Monday, February 8, 2010

Review- The Duchess, Her Maid, the Groom and Their Lover by Victoria Janssen

The Duchess, Her Maid, the Groom & Their Lover
by Victoria Janssen
Dec. 2008
Historical fantasy
F/F, (F)/F/M
Novel (over 60 k words)
eHarlequin pub-$13.95

By Guest reviewer M. A.

Buy it Amazon, B&N, eHarlequin

Wretched be the woman of wealth and fortune who fails to produce a suitable heir….

And wretched is what Duchess Camille feels living with the cruel and debauched duke. But that soon turns to desperation when she learns her lecherous husband is plotting to have her killed to make way for a more nubile and fertile companion. Knowing she cannot sit idly by and wait for death, she flees into the night, taking with her her own young lover—the stable hand Henri—and her most loyal servants.

With a mind to finding refuge with Maxime, her first love who years ago ignited her sexuality, Camille and her servants take cover in brothels along the way and succumb to the physical delights on offer, sating their longings and fueling jealousies with one another. But the duke's men are not far behind, and Camille knows they must press on, hoping against hope that the man who has every reason to turn her away will remember the fervent passion that once coursed between them.…

If you like underwhelming action, overwhelming angst, and indifferent erotica, you will love this book.

“The Duchess…” had me mentally tearing my hair out because, numerous times, I’d stumble across some good writing and hints that good stuff was coming if I just kept reading. Payoff never occurred.

About 80% of the book is tell-y backstory and angst combined with incidental erotic scenes that did nothing to extend the plot, develop characterization, or contribute to the novel in any other meaningful way.

The remaining 20% showcases a watered-down, lukewarm plot and Janssen’s exceptional gift for beautiful description and world-building. Janssen establishes scenes and settings to involve all the senses. Lush, aromatic gardens, tasty foods, dense forests, crisp, salty seas, grand palaces, humble taverns, and exotic bagnios are all made real.

The protagonist, Camille, is what I sometimes call an “anti-Mary Sue.” She’s unlikeable and unexceptional and yet, for reasons unknown, every relevant character in the novel admires her and/or is in love with her (or, at least, wants to have sex with her.) The common people revere her. Songs and poems are published in her honor. Prostitutes imitate her looks and style to procure patrons who like the fantasy of enjoying sex with her.

The reader is repeatedly told rather than shown that Camille was a good politician who strove to govern her duchy fairly and justly but she was undermined first by her neglectful father (since he considered females unfit to rule) and later by Michel, her abusive husband, desperate to supplant her hereditary right to her duchy.

Camille does many despicable things in the name of furthering her own interests, including ordering Henri, a young stable hand, to service her sexually in hopes of conceiving a child to placate her cruel husband. In typical Mary Sue fashion, Camille does not want to do this and she knows this is wrong. She knows Henri could face exile or execution for defiling her. But all her concerned servants and concerned loyal subjects urge her on out of fear for her safety and Camille allows herself to be persuaded by their demands.

Immediately after her liaison with Henri, however, Camille decides Michel is intent upon murdering her and that she must flee the realm and seek aid with Maxime, ruler of a protectorate territory subject to her duchy. Without any practical considerations or much planning, She takes her maid/bodyguard, Sylvie, two eunuch guards, and Henri.
From here, the novel descends into a dozen chapters of meaningless sexual interludes focused more upon duty than pleasure.

(SPOILER) Examples:

1. Camille initiates a sexual relationship with Sylvie not because she desires Sylvie personally, but because Sylvie’s always been in love with her and Camille feels her loyalty deserves a reward.

2. Camille has sex with her eunuch guards. This is her “duty” as well. Part of the eunuchs’ duty in palace tradition is to provide her with sexual relief and since Camille has never had sex with them (Camille’s 40 years old, and the guards have been in her household for years) her eunuchs feel neglected and worry she finds them inadequate or that she doubts their loyalty. To prove her trust in them, Camille dutifully allows the two eunuchs to gratify her sexually.

3. One of the eunuchs dominates and disciplines a brothelkeeper boarding them. Not because he wants to, but to buy silence in case Michel’s search parties seek them out.

