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Am I the Only One Who Hates The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons?

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Paperback, 810 pages
Published September 8th 2009 by William Morrow Paperbacks (first published 2001)

The golden skies, the translucent twilight, the white nights, all hold the promise of youth, of love, of eternal renewal. The war has not yet touched this city of fallen grandeur, or the lives of two sisters, Tatiana and Dasha Metanova, who share a single room in a cramped apartment with their brother and parents. Their world is turned upside down when Hitler’s armies attack Russia and begin their unstoppable blitz to Leningrad.


Yet there is light in the darkness. Tatiana meets Alexander, a brave young officer in the Red Army. Strong and self-confident, yet guarding a mysterious and troubled past, he is drawn to Tatiana—and she to him. Starvation, desperation, and fear soon grip their city during the terrible winter of the merciless German siege. Tatiana and Alexander’s impossible love threatens to tear the Metanova family apart and expose the dangerous secret Alexander so carefully protects—a secret as devastating as the war itself—as the lovers are swept up in the brutal tides that will change the world and their lives forever.

I’m always saying that if everyone else raves about a book, I’m sure to be disappointed, but I didn’t think The Bronze Horseman could go wrong.

It’s a DIK on All About Romance, and is a fan favorite on the site’s message boards. It’s got a 4.3 rating on Goodreads, not that that is high praise at this point, but I digress. Plus, it’s so rare to find a romance set in WWII Russia that I thought the setting would offset the eventual letdown.

Alas.

Darlings, I’m sure I’ve read worse books than The Bronze Horseman. I’m certain I have. But The Bronze Horseman demoralized me.

So that you know just how low I’ve been brought, I’ll write this review in the style of The Bronze Horseman. 

POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD

At first we meet Tatiana. Tatiana is small, blonde, fragile, selfless, innocent, frail, a lover of poetry, tiny, a complete innocent who doesn’t know what she does to men, delicate. She often finds herself unable to stand up around Alexander because she has feelings, but she is resourceful enough to predict the Siege of Leningrad well ahead of time to buy extra bread and make croutons to sustain her family.

Tiny, small, fragile Tatiana! Those brutal tides just sweep and sweep her! During the course of the book she survives the following:

  • a train station suddenly bombed during which she buries herself under dead bodies;
  • the Siege of Leningrad, in which she nearly starves but for croutons and Alexander;
  • a terrifying evacuation to the country, during which she has to cross a frozen river at night with people dying all around her;
  • more starvation;
  • being stalked by a man with a “Russian face: broad, slightly washed out features, as if the colors had all run dry. His nose was wide and turned up, his lips extremely thin;”*
  • standing up for three days;
  • more walking in snow;
  • pneumonia;
  • TB. Yes. Tatiana had a slight case of tuberculosis.

Thank God there’s Alexander. Alexander of the ice cream and/or molasses eyes. He has all the medals for valor, and Tatiana wants him to rest, because he is so overworked. When he’s not bravely and single-handedly turning the Germans out of Russia, he’s also traveling great distances so that he can be on hand to save Tatiana from whatever late calamity has befallen her, be it a bombed train station or her abusive family.

But consummate lover that he is, Alexander pauses in his brave deeds long enough to take Tatiana’s virginity in a scene that includes such deathless dialogue as:

“Tania (Tatiana), you are too much for me. I can’t take you, not in small doses, not in large doses, not here, not on the street. Nowhere….”

“Shura (Alexander) I’m going to die.”

“No, Tatia (Tatiana).”

“Breathe on me…”

He breathed on her.

He’s a lover of such skill and passion that he brings Tatiana, who didn’t even know what intercourse was, really, to an earthshattering orgasm, possibly by caressing her nipples in circles. Her screams of joy are such that a nurse comes running to her aid. Because Alexander took her viriginity in the hospital bed where Tatiana’s laid up with broken ribs and a broken leg. 

Sometimes Tatiana resists Alexander’s herculean efforts to protect her from her own goodness and innocence, at which point he curses mildly, shouts loudly, punches a wall inches from her face, or screams things like “don’t make me more crazy!” before entreating her with sweet phrases like “this frantic wretch begs you, please leave!”

Like the war, The Bronze Horseman seems never-ending. Like the Energizer Bunny of awful books, it keeps going and going and going…

I didn’t think it was possible to write a boring book about the Siege of Leningrad and the Russian front, but I was wrong. I’ve ever read anything as mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring. Dramatic scenes — many very true to history — are buried in melodrama. Then additional melodrama is piled onto history and/or melodrama. Unnecessary scenes last past any reasonable point. Pointless, often repetitive dialogue, dripping with so many adjectives and adverbs, fills page after page after page.

The Bronze Horseman gets zero croutons. Tatiana gets zero ice creams. Alexander gets zero stars for valor.

*One of the most puzzling aspects of The Bronze Horseman is the depiction of Russians in general. Russian men are almost always drunken, abusive thugs. Russian women — aside from Tatiana — are almost always sluttish or stupid. Characters are described using “Soviet” the way you’d use a racial slur. The quality of the book makes it difficult for me to tell whether is intentional or just lazy characterization, so I’ll not pass judgment.

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Book Review: With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

There’s a curse at work here, all right. The kind that makes a book impossible to put down.

