2 stars

Historical Romance Neo-Bodice Ripper Review: Claiming the Courtesan by Anna Campbell

Claiming the Courtesan, Anna Campbell, Avon, 2007, cover artist unknown

“Verity, you have a choice,” he said gently. “We eat, we talk, we pass the evening with an attempt at civility. Or we fuck. It’s up to you.”


2 stars

Rating: 2 out of 5.

*** Spoiler alert ***

Although I’m not a fan of the execution of Claiming the Courtesan, I thought it was refreshing what Anna Campbell tried to accomplish in her first book. I categorize this style of romance as a neo-bodice ripper, in that it attempts to capture the sexual power struggles contained in those older books, but it’s very modern in its presentation.

The Plot: Something Old is New Again

I appreciated what Campbell wanted to create in Kylemore: a loathsome, detestable anti-hero who cared only for his spoiled, noble self. Initially, he drew my attention; however, what was produced on paper was mostly a bratty, uncharismatic, psycho-stalker.

I seem to be alone in this thought, but I yearn for the days of stoic, inscrutable heroes, whose love was shown through their actions, and when they did speak, the words meant so much. I prefer to be in the hero’s head as little as possible. Here, we’re given every angsty thought, every hateful sentiment or lustful urge, every single feeling.

Soraya/Verity, with her dual personality, was an interesting yet flawed depiction of a woman who had to sell her body to help her family survive. It seemed to me like Campbell intended this to be a romantic feminist oeuvre, just like any good bodice ripper (because I do believe, despite the rapey-reputation, bodice rippers are ultimately very pro-female). Sadly, this book couldn’t achieve what the great rippers of the ’70s & ’80s did, which was to enlighten and titillate at the same time. This was too emo. There was so much introspection and bad sex; it became tedious.

The problem with books like Claiming the Courtesan is that authors forget what made the older ones so great: the reader got to see the plot progress. What Claiming the Courtesan lacked was tension. The drama doesn’t unfold before our eyes, as the story begins in medias res with Kylemore searching for his missing mistress.

Imagine if, instead of already being lovers, the story began with Kylemore meeting Verity, a courtesan desired by many. Then over time, he seduces her away from her protector. All the while, Verity would be conflicted but determined to end her career as a prostitute and retire. We’d see into more Verity & Kylemore’s relationship, perhaps a snarky side character or two, and more about Kylemore’s evil mother. Then (just like the book began) Verity would flee from him, Kylemore would track her down and kidnap her, and at that point, we’d get to see how their unusual bond progresses. Finally, in the epilogue, we’d view how they would deal with their scandalous relationship in polite society rather than hear them avow promises of love for the future. Perhaps they’d decide to say to hell with the stifling ton and go to the colonies. A sex scene or two would have to be omitted, along with dozens of pages of inner monologue. But there’s your action; that’s a story.

Instead, there’s a thin, watered-down plot. There were two-and-a-half long chapters after Verity is kidnapped (and that part, too, takes up a considerable portion of the book) that she escapes from her carriage, gets lost in the dark wilderness, is chased by Kylemore, then is finally caught once more, and brought to his castle. Was that really necessary?

Verity’s concerned brother and Kylemore’s wicked mother are introduced to add some drama, yet that all seems clumsily tacked on. The final resolution is unsatisfactory. We get a hint of a happy ending, but an epilogue was necessary to cement it.

My Opinion: The Decline of Historical Romance

My frustration with so many romances of the last two decades is that they’ve lost the art of storytelling in favor of emotional overload. Nothing happens, but every minor issue is so dramatically addressed; it’s so overwrought.

Why has historical romance been degraded to wallpaper irrelevance? Is this what audiences really want? Characters dressed in old-time garments, sipping tea in books that superficially touch upon manners, that are loaded with sex scenes that have heroes asking for consent at every turn, and page after page of internal, emotional hand-wringing? I guess it is, and I’m just not part of the cool kid’s club. Give me food and clothes porn, un-politically correct mindsets, heroes who dare to do wrong, heroines who’ll slap them right back, and salacious purple prose any day.

Final Analysis of Claiming the Courtesan

This book could have sparked a retro genre of 21st-century bodice rippers, rather than just being a gimmick of a plot that led to a bit of controversy. If I want to read a romance with power struggles and dominance issues between the hero and heroine, they rarely exist in historical romances anymore, as they’ve been diluted to blandness and are all so cookie-cutter. Contemporary-set BDSM romances, New Adult erotica, or paranormal fantasy are where I’d have to look for my spice, and I’m just not interested in those genres.

It was such a shame as Claiming the Courtesan could have been something special, but it was bogged down in psychological analysis and not enough substance. A wise rapper, Redman, once said, “If you gotta be a monkey, be a gorilla.”

If you’re going to pen a bodice ripper, go balls-to-wall crazy with it and have no shame about it. Be proud to be outrageous. Otherwise, stick to what everyone else writes because apparently, it does sell.

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