4. After the brothelkeeper submits voluntarily to the eunuch’s dominance and discipline, Sylvie rewards the brothelkeeper with her favors.

5. A nobleman confronts Henri and Camille, claiming to identify Camille. Camille and Henri claim Camille is actually a prostitute made up to look like Camille (ick factor – it’s fashionable in the duchy for whores to copy Camille’s style to indulge patrons desiring Camille.) The nobleman demands sex with Camille. (This scene is edited very strangely. It’s unclear to me if they actually had sex or not. If they did, the erotica was taken out of the book.)

6. When a woman working in an inn identifies Camille, Henri offers her sex for silence. (I found this scene very “icky” because Henri insisted that Camille was actually a prostitute made up to look like Camille and that they were actually fleeing a cruel master who abused them both. The “respectable” innkeeper than has sex with Henri out of sympathy for all the alleged sexual abuse he’s endured in the past. Wow. Just wow. I never imagined accepting sexual bribery from a desperate victim of sex abuse could be seen as “therapeutic” for the abuse victim, but there it is.)

And so on. You get the idea. (END SPOILER)

Most of the erotica is non-titillating in my opinion. This is partly due to the chronic sense of duty and/or obligation attached to most of the sexploits. It’s not about love or even recreational pleasure. The scenes involving Henri and/or Sylvie were the best because these two characters had some enthusiasm for sexual pleasure, at least. I didn’t get to know the characters better, or come to care about them. In fact, I liked Camille less and less the more her servants acted on her behalf for her security.

Normally when I read erotica I experience some degree of sensual titillation or sexual awareness. That never happened here in 200+ pages of near cover-to-cover erotica. I might as well have been reading an accounting textbook. No stimulation emotionally or sexually at all.
In between all the stale sex, Camille angsts about her duchy in Michel’s hands, Michel’s abuse and all her troubles related to it, and seeing Maxime again. She hasn’t seen or communicated with Maxime in two decades.

When Camille is not angsting about all her problems, Henri angsts about his relationship with Camille. He is absolutely fascinated with her and romantically attached to her. Again, she gives him no reason to be so. I did infer that she cared about Henri and felt responsible for him, but it was hard for me to like her for this since – really – she was 100% responsible for endangering him in her “pregnancy scheme” in the first place. Sorry, I don’t give snaps to people for doing what they should.

The “dealbreaker” for me occurred in Chapter 13. Here the author regaled us with yet another lengthy flashback of Camille’s lonely childhood and her first sexual attraction to Maxime. The story implies no romantic interest – not even friendship – these two are strictly interested in sex.

(SPOILER) The two schedule a tryst the evening of Camille’s seventeenth birthday ball. Concealed in the library’s window-seat, Camille witnesses Maxime confronted by an older noblewoman who accuses him of dishonoring Camille, threatens to reveal him to Camille’s evil father who’ll castrate him, and demands sex for her silence.

The situation in itself was absurd since the noblewoman had no proof of Maxime’s intentions, nor did she even know Camille was in the room. Nevertheless, Maxime proceeds to service the threatening noblewoman, clearly under duress and not enjoying himself, while the noblewoman calls him degrading names, orders him not to come, and flounces off after coming.

Sickeningly, although Camille feels outraged on Maxime's behalf that he is forced to perform against his will... she is still aroused and enjoys watching him fulfill the other woman's demands.
This disgusted me beyond measure and I lost what tenuous empathy I had for Camille up to that point.

Imagine a male protagonist getting off on watching his female interest -- even a casual sexual interest -- forced to service another man in order to avoid some unpleasant consequence. Imagine rationalizing it like so:

Camille couldn't help but be aroused now. She couldn't stop imagining herself in the other woman (rapist)'s place. Except she would be nicer to Maxime.

Once the rapist leaves, Camille ventures out of hiding to console Maxime with a blow job. (END SPOILER)

The novel goes on to reveal what is patently obvious to anyone paying attention, that Camille is a damaged woman who takes advantage of others for her own benefit (although her actions are chronically justified because she’s an aristocrat, a neglected daughter, and a battered wife.)
I found it impossible to identify with or sympathize with this character.

