Dueling Review: What a Scoundrel Wants

4 Dec

Greetings and Salutations… here’s a dueling review by my two favorite people, Bettie Sharpe and Tumperkin reviewing Ms. Carrie Lofty’s smashing debut!

Tumperkin: Hey Bettie! It’s nice to be doing a review with you. I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for what seems like years. Shall I kick off with a wee plot summary?

Plot

Tumperkin: Will Scarlet is working for the Sheriff of Nottingham when he meets Meg of Keyworth in the midst of the violent ambush of a nobleman. The two strangers escape together and whilst they feel a mutual antipathy, they realise that for the meantime, they need to stick together. Will has been set up to take the blame for the nobleman’s murder and needs to clear his name. As for Meg, she is on her way to Nottingham to rescue her sister Ada from the Sheriff’s clutches. But being blind, she needs help. Gradually the two adversaries learn to trust one another as they fight each other, their enemies and their attraction to one another….

Fair summary, Bettie?

Bettie: Excellent summary, Tumperkin. I’ll leave the summarizing to you, because mine would go something like, Meg is this totally badass blind alchemist con artist who needs to save her estranged sister from the clutches of the foot-slicingly eeevil Sherriff of Nottingham. Will Scarlet is a former bandit with a good heart and a bad rep who just got set up to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. They hate each other, but they need each other. Swordfights, sexin’ and total awesomeness ensue.

Tumperkin: My perception of medieval romance (based on quite a small number of books I’ve read) is that it’s kind of a ponderous genre. But this book proved me wrong. It’s hectic, fast-paced and action packed. From the outset, we’re in the thick of the action and the pace doesn’t let up all the way through. Carrie writes excellent action scenes with well choreographed fights and clear vivid descriptions.

Bettie: A couple of words about the fight scenes: they rock. Carrie captures a sort of desperate, scrabbling texture of actual fighting. There are no super-heroics in these fights, they’re dirty and desperate, and the blows have weight. When characters get injured, they stay injured, and are hampered in the future by the pain and limitations of their injuries. I love the way fights in this book have consequences.

Tumperkin: Plus, both of the characters have well developed back stories which are skillfully and patiently parsed out. We know early on that Will has done something to betray his uncle, Robin Hood, but we don’t learn precisely what till quite near the end. My one quibble was that I wasn’t entirely clear about what had happened between Meg and Ada and Hugo at the end of the book but maybe that’s because it’s to be revealed more fully in Ada’s book…

Bettie: Though I am vague about what happened to Hugo, I definitely thought my questions about Ada would be answered in her book, and I’m looking forward to it. A few words about Ada: she is awesome. Meg’s relationship with Ada is a painful one of love and resentment–that weird bond that only siblings can have with each other because any two people not related by blood would have ceased speaking long ago. They both have some pretty solid gripes against each other, and though my sympathies leaned toward Meg in this one, I was also pretty sure they leaned that way because I was seeing the story from Meg’s POV instead of Ada’s. I am really looking forward to reading A Scoundrel’s Kiss, if only to see if (okay, how) Carrie will manage to make me like Ada.

Heroine

Tumperkin: Meg was really quite different from most romance heroines, don’t you think? Spunky heroines aren’t unusual but Meg isn’t just spunky, she’s ascerbic and spiky and sometimes a real bitch. And then there’s her unsettling obsession with fire, which becomes something of a recurring theme in the book.

She was such a vividly realised character. I loved the way Carrie keeps her consistent whilst helping you understand her more and more as the story moves along. Quite near the end there’s a nice passage where she explains to Will about how she felt after the illness that made her blind, always waiting for a cure that never came. It was such a neat economic way of showing that she had been to the depths of despair in her past and that her spiky nature is both a product of that and the thing that made her survive and thrive.

Bettie: Right after I started reading WaSW, I wrote Carrie a totally gushy email that went something like, I heart Meg! OMG!!!! Meg is so awesome!!! Squee!!! Sure it’s inarticulate, but it’s 100% accurate. I’ve been reading romance novels since I was a kid, and in twenty-odd years of reading, I’ve never read a character quite like Meg. In a genre where some authors still write “placeholder” heroines, that is, heroines who are deliberately bland and unobjectionable so the reader can identify with them, Meg is prickly and complex and utterly fascinating.

Tumperkin: Her blindness, of course, is a huge part of her character. It must be incredibly difficult to write a blind protagonist. Describing what your characters see is such a fundamental part of writing. Carrie finds other really inventive ways of doing that. She never lets you forget how hard everything is for Meg. How disorientating and difficult certain things are for her. There’s a part where, after reaching Nottingham, Dryden abandons her in a huge hall full of people and it’s the scene in which, to me, Meg felt most frightened. All through that scene, and other mini scenes in Nottingham during her and Will’s escape, Carrie shows Meg searching for places to feel safe in. Little nooks and crannies where she can hide, where she can feel a wall behind her. Loved that. It wasn’t just in the action sequences that Meg’s blindness is used to great effect though. The passage where Meg ‘sees’ Will for the first time with her hands, believing him to be asleep, is just beautiful.

