I am officially giving up. I made it just about halfway through the book and realized I was still waiting for it to get really good and to be drawn inI am officially giving up. I made it just about halfway through the book and realized I was still waiting for it to get really good and to be drawn into it. It's certainly not bad, but it's just not all that compelling (and Mantel's habit of using "he" to refer to Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist, without mentioning his name is really annoying and was confusing for quite a while). It is possible - but unlikely - that I'll try picking this one up again. I've already given it two days. That's enough, I think. ...more
I did have a few problems with this book (mostly related to Gabaldon's incorporation of sexual violence and the ease with which the protagonist gets oI did have a few problems with this book (mostly related to Gabaldon's incorporation of sexual violence and the ease with which the protagonist gets over her first husband when separated from him), but I really enjoyed reading it anyway. There's time travel, sex, handsome Scotsmen, knife fights, wolf attacks, and lots of adventuring around 18th century Scotland. That's quite enough to make it at least interesting. ...more
**spoiler alert** This book is really several books in one. This could easily have been a whole series of novels about Skye O’Malley—and it may have b**spoiler alert** This book is really several books in one. This could easily have been a whole series of novels about Skye O’Malley—and it may have benefited by such a treatment. In light of the book’s multiplicity, then, my review will also be several reviews in one.
I. Bertrice Small is known for her purple prose; overblown descriptions of sex, clothes, and food are one of the reasons for reading her. I was looking forward to being entertained by this element of the book and I was not let down. She sets the bar high for herself from the beginning of the book, both in the physical description of Skye O’Malley (including incredible details about her appearance like this: “when she laughed she revealed small, perfect white teeth” (11)—when even something so ordinary as teeth are so precisely detailed, you know you’re really in for something) and in the description of her initial connection with Niall Burke, the hero: “They were suspended in time, their souls flowing back and forth between their bodies, twining into one perfect being” (17). I had to read that several times just to fully take in its ridiculousness.
Even better than the high-flown romantic language and extreme detail regarding characters’ appearance, though, are the constant descriptions of outfits (very thorough, including all the colors, accessories, and multiple layers) and meals (these people eat and drink far more than I thought possible; they even have ale or wine for breakfast). And then there’s the sex scenes. Here are some favorites of mine:
*“As his seed thundered into her hidden valley he shook fiercely with the intensity of his passion” (113). *“…your little honey-oven was made for me!” (115)—interestingly, “honey oven” is used three different times throughout the book to refer to Skye’s, well, woman parts. By three different men. It was weird enough the first time, but it is beyond ridiculous to have a Spanish Algerian, an Englishman, and an Irishman who don’t even really know each other all use the same idiosyncratic name. *“Her golden orbs grew hard as his mouth drank first from one and then from the other” (152). *“He drove his root into her warm and fertile body” (152). *“…the coral-red flower of womanhood wet and pouting with desire” (221). *“Her small, full breasts, wet and warm, pushed demandingly at his chest” (233). This way of describing body parts as having some sort of intention or will both disturbs me and cracks me up. *“She breathed deeply of his warm male scent, like a kitten licking lovingly at a kindly hand. She loved his great manroot with her tongue” (318).
Some of these are hilarious, and some of them are cringe-inducing; actually, most of them are both. In addition to these choice bits, there are multiple occasions (at least five, it seems, but I didn’t actually keep a count) upon which getting sexed up causes the woman to faint, which is usually seen as a good thing, representative of how good at teh sexing the gentleman in question is.
For sheer descriptive silliness, this book gets five stars.
II. This book has no shortage of plot. There are pirates, court intrigues, harems, panthers, snarky nuns, kidnappings, and—as has already been mentioned—lots of sex. As an (erotic) adventure novel, there’s a lot to like. The first two sections of the book are pretty entertaining and I mostly enjoyed reading them. In Part I, in particular, I was really enjoying seeing Skye rebel against her father, get the better of her abusive husband, take charge of her family’s seafaring business, and fight pirates, all in addition to eventually getting her man. Part II, in Algiers, seems like it should have been really interesting because of the exotic setting and the harems and the fact that Skye and Husband #2 have pet panthers that they walk on leashes, but because Skye suffers from amnesia here, she becomes a lot less interesting for a while, just a blank beauty to be molded and moved around as the plot demanded. Part III, with all its court intrigue, fancy parties, and pirates, is shockingly dull, however. It takes some kind of special skill to make piracy boring, but Small manages it here.
(Adventure + Court Intrigue + Sex) – (Boring Pirates + Pacing Problems + Number of Pages) = 2 stars.
