Love is complicated. You know what else is complicated? Complications. I finished this doozy of a romance novel more than a week ago and it’s taken me until now to recover. I think Patricia Hagan had an idea for five or six novels and then decided just to shove them all into one. Her publisher made the brilliant decision to con people like me into buying this twisty turn maze of sex and violence with this seemly innocuous blurb:
After her father’s death, Julie Marshal vowed to save the family plantation, even if it meant marrying a man she knew she could never love. But duty would soon give way to desire in the arms of Derek Arnhardt, a rugged ship’s captain whose mistress was the sea – until he saw the green-eyed beauty. Then, nothing could come between him and his ultimate goal – to possess Julie body and soul.
Pirate romance! Sounds hot, right? Sounds totally normal, right? Pirate! Romance! Innocuous! Sexy! Holy canola, it took a hard left, like, right away.
The heroine (Julie) is a Southern belle headed to England with her mom to meet up with her fiancé, who she doesn’t love but she feels obligated to marry because he can save their cotton plantation (Civil War era here). And there’s lots of backstory about her twin brother who killed one of the two guys that tried to rape her and then disappeared, and her dad died five years ago but not before she found out that he was giving it to her aunt but of course didn’t tell anyone, and the plantation is in ruins because of the Northern blockade and blah blah blah. So they get on the ship to England and this one sailor is sort of nice to her but sort of creepy and one of the officers catches him being creepy in her room “keeping her company” (oh yeah, the captain has decreed that the ladies shall not under any circumstances go above-decks) and the guy gets three lashes for it. The captain rules his ship with an iron fist of justice!
Then at dinner with the officers Julie has a total freak out about how barbaric everything is and that guy was just being nice and I’m not hungry I’m going to bed! Only she goes above-decks, of course, and the creepy guy almost rapes her. Luckily she gets saved and it’s then revealed that the creepy guy (whose face is all messed up from getting keelhauled by Capt Ironfist) was keelhauled for trying to rape another lady passenger, so jeez. Later in her room the captain finally shows up. Captain Derek. And he, having witnessed her attempted rape, grabs her and forcibly kisses her and then tells her that he can tell that she likes it. Which of course she does, but COME ON. That’s three times in less than 50 pages that men have forced themselves on this girl. She must have a hoohah made of gold or Doritos or something. Or else all of the men in this novel are fucking terrible.
So Julie’s semi-comatose with fever for an unspecified amount of time. When she wakes up (in Captain Derek’s bed!) she discovers the Captain has been caring for her (in his bed!) during her sickness (bed! his!). She wakes up, eats, decides to have a bath. But there’s Captain Derek barging in on her. He reveals that she’d been telling him her life story while fevered and she reveals that she thinks he’s vile. Oh, and her boobs. She reveals those, too. Then he counters by revealing that her fiance is a con man and the marriage is a bad idea.
Then they have sex. If your reaction is, “what?” – don’t worry about that, just go with it. He puts his mmhmm in her golden Dorito hoohah (presumably the foreplay happened while she was unconscious) and then she cries and feels ashamed and he’s like, “don’t cry! sex is nice!” so she agrees to do it again. And then he asks her to be his woman (he’ll find her a place to live! he’ll visit when he can! there will be sex!) and she says no way. To which he of course replies: you’re a big whore just like every other woman and you better keep acting like a whore when I want you to or I’m telling everyone what a big whorey whore you are! And Julie’s like, that’s problematic for me, but OK.
So they continue to bang on the high seas and it’s great and everyone knows, but whatever he’s the captain and she has a golden Dorito hoohah – AM I RIGHT? Until they get boarded by Yankees and there’s a big battle and the captain gets put in the brig. The Yank captain is all, “women on a boat? Weird! I don’t know what to do! I will go and take a nap!” – which gives Julie and a few crew members (who are not dead and not in the brig and actually just wandering around free to plot against the Yanks…?) the chance to rescue the Captain. Her boobs play a big, bouncy role in the plot and she’s almost raped again. Oh, Julie! You and your hoohah! But the Captain is at least free and ready for sex, whew.