I continued reading because I’d been advised the story gets better. To some extent it does, but it’s too little too late. I did recognize SOME changes to Camille, but they were too minor for me to care.

I think the author wanted readers to applaud Camille for having an “epiphany” of sorts and taking responsibility for herself and for her problems. But she never comes through.

(SPOILER) In the end, after her arduous escape from her husband’s cruelty, Camille rides right back into her territory and takes over. Yes, that’s right. She never lifted a finger. The common people all loved her so much and hated Michel so much, they overthrew him and placed him under house arrest. Everyone volunteers to murder him, but Camille-Sue will have none of that. She simply exiles her ex-tormentor. Sylvie, her trusty friend/maid/bodyguard/sidekick, is turned out to indulge a female ménage a trois with some village women. The eunuchs leave to enjoy their not-so-secret homosexual relationship. Henri remains as Camille’s lover and mainstay although he understands he must share her with Maxime whom Camille still does not love. (END SPOILER)

*shudders* I’ve read worse, but not much.

Technical/mechanical: editorial was mostly clean. As mentioned earlier, there were some odd transitions and disjointedness with scenes. The narrative read to me like at least one scene was removed but the follow up writing wasn’t “smoothed over” to reflect that.

Cover Art: The cover’s gorgeous but does not relate to the novel in any way. I admit I was expecting something more “lighthearted” and “romping” because of the cover and the title.

Sex Rating: Orgasmic - for graphic sexual scenes only. I opt not to [personally] rate this book because I don’t find it sexy. The book is chock full of sexual situations, but none of them “touched” me.

Grade: D (This is a substandard work no matter how I look at it. The erotica is unexciting and the romance doesn’t get enough “spotlight” to compensate. From a literary viewpoint, Camille’s self-discovery is uninteresting.

NOTE: I’d like to add the novel has received mainly good to average reviews. Taste is subjective. I probably would have given the book a C-minus were it not for the Chapter 13 revelation. That was just too big an ick factor for me to remain neutral about.


Victoria Janssen said...

Thank you for your thoughtful review, and for clearly explaining where and how the book didn't work for you. That's useful information for a writer to know.


LVLM said...

M.A.- I will still probably read this book at some point. For some reason I still have an attraction to it. Maybe when I get over the price for it, I will. Maybe when B&N or Borders has a coupon.

M. A. said...

Hi, Victoria.

I do my best to be frank about analyzing why a book doesn't "work" for me.

To my mind, a big "stumbling block" for "The Duchess, Her Maid..." is that the "mood" of the cover art and the blurb create certain expectations about the novel.

The cover art is very "playful," even flirtatious, in tone. The blurb implies an erotic journey and Camille fleeing her "lecherous" husband to seek shelter with her "first love."

The novel did not fulfill those expectations. It is a very different story altogether, very dark and rife with dysfunctional and abusive relationships and emotionally empty sex.

Had I known more about the book's real content, I admit I would not have purchased it because I don't care for these kinds of stories. Personal tastes vary, and this just isn't a story into which I could "escape."

Again, I loved your ability for description and world-building. I did purchase a copy of "Moonlight Mistress" which I look forward to reading and reviewing in the future.

Thank you so much for reading my review. : )

M. A. said...

M.A.- I will still probably read this book at some point. For some reason I still have an attraction to it.

LVLM, I am definitely interested in reading your "take" on this novel whenever you finish.

My opinion is one opinion and taste is subjective. Every reading experience is subject to the reader's expectations and tastes. You might take away a completely different view of this book than I have. : )

Victoria Janssen said...

M.A., THE MOONLIGHT MISTRESS is a different sort of book from The Duchess etc., less dark, so maybe it will work better for you. Regardless, thank you for purchasing it!

LVLM, I'm running a random drawing on Friday the 12th at my blog to give away free copies of my books, so you might want to stop by!

And now I will back off to as not to inhibit further discussion...someone pointed that out to me recently that it can be quelling if an author shows up to comment on their review!