III. Romance novels are tricky ground for feminist readings. On the one hand, they are books written by women and for women and so there’s all this space for woman-centered fantasy and for narratives that counter patriarchal ideas about gender roles and sex/romance. However, most romance novels (at least, most I’ve read) do not provide this counternarrative (see my reviews of The Reluctant Viking and My Fair Viking for more on this). I’m actually not entirely sure what to do with Skye O’Malley in these terms. It’s far less anti-feminist than The Reluctant Viking and it regularly includes ideas that almost seem to belong to a certain kind of feminism; at the same time, though, it also treads familiar and nonfeminist ground.
One element of Skye O’Malley that really struck me was actually something that some other reviewers have complained about quite heartily: the rape scenes. There are three rape scenes that really stand out for me. Skye’s first husband, Dom, commits incest with his sister and, when Skye walks in on them having sex, the two of them join forces to rape her; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, rapes Skye much later in the book and she does not have any recourse because he has far more political power than her and could hurt her family; and—here’s the one that really seemed to disturb people—Dudley on another occasion comes to Skye’s home while she is out, throws a party in which he brings local virgins in and rapes them. Furthermore, when Skye comes back and tries to stop the goings-on, she walks in on the scene of a twelve-year-old girl on all fours on a table, with an aroused dog behind her about to be used to rape her and then, when she tries to kick Dudley out of her home, he rapes her on the spot, in front of everyone. These scenes are all horrifying and unpleasant to read. But I actually find this heartening.
I have read far too many romance novels in which rape is presented as seduction and the rapist is not only excused but romanticized. The message in those books is clearly that women who say no really mean yes and that it is the man’s job to show her that she really does mean yes. Bertrice Small challenges that by showing rape as traumatic and rapists as bad people. After being raped by her first husband and his sister, Skye is traumatized and takes a good long time to recover enough to be willing to be touched even by the man she loves. The aftereffects of this rape follow her even to Algiers, even though she cannot remember exactly what has happened to her. Even better, her rapist is punished within the narrative. He is injured and disempowered and dies not long afterward; the sister is disgraced and also disempowered. The later rape scenes are similar in that they are representations of how despicable the rapist is and they motivate Skye to seek and gain revenge on the Queen, who has allowed this to go on. The attempted rape of a child with a dog has gotten a lot of attention in recent conversations, but I think that the fact that this is framed as horrific within the text and that it does not actually occur and isn't actually described is significant. It would be far more troubling if the rape actually took place in part because the description of the event could be its own perverse titillation for the reader. Refusing to go through with it, refusing to represent the actual deed, refuses the reader this Marquis de Sade-type entertainment.
The other major thread of this narrative has to do with Skye’s independence. From the very beginning of the novel, she is strong-willed and feisty, willing to fight for what she wants and mostly successful. She proves herself to be intelligent and capable over and over throughout the novel—she is a good businesswoman (in Ireland, Algiers, and England), she masters political maneuvering, she bests the Queen at her own game (with some help from her friends), and she manages to build and maintain quite a fortune for herself and her children. Even with all this, though, it is apparently too much to let her take care of herself. In the end, she must be rescued and married off and then told to calm down. Niall, her fourth husband, tells her that her adventuring days are over: “I will give you your head in many things, but not in all matters, Skye. You are too headstrong for your own good” (457). And so, tamed, she goes back home with her husband. After all the work she has put into building her own life throughout the book—without this man telling her what to do or not do—to see her back down and be mastered in this way rankles.
Last thought on this topic (though there’s much, much more that could be said about it, I’m sure): I know that other reviewers have argued that all of the sex in this book is problematic (Ceridwen's review is a great example of this), but I am going to have to disagree. Sort of. All the sex in the book is problematic. But not all of the sex in the book is rape. Skye O’Malley lives in a world that does not allow her—or any woman—to direct her own life. (Even the Queen of England can’t direct her own life.) In this world, therefore, Skye can never make a choice that is not truly and absolutely hers because it can always be overridden by someone else—her husband, her uncle, her father, the Queen, or just any man who is stronger than her. This is definitely a problem and it informs all of her relationships with other people, sexual or not. But I maintain that there are pockets of resistance to this in the relationships she develops with some men. Just because others have the power to disregard her choices doesn’t make her consent (when it occurs) irrelevant. When Niall Burke comes to her on her wedding night to Dom and sleeps with her, he does so not just because he wants her but because she wants him (and she has made that desire clear). When she gets involved with Khalid, he would have had her anyway, but he didn’t have to force her to do anything at all because she wanted him. Before she fell in love with Geoffrey Southwood, she slept with him because she was attracted to him and because she could benefit from their liaison. And when she and Niall were finally married, what brought them together was her invitation to him to come to her bed. I would not call any of these instances rape. They are wrapped up in troubling power relations because the whole of the world was wrapped up in these power relations. They were inescapable. Skye knows this; she understands the facts of her life and, though she may wish things were otherwise, she can either choose to work within that system and, as she does so, find love and fulfillment and pleasure or she can choose to remove herself from it—become a nun, like her sister, or take her chances protecting herself. Bertrice Small, in this way, recognizes and even critiques the bind that a sexist and patriarchal society places women in while also complicating the idea promoted by some second-wave feminists (e.g., Andrea Dworkin) that all sex is rape. Even in a truly fucked-up world, she says, there is room for love and desire.