BUT IT DOESN’T END THERE! I’m only a quarter of the way through this book! There’s so much more excitement and boobs and attempted rape to come!
Oh, wait, actually, they just fight and he says she’s a bad lay. Sweet nothings, ladies! Later they fight again and she knees him in the nutsack. True romance, gentle reader! He rewards her by sending her on to Bermuda in the captured Yank ship and also not killing her. Soul mates, I tell you!
So Julie and her mom and their slave who never really appears in a scene (Mammy Sara…of course she is named Mammy Sara) make it to Bermuda. And it’s so lovely! And there’s coral! And seashells! And flowers! Julie heads off alone to explore (she lays under a tree and “explores” the back of her eyelids), until one of Captain Derek’s seamen (haha, seamen) pops up and announces that he’s taking her back to the ship. Captain Derek is holding her for ransom – sexy, sexy ransom.
Four months pass (four months) and they find themselves in Bermuda again. Captain Derek sends his seamen (heh) to shore so he and Julie be naked and have sex all over the ship. Which goes great until she tries to talk to him about his plans for her and he has a huge man-baby tantrum. Everybody leaves with hurt feelings.
Later, when Julie goes to make (naked) amends with the Captain, she discovers the vanquished Yanks have boarded the ship! And they’re going to make Captain Derek walk the plank! Naked! But then he remembers how great it was to spend time with Julie’s hoohah and his rigid member turns into a propeller blade and he helicopters to safety. No, just kidding. Julie slips him a knife and he jumps and Julie weeps herself silly, which causes the Yank captain to wonder out loud if maybe she’s insane and should be taken to a hospital, which in turn makes Julie think, “ah ha! This country has a long and well-documented history of treating people in mental hospitals extremely well! I should act even more crazy so that they will definitely take me there and then when my sympathetic doctor lets me leave I can reunite with Derek!” – all of which causes me to make a face like, what?????
Of course Julie soon realizes that mental hospitals aren’t all daisies and hopscotch. Then, thanks to another falsely-imprisoned lady who insists Julie taker her enormous diamond brooch before starving herself to death, she’s able to escape and heads back towards Savannah and the cotton plantation she loves so much. While she’s on her way, though, she finds out that her mother married her ex-fiance, the evil con man! Oh no!
The first person Julie sees at the plantation is Mammy Sara, who finally gets some lines (why, yes, they do include, “Lawdy, Lawdy!”) but soon she also sees her evil ex-fiance con men stepdad, who gloatingly reveals that her mom is near death and the plantation will soon be his, all his! But not before he tries to rape her. Of course. But…later he actually does rape her and it’s pretty terrible and continues to be his go-to act of violence in, like, every scene. Yikes.
Julie, the two remaining slaves and her re-appeared brother hatch a plan to leave as soon as her mom dies. Only her mom keeps hanging on and her evil fiance stepdad con man keeps brutalizing her and I keep wondering why they don’t just humanely put an end to mommy dearest and head to a happy place. With Derek. And consensual sex. Please?
Finally they do decide to just leave, but her evil stepdad con man ex-fiance stops them and gets her brother carted off to a notoriously terrible jail. Julie gets carted off back to the house, with promises of new and more horrific bodily tortures, only to discover her mom has died during all this. And she’s jealous of her dead mother. This is for sure not how I thought this book would go…and we’re only just barely past the halfway mark. HALF. WAY.
Julie and her slaves escape successfully later and make it to Wilmington. Here she finds out the name of Captain Derek’s new ship and a Confederate deserter helps her get on board and he turns out to be a bad sort of dude, but don’t worry, he gets killed and now she’s finally reunited with Captain Derek! Oh, but first there’s a fire and they have to escape the burning ship. Whatever. Luckily they have time to catch up while they float around the ocean on top of a wooden crate. Oh boy, if I had a nickel for every time that happened to me…!