Bettie: I love what Carrie does with Meg’s point of view. Because Meg is blind, the parts of the story told from Meg’s point of view are deeply layered with wonderful sensory details. I love how the similes Carrie uses to describe Meg’s perception are so closely tied to Meg’s character and experience. For example, when Meg touches Will in their first love scene,

The feel of him—polished and hard like a gemstone, warm like a beckoning fire—tempted her with the thrill of more, knowing more

As the story progresses, we learn how important fire and gemstones are to Meg, and that her driving motivation is learning more. Her attraction to Will is like her attraction to fire, to gems, to knowledge—it’s as strong as the constants in her life.

Tumperkin: Another aspect of Meg’s character that I liked (and I think you’ll appreciate this too, Bettie) is that she’s not a Good Girl. This is a heroine with a past, not all of it exactly covered in glory. The relationship between Meg and her sister Ada is intriguing. We know they love each other at the deepest level but we also know that they’ve both done bad things to one another. And whilst Meg is determined to rescue her sister, she admits to some pretty dark feelings about her. Now I like a heroine who errs. I like a heroine who is human enough to have made mistakes and to keep making mistakes. But if you’re looking for a heroine who is all treacly sweetness, you ain’t gonna get it in this book. But you won’t have been looking for that, Bettie, surely?

Bettie: Tumperkin, you know I love me a bad-girl heroine, but I’ve gotta say, Meg isn’t bad, she’s real. She has a past. She makes mistakes. She changes and grows as a result of events in the story.

Meg’s no doormat, and she’s no angel. She’s intelligent and opportunistic, supremely capable and deliciously complex. She is not at all nice and she’s not necessarily likable, but she is, hands down, my favorite heroine of the year.

I adored reading about her. Meg’s actions always make sense in the context of her personality and her past. I love the complexity of her emotions—her conflicted relationship with her sister, Ada, and, especially, her conflicted feelings for Will Scarlet.

Hero

Bettie: So I started this story going, “Oooh, Meg is so awesome!” and ended it saying, “Oooh, Will Scarlet rocks!” In the Age of the Uber-Ultra-Alpha Male it’s hard to write a kickass hero who is also not a schmuck. I’ve read a great many novels in which I simply did not like the hero, and accepted it because the alpha male is, almost by default, kind of a douche. But one thing I knew about Carrie from having read her short story, Sundial, is that she has a knack for finding the balance of a guy who takes care of business, but is still complicated, vulnerable, and conflicted. All of this is a round-about way of saying, I really liked Will Scarlet.

Tumperkin: For me, Will didn’t quite live and breathe as much as Meg. He’s a perfectly decent hero but I never quite fell in love with him. Having said that, there’s an interesting duality to his character at the start. He’s convinced himself he’s selfish and out-for-himself but he can’t quite help the chivalry that Meg seems to provoke him into. I liked the way that even when he was in his ‘I’m a bad guy’ mode, Carrie shows that he’s more than that.

Bettie: Will isn’t a scoundrel, but he thinks he is. He’s conflicted between his basic sense of chivalry, and his desire to get out from the shadow of his famous uncle, Robin Hood. I loved Will’s conflicting emotions and motivations, and, in the end, his total devotion to Meg. At times I had to wonder at that devotion, because at times Meg seemed so prickly, mistrustful and hard to love that any reasonable man would give up. But I got the sense that Will understood her, and that these two characters were alike in some very fundamental ways that made them good for each other.

Tumperkin: He takes a lot of pain for her too. In the castle in Nottingham. I kinda like a hero who’ll take big punishment for the heroine. That’s one of my swoon triggers.

Bettie: Me too.

Tumperkin: Did you have a visual for Will? I couldn’t get Christian Slater out of my head (for which I blame Carrie who has stuff on her blog about Mr Slater, um, quite a lot). But the guy on the cover really made me think of Ben Affleck. It’s the mouth I think.

Bettie: You know, now that you mention it, I was rather thinking Christian Slater, at least around the eyebrows. But, then, I had a junior high crush on Christian Slater (the Heathers Christian Slater, not the Gleaming the Cube one), so I don’t know that I can necessarily shovel all the blame onto Lofty’s blog.

Tumperkin: Did you read Carrie’s ‘My First Sale‘ post on Dear Author? She soooo sewed the Slater seeds in my mind…..