IV. Here’s where things get weird. As I was reading, I became sort of obsessed with the descriptions of characters’ eyes. Skye herself has blue eyes, but they don’t stay the same blue. In fact, they can change color quite rapidly, as her moods change: “…her eyes, which had been a deep purple-blue, lightened to a clear blue-green” (81). Niall has silver eyes, Constanza has purple eyes (“pansy-purple,” to be specific), Geoffrey has lime-green eyes, Willow (Skye’s first daughter) has “golden lion eyes” (307), Adam has “sensuous smokey blue” eyes (373), and Queen Elizabeth has “jet-black eyes” (365). (Very few characters have brown eyes and, interestingly, the ones who do are mostly either kind of uninteresting, mean, or stupid. For instance, one peasant girl is described as having “bovine brown eyes” (232) and Dudley (who is, seriously, the worst person in the book) has brown eyes. I started to wonder if Bertrice Small has something against people with brown eyes.) Clearly, there is something going on with the eyes in this book. People’s eyes simply do not change color and I have never seen anyone with either lime-green, silver, jet-black, or pansy-purple eyes.
What if, I began to wonder, this could be read as taking place in a sort of alternate universe where human evolution took a different track, where people evolved these strange eye colors and color-changing abilities? That would explain the eye weirdness. What else might it explain?
Skye’s ability to be gorgeous and thin with perky breasts after having five or six children (it’s hard to keep track since they’re pretty much never around) might be explained by this hypothesis. Perhaps humans evolved for greater physical resilience and unnatural beauty.
Another thing that could potentially have evolved alongside these traits is the ability to change the size of specific body parts. Sexy body parts, in particular. On at least one occasion, Skye’s breasts seem to change size over the course of just a couple of pages. Although they are usually “small impudent breasts” (292), for special occasions she may inflate them to “very full breasts” (294). Similarly, while early in the book it is made clear (thanks to Skye’s opportunities to compare the two) that Dom’s penis is much larger than Niall’s (“Niall had been a big man, but Skye’s husband [Dom:] was unnaturally large, enormous” [49:]), later, when Claire (Dom’s sister, who also had a chance to compare) sleeps with Niall, she reports that his penis is much larger than Dom’s (“He was even bigger than Dom had been” [289:]). Clearly, these men are able to adjust their penis sizes as they go through life or perhaps just on a whim. And given the number of giant penises Skye encounters throughout the book and their increasing size, one begins to suspect that all men are involved in a kind of Cold War of one-upmanship regarding penis-size.
And once I began reading the book with this science fictional reading in my mind, it became difficult to avoid. Reading science fiction requires a different set of reading protocols, primary among these protocols the necessity of reading metaphor literally (Samuel Delany famously writes that the phrase "Then her world exploded" in SF "must retain the margin to read these words as meaning that a planet, belonging to a woman, blew up"). Applying that technique to a romance novel filled with the purplest of pansy-purple prose is its own form of entertainment. Suddenly this—“his lips devoured her throat, setting her pulse to racing” (258)—is sinister instead of sexy; this—“…his aching manhood burst and flooded her with his burning tribute” (330)—is horrific instead of hot; and this—“He raised her carefully and then lowered her, slowly impaling her inch by sweet inch onto his lance” (458)—is, well, it’s still icky, but perhaps in a different way.
Unfortunately, reading Skye O’Malley as science fiction doesn’t really get you very far, but it’s an interesting trip while it lasts.
V. Overall, I actually enjoyed reading parts of this book but grew terribly bored in other parts. Some scenes were unpleasant, but they didn't truly horrify me. And the writing is neither terrible nor great; in fact, sometimes it's quite entertaining. Basically, it all averages out for me. If the third section were less drawn out or as thrilling as it seems like it should be, I could easily give this three stars. As it is, though, I'm leaning toward two stars. ...more