How do you begin a review of the most insane romance you have ever read? With action figures, of course!
I think we need a closeup of that hero, don’t you?
Yes, folks. That’s the hero. How many lab animals do you suppose had to suffer to get those eye colors just right? And what shall we call the lip shade? Paul Revere Rose? But the pose in the top pic is significant, as we shall see below.
This Pocket historical romance, published in 1987 as the seventh in Deveraux’s Montgomery series, called to me as I walked by the charity used book table at my local supermarket. I don’t know if it was the masked hero on the cover, the fact that the setting was Maine (then Massachusetts) in 1766, or that the heroine shared my first name (oh, didn’t you know? The name Jessica was third in popularity in Revolutionary era New England, right after “Mary” and “Elizabeth”). But I had to have it.
I knew it was going to be good when it started out on a ship, heading to America, with the hero and his new best friend, Nicholas, who just happens to be His Imperial Highness, The Grand Duke, Twelfth in line to the Tzarina Catherine of all the Russias. Despite the important sounding title, Nicholas has nothing better to do than sail his friend Alexander Montgomery back home to New Sussex to save the town from the Redcoat-collaborating jerk his sister has married. As the ship enters port, Alex wonders if Jessica Taggert, leader of a poor, motherless gaggle of kids, is “as hot tempered as she always was” and lo, our heroine has been identified.
Alexander, after some rough treatment as he is entering town by the English, decides to become The Raider, a black-mask-wearing, black-horse-riding saver of Colonial butts. In order to keep his heroic identity secret, he pads his belly, dons a powdered wig, and borrows the wardrobe of Nicholas’s dandy cousin, which includes vests of canary yellow, breeches of emerald green, and lots of embroidered flowers.
Alex used to tease Jessica as kids, and she’s a bit defensive as a rule — oops, I mean “proud-tempered” – so when Alex arrives looking all flowery and Pooh sized, Jessica makes merciless fun of him in front of the whole town. When he protests, she says Mean Girl things like, “the piglet has claws” and when he threatens her, she wonders aloud if his weapon of choice is creme cakes. She is, as Alex thinks later, a “damned hardheaded little she-cat”. He falls immediately in love.
It’s pretty amazing actually, how de-masculinized Alex is when not in character as the Raider. He’s more than beta — he’s theta. He “shudders delicately”, primps in front of mirrors, waves embroidered fans, gently combs the heroine’s hair, listens to her talk about her man troubles, and “gets the vapors more than a woman.” He’s the gay best friend, essentially.
Alex complains to Nick that “Fat doesn’t make me less of a man!” but Jessica begs to differ. She describes him as “not an actual man”, and at one point, she disrobes in from of him, thinking that “Alexander was so far removed from being a man that it seemed quite natural.” In what must be the most unusual similes ever used to describe a hero, Jessica thinks at one point that Alex resembles “an oddly shaped lighthouse” and at another, compares him to a “nest of fireflies.”
Basically, the Raider raids, and then checks in with Jessica to bodice-rip her every so often. Jessica ends up having to marry “that peacock” Alex, to avoid criminal charges for fighting back against the English. As they get to know each other, she begins to appreciate her husband’s intelligence and kindness. She even offers him pity sex, but Alex tells Jessica he finds sex vulgar, only to rapidly change in to Raider gear (step 1: remove wig; step 2; don black mask) and attempt to seduce her.
It is amazing to see the alignment of gender and sexuality come apart, like a zipper unzipping, in this book. Masculinity, personified by the Raider, is signaled by virility, brawn, dark clothing, and sexual aggression while femininity, personified not by the heroine but by dandyfied Alex, is associated with chastity, brains, vanity, and passivity. The heroine is basically an appendage in this book: the real romance, the real conflict, is between Alex and the Raider.
The Raider is a total fail as both a raider and a lover. For example, on one of his first raids, he is under Deep Raider Cover. Jessica and her friend Abigail follow a group of Redcoats, hoping for some musket action:
“Where’s the man in black?” Abigail whispered.
Jessica listened to the sounds of the town and the evening. “There”, she whispered, directing her glance to the trees behind Ben’s house.
Later, in a rare moment of self-awareness, the Raider notes it is “a little disconcerting” that everyone seems to be able to predict his actions. In yet another scene, Jessica and the Raider are making love in a dark cave and fail to discern the arrival of six soldiers … with lanterns.
Jessica hits the nail on the head when she says:
“Some Raider you are! The only successful raid you’ve ever made is under a woman’s skirt!”
Unfortunately, she is forced to retract the harsh truth of her words (“I didn’t mean it. You are a successful Raider!!”) to get some Raider nookie. Still, it’s hard not to love a guy who uses a weighted fishnet to snare the baddies, and then scoops women up as he gallops away, giving them punishing kisses (see the verisimilitude of the figurine pose above). Jessica’s not too bright herself: she can tell that the Raider is a “handsome man”, but never figures out he’s Alex.
She also denies her growing feelings:
“You can’t keep appearing in my life, ridiculing me, holding me against trees, mauling me in blackberry patches, and expecting me to … to … .”
But just because Jessica hasn’t read Signs He Is Your Soul Mate 101 (too busy clamming. Oh, did I not mention her occupation?) doesn’t mean we readers aren’t well aware that she falls in love with the Raider the minute she says “I hate him” three times fast.
As to the “lovemaking”, I use the term advisedly. There are several kissing sessions which involve struggling and that extreme form of Cartesian mind-body dualism for which Old Skool heroines are known. But the pièce de résistance is the deflowering. Never has a lover been so respectful of a woman’s personal autonomy:
He kissed her again. “You have a choice. We make love tonight on the soft cool sand or I rape you tonight on the sharp rocks.”
Or so giving:
After a few swift strokes, trying not to hurt her, he collapsed on top of her, sweaty, limp, and sated.
For his part, Alex is trapped. He has created an alter ego that he can’t claim. Echoing the plaint of Colonial men everywhere, he says:
“I want her to love me for myself, not because I wear a black mask and ride a black horse.”
Finally, all is revealed, and Jessica, embracing the multiplicitous (not to mention duplicitous) nature of her man, proclaims:
No matter how many people you are, you’re the one I love.
Sigh. And who can’t get behind a metaphysically wonky love like that?