Setting

Tumperkin: There’s a fantastic sense of time and place in this book, don’t you think? The medieval landscape and society are fabulously brought to life – this is a writer who knows of what she writes. (Carrie’s a historian I think?) The passages where houses and dress and behaviour are described are so sure and deft, almost offhand. I hate when historical writers almost write their research out. You know, when you get those little mini lectures about 12th century farming methods etc.? Stuff like that only serves to make it bloody obvious that the writer isn’t really comfortable with the setting at all. I’m pleased to say that’s not the case with this book. It’s written in the alternating POVs of Will and Meg and you really believe they live in this time.

Here’s a nice example when Meg is just entering Nottingham:

They passed through the gates. The jumble of bodies receded, but the sounds and smells only intensified. Grunts from autumn-fat pigs, slicing barks from dogs, and occasional whinnies from cordial horses mingled with the words of their owners. Tradesmen spiced the air with the noises of their professions, songs of metal and wood.

Now of course, the first thing that strikes you about this is that the whole scene is described with non-visual references and yet you can see it. But the other thing, is that you just get a lovely strong sense of time and place without the need for a paragraph on the construction of Nottingham’s city gates or some such thing.

Bettie: I agree completely. The setting rocks. The world of WaSW is rich, textured, totally immersive. Sight, smell, sound, feel—Carrie captures it all with utter ease. A lot of historicals suffer from either a vague sense of place or a talky, overly detailed setting—but this book isn’t one of them. I saw so much of it in my head, and it was lovely, solid, real.

Tumperkin: It’s the same with Meg’s alchemy. It’s an integral part of the story and all clearly well-researched but it’s beautifully and economically woven in.

Bettie: Meg’s alchemy was wonderfully detailed, and the explanations were never talky. I also liked how almost everything she did using her alchemical knowledge seemed historically plausible in the circumstances.

Prose

Bettie: So you know where I was going on earlier about sensory descriptions, and setting, and character and action? I think it would be a given for folks who frequent Bam’s blog that Carrie Lofty can write. But just in case you hadn’t heard, Carrie Lofty can write. At its best her style is immediate and immersive, rich and well-rounded, and difficult to put down.

Tumperkin: Yeah – she’s got a vibrant, energetic style of prose. I got a real sense of her trying to use words in new and interesting ways which I appreciated.

There are lots of lovely little bits of description that I marked, far too many to quote. Like, A burst of wind ripped tired leaves from the trees, bearing an urgent message about looming winter days, and Ada’s voice rasped, a bird’s broken wing dragging in the dirt. Just good, you know? And fresh and satisfying.

Bettie: Her style has a very kinetic feel to it. A lot of movement and sound in the descriptions, not a lot of static images. I haven’t read very many stories where the pacing is so thoroughly intertwined with the aesthetic style. It works.

Tumperkin: I liked her dialogue too. It sounds natural but also appropriate for the period. And the way Meg and Will spar is very amusing, particularly once they begin to fall in love.

Bettie: Ooh, I loved the dialog. So snappy, so well paced. It had a medieval flavor (or, at least, what modern American me would consider to be the “medieval flavor”) while still being very readable and relatable. Plus, the back and forth between these two was just plain fun.

Tumperkin: There was just one thing about her prose that very slightly bothered me (when I began to notice it was a bit of a habit). She has a tendency to have abstract nouns doing things all over the place. So we had Betrayal ‘pinching’ at Will’s temples, and later ‘staining’ Meg’s thoughts. And we had Consequences ‘clinging’ to Will ‘like honey’ and Antagonism ‘melting like a shard of ice on skin’. And we had both Guilt and Doubt ‘kicking’ Meg repeatedly. Not to mention Joy ‘trampling’ Will.

Was it just me?

Bettie: The pacing was so snappy through most of the story that I really didn’t stop to think about the few things she did that didn’t work. Looking back, though I think the bits here and there that I didn’t like were just extreme examples of stylistic choices I did like. Everything moves in this story. No description just sits around waiting to be enjoyed. Lofty’s is a very active style, which does sometimes draw attention to itself, jolting the reader out of an otherwise well-paced and highly readable narrative with a phrase here or there that seems over-thought. But those missteps are few, far between, and largely due to an admirable amount of stylistic risk-taking.

Tumperkin: Yes, I think you’re right. And I feel like I’m being a bit nitpicky even mentioning the abstract noun thing when overall the prose was so very good. Quick and alive. I also liked the overall structure which was lots of short action-packed chapters with quite dense, intense prose. It’s a richly written book but not at all slow.

Bettie: I liked the pacing, too. This story totally kills that “slow, measured” stereotype about Medievals you mentioned earlier. As a reader, I tend to go for books with any or all of the Three A’s: Action, Adventure and Angst. This book had them all, and those quick, addictive chapters, too.

Will and Meg are compelling, fascinating characters, and Lofty know them inside and out. When the story is in either of their points of view, it is almost perfect. There are a couple of places—especially in the 3rd quarter of the story—where the story focuses on secondary characters, and loses some of its immediacy, and a little of my interest. I love the way Carrie imbues secondary characters with complex and conflicting feelings, but, honestly, I liked Will and Meg so much I rather resented having to spend time in other characters’ heads.

