Thursday, 30 July 2015

Review: Wild Burn by Edie Harris (Plus Movie Recommendation)

4.5 stars

The set-up of Edie Harris' Western romance Wild Burn reads like someone dared Harris to come up with the most unfortunate first meeting between hero and heroine. Or maybe she found one of those weird creative writing prompts that pop up on Pintrest, accompanied by a stock image that should be on a motivational poster. Yes, I can see it now: a man (and his Stetson) are silhouetted against a mountainous ridge, and over the background of evening sky is white writing in an ill-chosen font:
Write a scenario in which the hero shoots the heroine when they first meet. Then make them fall in love. Oh, and make the heroine an ex-Catholic nun and the hero an ex-Confederate soldier who now kills Native Americans for a living. But you have to make the reader like him, right? 
It sounds fantastical at best, but Harris makes it work. The characterisation is wonderful; Moira, the heroine, left the sisterhood after a terrible event made her question her faith. She's still reeling, trying to find her place and make sense of the world, and put to rest thoughts of anger and revenge. It was nice to see the hero support her in this quest; too often heroes place their heroines on a pedestal, unable to easily acknowledge that a heroine's troubles are as important as the ones they themselves are facing.

The hero, Delany, was facing challenges trying to maintain moral distinctions and a sense of his humanity in amoral surroundings. The plot aided the development of both characters, while also providing an interesting look at the issues of post-Civil War America, including Catholic intolerance, the aftermath of the Civil War and the treatment of Native Americans.

The relationship between Delaney and Moira was tantalising and played out beautifully, but if I have one gripe, it's their absorbtion when things were getting hot and heavy. I get it, they're massively physically attracted to each other, but that doesn't mean that you should have your characters forgetting the presence of others and making out in the middle of the main street. For me, this really didn't gel; you'd think that an ex-solider would have better awareness of his surroundings, and an ex-nun and unmarried schoolteacher in a patriarchal society would desire a higher level of circumspection.

Still, Wild Burn made me think that maybe I should give Western romances another try. They're one of the few sub-genres I've never really enjoyed, as I can never get over my disquiet at the American exceptionalism and race relations they contain. I only bought Wild Burn because it had such good reviews, and because I was craving some frontier vibes after watching a German-language Western recently at Sydney's Audi German Film Festival.

The Dark Valley (Das Finstere Tal) is set in a remote valley in the high reaches of Austria, but don't be turned off by the fact it's not actually set in the Wild West. It's got that classic Eastwood main character: the rough-around-the-edges good guy outsider, seeking revenge for those that done him wrong. It's suspenseful, with a excellent surprise twist during the final showdown that you don't expect, despite all the clues. The acting is wonderful, and so is the camerawork. I went because I had free tickets, with the expectation I wouldn't like it very much, but I loved it. I've popped a trailer with English subtitles below so you can get a feel for it. If you want to watch it, it's on American Netflix. Australians, you lose out (again).

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Review: Agnes Moor's Wild Knight by Alyssa Cole

3.5 stars
EDIT: I originally rated this 3 stars, but I've thought on it and it's being upped to 3.5 stars.

I've come to the conclusion that novellas are an intricate balancing act. Within a very short space, the author must achieve characters and plot comparable to much longer pieces of work.  Even if they succeed at this, the reader will often complain that a novella was 'rushed' or 'ended too soon'.  Though it irks me when other reviewers judge a novella as though it were a full-length novel, I'm going to do the same for Agnes Moor's Wild Knight by Alyssa Cole.  

The premise of Agnes Moor's Wild Knight is a fascinating one with so much damn potential, and therein is the reason I'm judging it pretty harshly.  Agnes is an African woman who is one of the 'Exotics' at the court of Scottish monarch James IV and his queen, Margaret Tudor (sister to the infamous Henry VIII). She is a novelty for the hedonistic courtiers, and James stages a tournament where a kiss from 'the Black Lady' is the prize. A mysterious knight who has hidden his identity dominates the jousting, and seems to want more from Agnes than a simple kiss.  

Cole does an excellent job of bringing a footnote in history to life, embellishing the real Tournaments of the Black Lady that happened at James' court in 1507 and 1508. For those interested in learning more about this historical basis, an interesting perspective on historical whitewashing and POC in James IV's Scotland can be found at the Secret Histories Project, while the British National Archives lists many different references to 'Moors' in the Treasurer's accounts from James' reign.

Unfortunately, the wonderful historical set-up comes at the expense of the story itself. With most of the first half devoted to Agnes position as an exotic outsider and the way she feels about this, the second half is rushed. There was little to no development of the characters as people after the knight's identity was revealed and he began to court Agnes. Without this I found myself uninvested in the relationship between the two.

So, as much as I hate to be one of those reviewers, my essential problem with Agnes Moor's Wild Knight was that it was a novella.  I would have loved to see it be a bit longer, allowing for more forward movement in the character's relationship, and more development of the male lead in general. Nonetheless, I'm eternally grateful to Cole that she wrote about such an interesting historical event that has been sidelined our larger historical metanarratives, even if I found the result less than superb.

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