arabic, and English languages, of secular characters and monastics. But if it was explored, this eluded me. For a while, the discrepancy between Ada as a translator of written and spoken language and her (21st-century) opaqueness to the alternative way of life chosen by Gavriel seemed fruitful ground. Not only does she have no respect for or even understanding of celibacy – she scorns Gavriel’s religious pledges and harbours not the slightest scruple about luring him away from his monastic allegiance. A romance heroine who disparages commitment is certainly novel. Unfortunately, the narrative does not appear to pick this up as significant and declines to comment on it in the context of relationship building. There are perhaps hints that her attitude could be seen as a rejection of zealotry, but this is not followed through to any clear conclusion.
At 342 pages, Scoundrel’s Kiss demonstrates the shortened length of single title romances. In the case of such a complex story this page quota means that something non-trivial is going to be cut. What stood out most sharply and irritatingly to me in terms of technique was the severely truncated backstory. Sometimes it was entirely missing, at other times it was back-fed in delayed fragments that seemed to assume I knew more than I did about what was being referenced. I understand that Scoundrel’s Kiss is preceded by another book, set in England, in which Ada and Jacob ben Asher figure as either secondary or minor characters. I really could not care less. This is the book I am reading and this is where I need context and information that illuminates character baggage and behaviour. I felt I was dropped cold into a story that was so impatient to get up and running that it deferred clues until later – making me fumble in the dark – then either forgot about them or decided they were not that necessary anyway. Well, to me the clues were essential. I found the characters intriguing but impossible to engage with on a visceral level because I was lacking information that would help me make sense out of behaviour that was destructive, selfish, or cryptic. By the time an explanation was finally offered, I was usually past caring. As much as I enjoyed this book and as interested as I was in the outcome of the various threads, I was rarely moved.
For example, by page 148 I still did not know know why Ada had picked Castile of all places when she, as I was forced to assume, fled England. Nor did I know why Jacob had accompanied her, why she had forced her sister to choose between Ada and her brother-in-law, or why Gavriel thinks he will be lost if he is not accepted into the Order. The blithely casual explanation that is eventually mentioned in passing on page 170 for the choice of Castile made me reel on account of what historically would have entailed immense hurdles and dangers: “Because Jacob had always longed for adventure, we departed for London, then Toledo”. Apparently lost or unfinished threads also impacted my reaction to the ending. I was puzzled about how the outcome addressed, or did not address, Gavriel’s fears.
Now for the history. Nine times out of ten I will enjoy a flawed but respectfully-researched novel from any historical genre more than the smoothest and cleverest of can’t-be-bothered-historicals. History in Scoundrel’s Kiss belongs to the former category. Easily set apart from the great majority of current historical romances by a history quotient that is substantial as well as integral to the plot, the detailed world-building has many positives. The hero’s backstory has grown organically and believably from the social setting, the plot is tightly knotted with historic political events, and the particulars of the Order of Santiago (St. James) and aspects of Iberian laws included in the story reveal some painstaking research. The storyline acknowledges that the Iberian wars were not simply an affair between the Christian north and the Muslim south - al-Andalus - but that it also involved rivalries between competing Christian kingdoms (and, while not shown, internal Andalusi conflicts). In recognition of one of the special characteristics of Reconquista society, the narrative also incorporates minority characters, primarily Jacob ben Asher, who is swashbuckling hero-material and may yet receive his own book. More about him in my next post. In brief, Scoundrel’s Kiss is loaded with historical details that are correct more often than not.
So does the historical setting capture the spirit of Reconquista Castile? Is Scoundrel’s Kiss an example of that rarest of historical romance species, a solid, accurate mediaeval? My answer would be to wiggle my hand. Yes and no.
The more detail of a historical nature an author includes, the more credibility the novel’s representation of history is liable to gain in the mind of the reader. Although Barbara Cartland wrote several historical biographies, few readers appear to treat the history or research in her increasingly thin romance novels as credible; but as a quick internet search will show, many are the admirers of Georgette Heyer* who have received their notions about correct period manners etc. from her Regency-set books. Yet, that a high amount or complexity of historical detail does not necessarily convey a reliable depiction of the past can be discovered by comparing, for example, Philippa Gregory’s popular but sensationalist The Other Boleyn Girl with the historical record.