And they eventually float to an island with plenty of room to have sex, blessed consensual sex, which does not upset or trigger Julie at all because his magical doodle heals all ills, mental and physical. Until he demands she love him forever and she’s, “oh…sure…?” and waits for him to promise her the same. He does not. Life continues in this vein for a while and then they’re rescued. Here Patricia Hagan spends some time giving us a rundown of the Civil War (and it’s not the first time we get this level of historical detail out of nowhere – she did her damn research and she wants us to damn well know it! Duly noted!).
Back on the mainland, they find out her brother is alive! So Derek hatches a secret rescue plot and to make sure Julie doesn’t go wrecking it, he leaves her in a brothel. You can imagine the hissy fit! Julie is eventually approached by one of the officers from the prison (she works in the brothel, but doesn’t work in the brothel, you know?) and he agrees to get her brother out if she’ll act as a spy. She agrees, but insists on seeing her brother first. He’s not as pretty as she remembered, having been in prison for most of the year, but the reunion is very emotional, blah blah blah, the officer turns out to be a bad guy (no! really?!), etc etc etc. Then Julie and her brother’s cousin, also an officer, turns out to be in on it and takes her brother to safety while Julie goes off to be a spy.
Before she can get to her spying, though, Julie has to be almost raped by 2 of her 3 associates – luckily #3 seems to be an actually decent guy…who’s in love with her and wants desperately to have kissy-face fun times asap. Hoohah. What can do you?
Julie’s spying involves seducing officers with song, they wiggling her lovely lady lumps for them, while slowly drugging them and getting as much information about the war effort as possible. Then the next morning they wake up to find her naked and she gushes about what a lovely night they shared and sends them on their way. She does it because she doesn’t know her brother is safe with their cousin – and also because it’s important to recognize your strengths (boobs, hoohah) and put them to work for you. Unfortunately for Julie, the information she’s gathered isn’t worth much and they decide to ship her off to a brothel. A real one. Oh, jeez.
During all this, Captain Derek has been doing some swashbuckling that seems totally unnecessary and, frankly, not helping the whole “get Julie’s brother out of jail” situation like he promised, but it’s manly stuff and that’s what he does, he does manly stuff, him being a manly man-man. Until he finds out that Julie has left the brothel where he stuck her and then the plan shifts to drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. Then Julie’s brother finds him and is all, “help me save my sister!” and Captain Derek is all, “…come back later, I’m unconscious.” When he wakes up, Derek announces he’s going to…fight for the South? Uhh. Okay? Again, not super helpful to Julie, and also, spoiler alert, you lose. So.
Julie’s at the brothel having a grand time, but not servicing any clients. See, with the help of the Nice Guy from the spying gig, she drugs the men before they have a chance to get all up in her hoohah. But then…she and the Nice Guy have sex! Consensual sex! And she likes it! What kind of romance novels is this?! Then her spy-boss shows up and demands she do another job for him – seduce a soldier who’s been impersonating a Yank and then infiltrating the Yank lines and killing a bunch of people. Julie’s all, I won’t help you kill this man! And her boss is all, yes you will! And then she’s all, OK I will.
SURPRISE! The soldier they set out to kill is Captain Derek. But they escape together. And then SURPRISE! He calls her a dirty dirty whore and threatens to kill her! But instead he reunites her with her brother and the two of them go to the plantation to get some things so they can move west and start fresh. Only – SURPRISE! Stepdad is still there and still feeling rapey. But after he rapes heragain, her brother comes in and kills him (thanks, bro, but your timing is a little off). And then they join a wagon train. And the brother meets a nice girl and the leader of the wagon train turns out to be – SURPRISE! Captain Derek. The end.
There’s more going on in this novel than in five seasons of most cop drama TV shows – and not in a good way. Mostly in a really confusing, icky way. And what was up with the Nice Guy? One of the rules of romance novels is the heroine doesn’t like having any man but the hero’s walking stick in her holster. But she let him in! And he was actually nice to her! And then she went back to Captain Derek, for a long life of emotional abuse, I have no doubt. HE WAS SO NICE!!!!!
Souls Aflame is a big bowl of WTF seasoned with some OMFG. Now I need a shower. And a drink.