It’s no secret that I love a true Gothic romance better than almost any other romance genre, but the problem is finding new ones to read — discovering a well-written Gothic published since Gerald Ford was in office is almost impossible.

And then there was Amanda DeWees, who has, in the course of just two years, managed to publish not one but two wonderful Gothics. I considered the first, Sea of Secretsa revelation. Her latest, With This Curse, is even better.

Without further ado, here’s the synopsis, courtesy of DeWees’ website:

In 1854, seventeen-year-old chambermaid Clara Crofton was dismissed from Gravesend Hall for having fallen in love with Richard Blackwood, the younger son of the house. Alone in the world, Clara found a tenuous position as a seamstress, but she always blamed the Gravesend curse for the disaster that had befallen her—and for Richard’s death soon after in the Crimean War.

A proposal…

Now, more than eighteen years later, Richard’s twin, Atticus, seeks out Clara with a strange proposal: if she will marry him and live with him as his wife in name only to ease the mind of his dying father, Atticus will then endow her with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. Clara knows that he is not disclosing his true motives, but when she runs out of options for an independent life, she has no choice but to become Atticus’s wife.

A deception…

For Clara, returning to Gravesend as a bride brings some triumph… but also great unease. Not only must she pretend to be a wellborn lady and devoted wife to a man whose face is a constant reminder of the love she lost, but ominous portents whisper that her masquerade brings grave danger. “This house will take from you what you most treasure,” her mother once warned her. But the curse has already taken the man Clara loved. Will it now demand her life?

As I was reading With This Curse, I thought over and over of how Dean James of Mystery Scene summed up the death of the 1970s Gothic Revival:

A fair number of [1970s-era Gothics] featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved.

I thought of that observation not because Clara is dimwitted, but because it crystallized the secret to With This Curse’s success — making the danger Clara faces real.

Just as I raved of Oriel from Sea of Secrets, Clara is a rare worthy successor to that grandmother of all Gothic heroines, Jane Eyre. We still talk about and read Jane Eyre today because Charlotte Bronte created a heroine that didn’t blunder into the proverbial dark room with no thought to danger, but because she was pushed into it.  Every time she steps into the dark room — becoming a governess at a house with a bad reputation, marrying Rochester, running away from Rochester — it’s because of the limited choices available to her as an impoverished, unmarried woman. That’s the horror of Jane Eyre. 

That’s also why With This Curse works so well. The book is so well-grounded in the setting — mid-Victorian England — that it’s easy to understand why Clara, too, goes to the dark room by agreeing to marry Atticus and return to a house where she has known little but unhappiness. So few so-called historical romances truly make the reader understand the limitations women faced in less enlightened eras — probably because we wouldn’t read them if they did — that when these limitations are used to create real drama in the plot, it’s surprising and refreshing.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

It’s not just Clara’s plight that DeWees employs to create the almost stifling sense of doom that pervades the book. DeWees ratchets up the mystery in the book by imbuing the commonplace with portent. DeWees proves that you don’t need mummies rattling chains to make a horror story — Victorian England is scary enough.

Women who stray from the straight and narrow come to terrible ends. Children are mistreated as a matter of course. The hero’s congenital physical imperfection is seen as a mark of a curse, as is an ancestor’s madness. Atticus’ cretin of a father, in keeping with the ghoulish-to-us Victorian obsession with mourning, collects death masks. Neither the mystery that’s at the heart of the story or the other weird happenings that create a spooky atmosphere are supernatural; rather, they are horrible for how natural they are, how easily they could happen during the Victorian era.   

Which is not to say that With This Curse is a joyless slog. As with any DeWees book, you are treated to beautifully written prose, excellent plotting and great characterization.

Clara is prickly, but in the best way possible, and like Jane Eyre, is witty and perfect in her imperfections. She’s a little older and wiser than most Gothic heroines, which makes her even more fun to read. Atticus quickly became one of my favorite Gothic heroes. He’s one of few heroes in the genre who is genuinely funny, kind and delightful, even as he struggles with the ghosts that haunt Gravesend Hall. Not Scooby Doo ghosts, mind you, but the real ghosts that haunt any home — memories and long-standing family dynamics that can stir up more trouble than a whole passel of the bedsheet variety of ghosts.

The romance that develops between Atticus and Clara is believable and touching; they complement each other so well, with Clara’s dryness the perfect foil to Atticus’ sweet vulnerability. They are both misfits, in their own ways, and it’s easy to see how these two are drawn together, and you are really rooting for their HEA.

I should end this review right here, but I can’t without mentioning Clara’s career as a seamstress for a famous stage actress. The brief foray we’re given into the Victorian theater world is fascinating, and for someone who could usually care less about suchlike stuff, the descriptions of the dresses are so engrossing — you owe it to yourself to visit DeWees’ Pinterest page to get an idea of Clara’s work.

I give With This Curse 5 out of 5 creepy death masks. Atticus gets 5 jaunty walking sticks, while Clara gets 5 dresses of her own design, sewn by someone else!

Enough of my yammering. Just read With This Curse already. But make sure you have several hours to kill, or don’t have anything to do tomorrow, because you won’t be able to put it down.

With This Curse

Amanda DeWees

Published 2014

Available at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And when you’re done, read Sea of Secrets if you haven’t already!