Attempting an un-superficial treatment of a subject with which one is not deeply familiar is fraught if expected territory for fiction writers. In such a case, even dedicated preparation or a theoretically relevant academic degree can leave the door open for any number of gaffes. That is what has happened in Scoundrel’s Kiss, where the mediaevalism is more flawed than the richness of specialised subject-matter implies. Often the details fail to add up to a particularly authentic mediaeval world because basic assumptions are erroneous, because context is missing, because characters reason, react, and behave in ways and according to values that disregard mediaeval realities, knowledge, and concerns. The general impression I brought away is that here is an author who has resolutely applied herself to creating an authentic, trustworthy setting, but who has not fully internalised what she has read and who does not yet possess a thorough enough familiarity with the general period to recognise when her grip is slipping.
Some of the issues are the common and debatable flaws of most, perhaps all, historical fiction/romance. For example, anachronistic words may grate but they do not undo the veracity of the thing described as long as the concept existed**. Language and its meaning (and syntax) changes, and so a genuine rendering of, say, vernacular English (Middle English) from Ada’s time (circa 1200) would make a novel’s prose a chore to decipher. Employing non-anachronistic language could entail accepting “wedde” for “insane, go mad”, “wonen” for “dwell, reside”, “swikeful” for “deceitful”, “nikken” for “deny”, “her/heir [hair]” for “(eye)lash”, “nutte” for “usefulness”; and avoiding words like "happy", "plain", "beautiful", "joke" (and "jest") etc. A reader might be provoked to snap, like Chaucer’s Reeve, “Stint thy clappe!” (stop your noisy/idle chatter, i.e. shut up). Thus, when Lofty uses words like señorita and señora I appreciate that her frequent Spanish is correctly spelled more than I care about its un-mediaevalness (the exception, "gramercy", antedates common usage by about a century). Also used is “convivencia” which is a twentieth-century term used in describing the interfaith societies in mediaeval Iberia (usually translated as coexistence). The word itself works as a descriptive shorthand, but the story’s depiction of the concept in action is something I found problematic. I will have a great deal to say about it in my second installment.
More irksome than anachronistic words are missteps that evince ignorance about basic facts of daily life in the Middle Ages. In small doses these can amuse as much as they irritate, as when the townspeople of Uclés “[stream] into the cathedral for midnight Mass” on what is apparently a perfectly ordinary weeknight (p.253). The story is set in early spring (leaves are described as budding, which in the Toledo area at least nowadays occurs in March), so in theory the action could be taking place during the Lenten/Easter season (in 1201, first week of February to last week of March), but the story neither alludes to this nor makes allowance for the major practical consequences this would have for the plotline. Time and chronology are often treated as negotiable in historical fiction, and Scoundrel's Kiss seems no different in this respect, as timelines, too, yield the impression of having been compressed.
At other times, research details that are accurate in themselves have been misapplied or misinterpreted.
This appears to be the case with the general presentation of family life, marriage, and claustration in the Rule of the Order of Santiago, greatly compounded by the lack of a proper grasp of conventual life. Descriptions convey an impression that the wives and children of married members lived and worked on the monastery grounds instead of actually residing, together with their husband/father, in their private homes except at Lent or when the man was off on campaign. The lack of knowledge can result in unintentional farce. Instead of being rigidly segregated into separate complexes, claustrated freyles and freylas (monks and nuns) in a (alleged) double monastery have free and unsupervised access to each others’ dormitories and mingle and flirt as a matter of course in the cloister garth. Guests share the monastics’ quarters and are at liberty, in modern hotel-like fashion, to join them in this ludicrous running in and out of private cells. No separate lodging exists for pilgrims and vistors; but then neither, it would seem, does an infirmary or infirmarian. (Uclés, the priory in question, did in fact have an infirmarian at this time (see, for example, La Encomienda, El Priorato Y La Villa De Uclés En La Edad Media (1174-1310) by María-Milagros Rivera Garretas). Not having one would have been an especially remarkable state of things for the headquarters of a military Order that had to arrange for the care of members wounded in battle).
The slave auction on which a major plotline is predicated appears to disregard that the penalty for trading in Christian slaves, and for Christians who sold themselves into slavery, was hanging or burning (see Heather Dillard's Daughters Of The Reconquest (Cambridge University Press trade paperback, 1989, 207-8), which is listed as one of Lofty’s sources). As for the trial by ordeal (in the afterword, acknowledged by the author as unusual), its artificiality wrenched me from a textured historical to a swords and sorcery-inspired fantasy (or, come to think of it, a feminist riff on Ivanhoe) so jarringly that I winced from whiplash. On the positive side, the segment affirms that Ada is the heroine of her own story, a message that I sometimes feel is rarely unequivocal in the case of fictional female protagonists.
