Wednesday, January 22, 2014
To Tempt A Viking
That's what Michelle Willingham has done with her Forbidden Vikings duet for Harlequin Historical. The premise of this series is one of an arranged marriage that is dying a slow, painful death - and in the midst of that death the married couple falls in love with other people. Romance is a genre that tends to put a healthy emphasis on "traditional" relationships, so an author writing stories set around this idea of a married couple splitting up, then falling in love with someone else? Forgive my language, but it's risky as shit. To Sin With A Viking was all about a husband desperately trying to mend the chasm between him and his wife, only to end up being taken captive by a nearly starving Irish woman and falling in love with her. To Tempt A Viking runs parallel to that story for the first half, giving us the story of what happens to Elena, the former hero's wife, when she is taken hostage by a band of starving Irish villagers and ultimately rescued by Ragnar Olafsson, a fierce warrior and her husband's best friend.
Elena desperately wants children, but five years of marriage to her husband Styr and she's remained barren. Her inability to conceive has worn her down to the point where she is consumed by it. She has pushed her husband away, and he thinks Ireland will somehow give them a fresh start. Instead she gets kidnapped and he gets taken captive. Ragnar swore to Styr that he would protect Elena, and he immediately joins the fray to rescue her. He catches up with her, only to be taken captive by the same band of starving young Irishmen. Biding his time, looking for the right moment, he rescues Elena - only to find himself wounded and both of them stranded with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Oh, and the smoldering attraction between them, of course. Because wouldn't you know it? Ragnar has been in love with Elena for years, only to realize and be reminded of the fact, repeatedly, that he's not good enough for the likes of her.
This was a second half book for me, mostly because I have read the first book in the series. The first half literally parallels the events of the first book. The only difference being that we're reading about it from two different points of view. This will likely be fine for new readers who didn't read the first story, but for those of us who have? It felt too much like a rehash for me. I found myself going, "Yeah, yeah, yeah - let's move on already, I know all this." So needless to say when Styr finally shows up on scene and he is reunited with Elena? I was jumping for joy. Finally! I'm past all the stuff I already know and can move on to the "new stuff."
And it's the "new stuff" where this story really cooks. Because by this point Styr is in love with another woman and Elena realizes that there is no saving her marriage. She's not happy. She's miserable. She just hasn't quite come to the realization that she's in love with Ragnar. She knows he's her friend and she knows she cares for him - but she's still smarting over the disintegration of her marriage to Styr and she feels very much like a failure for not being the wife her husband wanted or needed.
Some conflict works better in historicals than in contemporaries, and Elena's struggle with infertility is one of them. Is infertility a heartbreaking struggle for many women? Yes. But in contemporaries I find myself annoyed by heroines who somehow think their lives are "over" because they are unable to conceive. No, it's not. You are more than a uterus. And don't get me started on heroines who won't explore foster parenting or adoption because they want their "own babies." That's a Wendy rant that will send us down an endless rabbit hole.
In historical time periods though? It's much easier for me to roll with. As a woman your entire sense of value was your uterus. If you couldn't squirt out babies, male babies at that, well what good were you? So it's easy to see how this is a Big Hairy Deal for Elena, not only because her inability to get pregnant is a smear against her husband's name, but she is also a woman who really wants kids. That's her ambition, to be a mother.
What is very interesting is that Elena eventually comes around to a way of thinking that so many of her contemporary romance heroine counterparts fail to grasp. Eventually she does realize that yeah, it sucks she can't seem to get pregnant, but that doesn't mean her dream has to die on the vine. She can still have a family, she just may need to go about it a little differently than other women.
Willingham has a knack for angst, and the final chapters of this story are really gut-wrenching. Can Elena and Ragnar move past the long shadow of Styr? Will Ragnar eventually clue into the fact that he is good enough? I could have done without the epilogue, which I found syrupy and a little disappointing to be honest, but for readers who love those Big Happy Family With Lots O' Kidlets Running Around epilogues, this book has one for you.
I found this to be an interesting and challenging duet. It was not always an easy read, but I appreciate that the author took a common romantic trope (the arranged marriage) and put a different spin on it without making either Styr or Elena out to be villains. I also appreciated that at the end of the day both characters ended up with the people they were meant to be with all along.
Final Grade = B-
Sidenote: I'll be honest, beefcake covers tend to be like white noise to me anymore. I barely notice them and they barely register. But this cover? I want to lick this cover. TMI?