Friday, July 15, 2011

Let's Start With the Prologue

I have an interesting history with Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels.

I have no idea when I first read it because it left an indelible blank on my mind.  Years later, I found a nearly pristine copy in a box of books I'd read and then culled, intending to donate them to charity or something.

Before I found that box, though, I'd found Romlandia, the collection of romance lovers, reviewers and bloggers on the Internet.  In Romlandia, Lord of Scoundrels is on a very short list of books that might be considered The Best Romance Novel Ever.  Ooh, how wonderful, I thought at the time.  A new-to-me author!

I bought a copy of LoS, read it and didn't much like it.  As I recalled, I felt that the hero was too damaged.  I did, however, like Ms. Chase's writing, and consider many of her other books to be among my favorites, particularly Lord Perfect.

Then I found that box of books and realized that I must have read LoS before.  That explained why during the second reading I'd had that odd but distinct sensation of reading something that should be new but was almost familiar in places (called, I gather, "déjà-lu").  How could I have read the Number One Romance of All Time and literally not even registered it?  I really must not have liked it the first time.

Her publisher currently has LoS at a come-hither 99¢ price for the Kindle, which is a bit of a no-brainer.  Yes, even for a book I've tried twice and not liked.

And -- ignoring a bookcase-worth of TBR books -- I have now read LoS for the third time.  And, as you might expect, I liked it better.  I even know why!

First, let's start with the prologue.  It's massive -- 5% of the entire book -- and it's unrelenting.  Misery upon trauma upon torment upon horror are heaped on the growing head of the hero as he ages from a small child to an adult.  I can't tell you what it's like to read this litany of abuse if one has enjoyed a sunny, untroubled childhood, but as one with a Bad Childhood (and I know I'm hardly alone in that category), it's unpleasant reading.  Not what I go to a romance novel for.  It's hard to imagine that prologue puts any reader -- even one who is heart-whole and carefree emotionally -- in a relaxed, romantic and/or randy mood.

I also think the tone of the prologue is all wrong for the rest of the book, which is smart, witty and resourceful.  But I'm vulnerable to counter-argument here because halfway through the prologue I gave up on it and skipped ahead to the rest of the book.

Guess what?  I think you could skip the whole demented introduction.  Does it help "explain" the hero's issues?  Maybe, but any reader can infer the horror.  Keep the prologue as an addendum if you want -- text you can refer to after you've finished the book in case you still have questions about how Dain, the hero, got to be the man he was.

(There's also the risk that the prologue actually doesn't explain Dain because it's so heavily larded with agony and suffering that Dain seems almost magically functional in adulthood.  But I don't have a Ph.D. in psychology, so I won't argue that point.)

Next tip for enjoying this book:  keep your eyes on Jess, the heroine.  She's wonderful -- smart, inventive, determined, and yet not overly anachronistic.  I had no trouble following her thinking as she worked out hypotheses and strategies based on the evidence.  She struck me as psychologically astute without lapsing into implausible psychobabble.

It helps that the language in LoS is more formal than some current authors of historical fiction prefer.  Fewer contractions and more plausibly outmoded expressions and old-fashioned turns of phrase.  I'm not saying every romance set in early 19th century England has to sound like this, but soothed my worries that a woman of that time period would have trouble deducing Dain's neuroses decades before Freud and Jung gave us our current understanding of the concept.

Final tip:  Accept the facile and implausible transformation that Dain goes through in much the same way most children accept multiple Santa Clauses seen during December.  Is it likely that a man that damaged and thus hiding in his own impenetrable emotional isolation would change in an instant if presented with the right stimulus?  No, but then Santa Claus isn't likely either, and we still understand the instinct to believe.

At the end of three different reads, LoS is never going to be my favorite "love healed his black soul" romance.  But now, finally, I can see the appeal.

And yes, I'm sure I'll read the last 95% of it again.


  1. I always skip prologues. I'm ideologically opposed to them, especially long prologues.

    That being said, I have read the LoS prologue. I think its only benefit was that it helped me to picture Sebastien in my mind.

  2. I would love to talk to someone who'd read it without the prologue and without any sense of what the prologue was about. That would be the real test of whether it's necessary for the story.

    But even if she needed it, I could have done without all the superfluous detail of torment. A little goes a long way -- in both directions: she didn't need a lot of misery to get who Dain is and why he behaves as he does, and the more she heaped on, the less room she gave me to enjoy the actual romance.

  3. I didn't like the book the first time I read it; I do not plan to re-read it. My dislike of it, however, stems from the heroine. In my reading of the book, she is a manipulative mother/substitute, worthy of being included in "A Generation of Vipers."

  4. Anonymous -- I had to Google "A Generation of Vipers" because I'd not heard of Philip Wylie or that book.

    The fantasy, I believe, is that a heroine could find a wounded hero and "love" him to full heroic status. I can see how someone could hate what Jess does, but her motives -- as presented in the book -- are not to smother Dain in an unhealthy adult / child relationship. She wants him to be an adult; she just recognizes that in order to achieve that end, he needs to resolve the injuries done to him by his parents.

    The flaw in the paradigm is that no one can affect mental health for another person. Assist, maybe. Provide a nudge or two in that direction? I suppose. But it's not a magic wand that the healthy spouse can wave over the damaged spouse and all's well.

    So I agree that the dynamic between Dain and Jessica is implausible. I'll part company with you on seeing Jessica as a viper, but I certainly can see how a reader could bring a certain perspective that would make that character look that bad.

  5. Magdalen--
    I have such mixed results with Chase's books--I was looking over my Goodreads ratings and I have everything from DNF's(Mr. Impossible)to 4 stars(LoS).
    I doubt I will re-read LoS--that 'too many books, too little time' thing and my comfort read shelves are full! I enjoyed it, but it didn't grab me the way you want a keeper and comfort read to do.
    As for Dain's transformation/growth--yeah, a little hard to accept. I guess it is just another example of the power of the Magic Hoo-Haa(*g*). Chase's skill as a writer is what makes the reader accept it, rather than hurl the book across the room.


  6. Barb -- I'm reading her latest now: Silk is for Seduction. I'm really enjoying it, even (or especially) after reading Lord of Scoundrels.


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