End of spoilers
Historically speaking, Gavriel’s novitiate and related plot points are nonsensical. Instead of spending another page enumerating specific examples, suffice to say that plot and narrative exhibit unfamiliarity with the basic functioning of mediaeval religious (including paramonastic) communities, including daily routines, obligatory devotions, terminology (for example, the head of the Order of Santiago was, according to my sources, titled “Master” (Maestre), not “Grand Master”), the spiritual purpose and attitude to the mortification of flesh (through hair shirts, flagellation, fasting, etc.), the purpose of and relationship between confession, forgiveness, and penance, and the powers and limits of authority of major officials and obedientiaries (by the way, no designated “novice masters” in the Order of Santiago at this time; instruction and guidance was provided by the oldest and most respected members of the community).
The last category of problems to do with the historical accuracy of Scoundrel’s Kiss deals with trickier issues than incidental errors. Whereas they are probably the least noticeable to the average reader these are the elements that gave me pause and caused me to take the closest look due to my interest in this mediaeval period. They will be addressed in a separate, spoiler-riddled post which I will try to format and put up in the next few days.
Scoundrel’s Kiss is a vibrant, ambitious romance. When it fails, it does so because Carrie Lofty has taken genre-convention-breaking risks and wrestled with complex historical material. When it succeeds, it is for the same reasons and because the author possesses that enriching combination of storytelling flair and dynamic prose. It is a book that yielded even more to me upon rereading. For all these reasons I am very curious and a little nervous about the author’s shortly-to-be-released historical romance, Flawless, which, set in the 19th century, appears to deal with the blood-soaked subject of South-African diamond mines. In sum, although I am going to pass over the companion title to Scoundrel’s Kiss (What A Scoundrel Wants), the intensity and richness of Carrie Lofty’s storytelling undoubtedly makes her the most fascinating new-to-me romance author since I discovered Meredith Duran.
*An aside in regards to the representation of minorities in historical romance: It might be interesting to compare Cartland’s fictional Romanies (in titles such as Gypsy Magic) with Heyer’s literary treatment of Jews. (Cartland was actively involved in the real-life issues of Romanies and Travellers.)
**A more complex matter of fiction versus history arises when constructs are used that assume mediaeval people understood certain words, signs, and symbols as we do or had the means to imagine concepts familiar to our age. Acknowledging that analyses about the mentalities and outlook of people of the past easily become speculative tugs-of-war between saming and othering, there are still certain things that warrant caution. While mediaeval people were no less intelligent or diverse than we are, the mediaeval image of the world differed from ours, as did sensibilities, mental associations, etc. It is a complicated level of historical accuracy that few writers of fiction possess the foundation to aspire to, much less achieve. Whereas such problems ultimately reinforce that fiction is and shall remain fiction, in my view the gap makes striving for accuracy more imperative, not less. Per aspera ad astra and all that. More about this in my next post.
(Zebra Books mass market paperback, 2010, p 27)
“Ada awoke in the back of a cart. Her head rattled as fiercely as the rickety wheels. Her stomach tightened, that place where hunger met nausea, but she thought she would never be able to use her sticky, swollen tongue again. The side of her face ached with a bruise the size of a fat, ripe olive.
She sat up, her joints and muscles stiff. Squinting against the sun, she saw a gray donkey pulling the cart. Two men riding ahead on horseback wore white robes. The one holding the donkey’s tether might not have needed reins; he rode his animal with graceful ease. His tall, lean body absorbed every movement of the horse’s plodding steps. The other man, however, fought his mount with stiff and jerking movements.
Toledo was nowhere to be seen. The jagged mountains that bounded the city looked like pale blue teeth, far behind her on the horizon. Limitless grasslands stretched wide, broken only by dots of windmills, the occasional cluster of distant sheep, and the banks of the Tagus River. Its waters ran quietly beneath the bright spring sun.
But where was Jacob? The previous night’s events were a blur of colors and melodies punctuated with bright moments of fear and anger. More nightmares. They seeped into every breath, even when she abandoned herself to the throes of the tincture. She would never escape if they followed even to that unwordly place.”
This is only my second entry in The Bookworm's Romance Reading Challenge. I am glad other participants are doing a much better job of keeping up than I am! The generous rules make for stimulating latitude and that broader definition of romance has inspired me to read the genre more widely than in years. I have a stack of finished books to prove it, but the notes have not yet made it into posts. A Rosie Thomas novel is finally in the pipeline, though.