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Book Review: The Taming of the Rogue

The Taming of the Rogue

by Amanda McCabe

Harlequin Historicals, 2012

In the 21st Century, Harlequin Romances began to embrace the concept of digital distribution with a fervor that was all the more intense for being a bit tardy – an indisputably wise move, since in the non-electronic real world, big, full-service retail bookstores have become rarer and rarer, and even when one operated on every street corner, there was no guarantee they’d devote any precious floor-space to Harlequins. Indeed, as often as not they’d proudly refuse to.

That’s because in its seventy years of life, Harlequin has been a continuous object of scorn, the Mills & Boon of North America, despised by the non-romance-reading world as a purveyor of quickie crap and disparaged even by romance readers as the bottom of the genre barrel (how often over the years have romance browsers been overheard saying “I have some standards – at least I don’t read Harlequins!”). The company produces over a hundred titles a month in over a hundred countries, to the tune of several million dollars a year, and you generally don’t rack up numbers like that by sitting around waiting for the next Thomas Mann manuscript. Harlequin has the unshakeable reputation for being formula-fiction, and formula-fiction tends to bring out the snooty worst in bookstore workers. That, plus the closing of bookstores (a phenomenon always attributed to tough economic times but really due to the fact that the roughly one-half of the world’s population born after 1983 is almost incalculably dumber than the one-half born before 1983) has made even the task of finding Harlequin Romances a bit difficult. In all of metro Chicago, there are only two venues that regularly stock them; in New York, only four, in all of greater Boston, only one. Emphasizing the company’s online presence was smart; the Internet has no problem with formula-anything.

The concession might be necessary, but it was never justified. The idea that Harlequin romances are churned out by soulless automatons who don’t care about their manuscripts can be dispelled simply by meeting one of those writers (meeting them en masse – say, at an annual Romance Writers of America annual conference – can’t be recommended for newcomers or the faint of heart: these ladies like to talk, laugh, and drink at levels that would have exhausted a Viking raiding party in about an hour). Yes, Harlequins in all their various imprints (Blaze, Intrigue, Presents, Desire, etc.) are intensely formulaic, but readers who think restrictive formulae prohibit creative passion should avoid talking about sonnets with Edmund Spenser.

More broad-minded readers – and naturally romance fans – must certainly take heart from the sight of that new wave of colorful Harlequin covers arriving in their neat little shelf-display every month (many of them – just in May! – featuring the chiselled good looks of a certain familiar face). No wry social commentary or post-modern stylistic gambles here – these are simple what-happens-next stories, ‘escapist’ fantasies purified to almost Kabuki precision.

Surely the most ambitious of all Harlequin’s imprints is the Harlequin Historical line – four historical romances published every single month, with some editorial effort being made to make sure they aren’t all set in the Regency. Princesses, gunslingers, and Saxon barons make regular appearances in the Historical line, but there are often surprises too, like this month’s The Taming of the Rogue by Amanda McCabe. As the title might suggest, this one is set not only in Shakespeare’s time – London of 1589 – but also Shakespeare’s milieu, the world of the theater.

Specifically the White Heron Theater, the home of Lord Henshaw’s Men and their star playwright and actor Robert Alden, the requisite quick-witted super-hottie of our two-hour’s traffic. He’s a troublemaker and a ladies’ man, which makes him an object of caution for pretty young widow Anna Barrett, who helps to manage the raucous Southwark theater but wants nothing to do with the personal chaos Alden represents. Anna’s marriage was an unhappy one (McCabe faces her Elizabethan facts straight-on: her main female characters aren’t tremulous virgins), and no matter how attractive she finds Alden (and lordy, do we get descriptions of those attractions! Anna might be keeping her distance, but our author is clearly besotted with the playwright), she values the peace and freedom of her widowhood.

Inevitably, the attraction wins out – although not without the expected soul-searching, some of it done in the presence of an older married couple, Edward and Elizabeth, who starred in an earlier story of McCabe’s and in these pages represent the potential lucky turn of the dice:

“Life is too uncertain and precious to waste, and love too rare to lose,” Elizabeth said with a smile. “He and I both had to learn that. Maybe what happened to us could be useful to others, as well – others who struggle.”

Anna stared at the horse’s grey neck, unable to quite meet Elizabeth’s gaze. “You think I struggle?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “I have not known you long, Mistress Barrett – Anna – but I see the light in your eyes when you look at Robert, the way the two of you smile at each other. It’s as if there is no one else in the whole room – nothing else you see. That is also how I feel when I look at Edward.”

Somehow the understanding in Elizabeth’s soft voice, the truth of her words, melted Anna’s reserve. “I do care about Rob. But there is so much I don’t know about him, and what I do know tells me I must be cautious. My feelings frighten me a bit.”

The fear comes from the mystery: like most Elizabethan wives, Anna didn’t know her first husband well before their marriage, so Alden’s secrets set off her alarms bells. And the more she learns of those secrets – and of his work for Queen Elizabeth’s spy-master “the great spider Walsingham” – the more alarmed she becomes. Alden’s story, when we learn it, is starkly horrifying and reveals the nobility the playwright hides beneath his roistering exterior. Anna comes to see him as a white knight (“with armour that is a bit rusty, perhaps …”), and the book romps quickly to its satisfying conclusion. Corners are sometimes cut for simplicity’s sake, but McCabe has done a fair amount of research (I counted only four historical inaccuracies in nearly 300 pages – less, in other words, than some works of actual Elizabethan history I read in 2011), and the heart and energy she’s poured into  The Taming of the Rogue ought to silence that old ‘automaton’ canard once and for all.

It won’t, but Harlequin readers won’t care. Four new historicals are due next month, after all.