Book Review: When Passion Rules
Gallery Books, 2011
There’s actually a literary term for what Romance vet and best-selling author Johanna Lindsey is doing in her latest novel, When Passion Rules, and it’s not the one you think. The term is actually “Ruritanian fiction” – named after Ruritania, the fabled little Eastern European kingdom that hosts the action in Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. In that novel and its eighty zillion knock-offs, the petty little palace intrigues of a fictional teacup kingdom are played out with the abandon authors presumably wouldn’t feel if they were dealing with a known quantity like boring old Liechtenstein (although Danielle Steel shows ’em how the big girls do it by tackling the actual Liechtenstein dead-center). Usually, there’s a threat of war or civil war, a plucky heroine princess, and an intrepid foreigner (English or American, doesn’t matter so long as he’s dreamy, clean-shaven, and hygienic) who sets everything to rights again by injecting some good old-fashioned Western common sense into the petty inbred squabbles all around him. The heavy quilt of dull social respectability Queen Victoria laid over all the monarchies of her time gave Ruritanian novels their wildcard appeal (so would setting them in the Middle Ages, but then you’d have to give up not only duelling pistols but those old-timey picturesque passenger trains winding their way through the countryside), and the 15 million dead in World War I from a conflagration begun in just such a Ruritanian setting killed the charm of the genre, presumably forever.
But in the annals of bad taste, forever is only a forgetful generation or two, and Lindsey here continues the revival of a sub-genre that was ever so deserving of eternal death. Her backwards country (called “medieval” even by its defenders) is Lubinia, set far off in Eastern Europe at about the exact same longitude and latitude as George Bart McCutcheon’s Gruastark, setting of his 1901 novel Graustark, which was the title of When Passion Rules the first time I read it. Alana Farmer, Lindsey’s heroine, is about to turn 18 and debut in London society (no date is given, but people keep belly-aching about Napoleon, so somewhere around the Regency period is suspected) when her dear devoted uncle Mathew ‘Poppie’ Farmer shatters her world with a series of revelations. Not only is his real name Leonard Kastner, and not only is he not her uncle, and not only was he a paid assassin hired to kill her as an infant, but she herself isn’t even English – she’s Lubinian. And there’s more! She’s not just any random Lubinian – she’s Princess Alana, daughter of King Frederick, whose rule is wobbling under threat of rebellion from a faction upset because he hasn’t produced a new heir since his baby daughter was abducted 18 years ago. Poppie, despite being a loyal Lubinian, has kept the heiress’ existence a secret – but if her return to Lubinia can prevent a civil war, he has no choice but to reveal her true identity and plead with her to return home and confound the rebels with proof that Frederick does indeed have an heir.
I know, I know. That was the fairest synopsis I could devise, and even so, the plot holes suck in all matter and light around them for parsecs in every direction. But if that’s true, you ask, then why didn’t Poppie? And even if he did that, why wouldn’t he? But if that’s true, then why didn’t he? And even if they did, nobody would believe? And so on. And it doesn’t get any better at the line-by-line level – characters routinely forget things they learned only pages earlier, in the same conversation. Tenses shift and grind like boulders in a magma flow. George McCutcheon was a bumbling, bombastic plodder – but he seems like Turgenev compared to this.
The point of the whole business this time around is almost inverted from Graustark and Beverly of Graustark: the focus isn’t on a girl’s arrival changing a kingdom, it’s on a kingdom changing a girl – into a slobbering nymphomaniac. You see, when Alana demands to see the king, she’s confronted by Christoph Becker, the captain of the guard. You may have noticed him on the book’s cover, pert tushie clag in snug white, brawny back and shoulders bared, one hand nonchalantly holding what sure looks like a British uniform. Anyhoo, Alana confronts him – and he doesn’t believe her! Seems there’ve been other such claimants, and he explains how that can leave a guard a bit jaded when it comes to – but Alana’s not listening:
He was taller than the six feet she’d originally estimated, and young, probably in his mid-twenties. His face was thoroughly masculine with thick brows, a square jaw, and a strong, lean nose that was perfectly straight.
“He was handsome,” you see. “Good God, was he handsome.” In fact, “…she couldn’t quite manage to take her eyes off him. he was that handsome.” “… he smiled at her and her breath caught in her throat, it so dazzled her.” And the capper: “She couldn’t recall ever before seeing a male physique this superlative.”
Beverly of Graustark was primly content to savour her swain with his britches on, not hastily flung across the room, but times (if not plots) have changed. The actual logistics of getting her feisty princess and her lascivious guard together clearly baffle Lindsey as much as anybody, but once she finally has them within smoldering distance of each other, she’s in her element – a murky, overheated element occasionally lit by lurid lightning, like the surface of Venus, only with dangling modifiers. And since nothing in this book bears any resemblance to anything in observable reality (in reality, Beverly of Graustark would have been raped in the barracks, shot in the face, and dumped in the nearest latrine), maybe it’s best to consider this stuff science fiction, with Alana as Princess Leia, Poppie as Ben Kenobi, and Christoph Becker as Han Solo. I guess that would make the pestiferous little Corsican Emperor Palpatine.