3 stars

Historical Romance Review: Savage Ecstasy by Janelle Taylor

Savage Ecstasy
Savage Conquest, Janelle Taylor, Zebra, 1982, Walter Popp cover art

SPOILER ALERT ⚠

3 Stars

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This review is of Savage Ecstasy (Ecstasy/Gray Eagle, #1; the series is known by two different names) by Janelle Taylor. There’s a lot to unpack here in this Zebra historical romance.

The Story

The year is 1776, and English expatriate Alisha Williams, 20, the book’s heroine (and the first four books in the series), has journeyed west to find happiness with her only surviving relative, her uncle Thad. One day, the “men” in her settlement bring a captured Oglala Lakota Indian brave into their camp; that brave is Gray Eagle, the “hero” of the book. Their treatment of him sets the stage for what follows. The whites emotionally and physically abuse Gray Eagle in the camp. Only Alisha shows Gray Eagle kindness; his response to this is to bite her hand. (This is only the beginning of what he has in store for her over the course of the series.) Despite this, Gray Eagle and Alisha develop romantic feelings for each other.

Gray Eagle, with the help of his best friend, White Arrow, escapes. Shortly thereafter, Gray Eagle, White Arrow, and a hundred of their fellow Oglala braves sack the fortress, killing most people in the camp. The only survivors include three men, and women Gray Eagle kept alive because he has special plans for them and Alisha.

As the days go on, Alisha and Gray Eagle’s relationship takes the form it will take for the majority of the book and series: Sometimes, Gray Eagle treats Alisha to great emotional, mental, physical, and sexual cruelty; other times, he’s kind and loving to her. Both are conflicted with their emotions toward the other.

Some time later, while the braves are away on a hunt, Alisha is “rescued” by the Army and taken to Fort Pierre, where Alisha meets two men who will affect both her and Gray Eagle’s lives. They are: Powchutu, a half-white, half-Lakota scout for the Army who becomes Alisha’s only friend at the fort, and Lieutenant Jeffrey Gordon. Later, Gray Eagle and a few thousand of his closest friends show up at the fort, demanding that Alisha be returned to him, or he and his braves will kill everyone inside. After a short deliberation, it is decided to hand Alisha back over to Gray Eagle. This is also a tone-setting action for Alisha and Gray Eagle’s relationship and lives.

Upside

At her best, Ms. Taylor is right up there with Rosanne Bittner for writing evocative, lyrical novels. In many ways, Ms. Taylor’s writing here fits that category. I felt as though I were with Alisha and Gray Eagle, watching their lives. The descriptions of Lakota culture show that this is a well-researched book.

Downside

The biggest downside of this book–and the books in the series he is in–is Gray Eagle. As mentioned above, Gray Eagle is extremely cruel to Alisha throughout the book. Ms. Taylor tries to defend/excuse/justify this behavior in the following ways (my paraphrasing):

  • Alisha is white.
  • She is Gray Eagle’s slave. She should be submissive to him.
  • Because she is not submissive all the time, he has to treat her poorly. In other words, she made him do it.
  • Lakota culture, tradition, and religion.
  • He has to treat her poorly in order not to lose face with his people.

At the end of the book, Alisha blames herself for his abuse of her. None of these excuses hold water in my view. All of the above turn the “romance” between Alisha and Gray Eagle into a Stockholm Syndrome relationship. The secondary characters are mostly, except for Gray Eagle’s best friend, White Arrow, who is also in love/lust with Alisha–as just about every male in the book is–one-dimensional. The white characters hate Indians. The Indian characters hate whites. As strong as Alisha is on many levels, she is extremely weak when it comes to her relationship with Gray Eagle, accepting and attempting to justify his abhorrent behavior. (In the interest of fairness, Alisha has no money and no family to help her after her uncle, Thad, was killed in the raid on the fortress earlier.)

Sex

Ms. Taylor’s love scenes are very flowery, with a lot of euphemistic expressions for sex rather than a nuts-and-bolts description of the act.

Violence

Plenty of emotional and physical violence. Assault and battery, attempted rape, rape, torture are all featured here.

Bottom Line

I deleted an earlier review in order to reread the book to give it a more nuanced review. On a lot of levels, Savage Ecstasy is a very good book. However, the deliberate, misogynistic violence–and the lame attempts to excuse it–bring the book down quite a bit in my eyes.

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