Tumperkin:
Oh I actually rather liked the bits in other characters’ heads! As you say, the secondary characters were well-rounded and I do like to get other characters’ perspectives in a romance, particularly a third person seeing the two protaganists together.

Love, Sex and Romance

Tumperkin: For some reason, when I read the first sex scene between Will and Meg, I was reminded of that scene in The Name of the Rose between Christian Slater and the peasant girl. It’s obviously partly the Christian Slater fixation weirdness but maybe it’s also because it’s such a sort of natural, unprompted scene? (And maybe also *minor spoiler* because Meg’s on top?).

Bettie: Maybe you do have more Christian Slater on the brain than I do. This was one part of the book where I didn’t necessarily see him–but maybe that’s because it’s been ages and ages since I last saw Name of the Rose. But other than the Slater aspect, I do agree about the naturalness of the scene. I do love it when characters have sex because they both want to. So simple, so natural. It works every time.

Tumperkin: One of my least favourite cliches in historical romance is that of the heroine who has to be seduced beyond her rational mind to have sex in the first place but then bewilderingly often doesn’t regret it. For real women, it’s usually the other way round. They decide to have sex then wish they hadn’t. Meg falls into the latter category I’m pleased to say.

Bettie: Yeah. I am sure there will be some Meg-haters out there who won’t like this heroine, but I found her to be supremely relatable. Real women are rarely seduced by overwhelmingly uncontrollable passions, but we have probably all made sexual decisions we later regretted. And you know, sometimes we even initiate sex, too. It’s pretty damned cool to see a heroine make those kinds of decisions and still end the book with her Happily Ever After.

Another of the things I liked was how both Meg and Will had this history of less than perfectly admirable romantic decisions in their past. It made me root for them even more.

Tumperkin: In terms of romance, this is one of those hate-to-love storylines. The adversaries who fall for each other. And there is real dislike expressed by Meg and Will to one another at the start of the book. I’ll admit that this isn’t my favourite story trope. I think it’s very difficult to show strong antipathy turning to love. But Carrie did a good job with it. I believed in the turnaround of their feelings and the eventual HEA.

Bettie: I liked the romance. Even though I don’t believe the hate-to-love thing works IRL, it’s such a dramatic idea, I’m a total sucker for it in a romance novel. What’s different about WaSW is that Will and Meg are such kindred spirits—they are so right for each other—that this story totally works for me.

Verdict

Bettie: Thinking about it, it’s that quality of the hero and heroine being right for each other that makes the difference between keepers and non-keepers. The one thing all the romances on my keeper shelf (really, it’s more of a cabinet) have in common is not that the heroine and hero are nice, or admirable people, but that both main characters are strong, complicated, and absolutely perfect for each other. What a Scoundrel Wants fits the bill and as soon as I get my grubby little hands on a print copy of this book, it’s going in the cabinet right next to all my other favorites.

Tumperkin:
Much as I love Robin Hood, I’m not usually into romances set in this period but I really enjoyed this. It’s intelligent and rich but it’s also a real adventure that just barrels along at a goodly pace. Definite Thumbs Up from Tumperkin.

Bam: Hmmm… methinks the consensus is an A grade. EXCELLENT! Support Carrie Lofty and buy this book here.

P.S. Damn it, you assholes, now I have that terrible Bryan Adams song stuck in my head. I hate you guys. I kid, I kid. I only slightly hate you. ‘Cause you finally dislodged that damned Britney song out of my head. Oh, wait, it’s back. THOR’S HAIRY BALLS!

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5 Responses to “Dueling Review: What a Scoundrel Wants”

  1. SweetNSourGirl December 4, 2008 at 8:29 pm #

    Hmm…I think I’d like to read this; sounds interesting.

  2. sula December 5, 2008 at 5:25 am #

    YES YES YES! I’m almost done with this book, and I’m sitting here nodding my head and agreeing with your observations. I love that Meg is so real and not a “good girl”. And the dialogue. And the historical richness without feeling hit over the head with it. and and…well, i have to run to work, but anyways. Great book and I hope it gets the praise it deserves. This reminds me of why I love historical romance. :D

  3. Zoe Winters December 5, 2008 at 9:28 am #

    Wow, nothing ever gets an ‘A’ Here. I have to add this to my TBR list. And coincidentally, Carrie just guest blogged over at http://www.magicalmusings.com

  4. Lorelie December 7, 2008 at 6:49 pm #

    So would it be in bad taste to brag that I’ve already read Ada’s book? Nyah-nya-nyah! lol

  5. JaimeK December 8, 2008 at 7:52 pm #

    Bam I am glad you are back!!!!

    I so want to read this book now – off I go to shop..great review.

    Peace.