Thursday, 20 April 2017

Review: Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden

2 stars

Against the Tide is an inspirational romance with a wonderful sense of place and a good premise, but I was disappointed by the male characters and the presentation of faith.

It takes place in 1890s Boston, where Lydia Pallas works as a translator for the Navy. Desperate to make enough money to buy her apartment outright before she is evicted, she takes on extra work translating Turkish and Albanian for Alexander Banebridge, a friend of her boss', in his attempt to crack the North American opium trade. Bane has dedicated himself to his crusade, and he won't be swayed by his attraction to Lydia, even as he puts her and her job in danger.

If my blurb doesn't sound entirely neutral, that's because it isn't. I really did try to write an blurb that uninfluenced by my opinion of Bane and the other male characters, but it was impossible, so in the end, I just went 'stuff it, I'm going to be talking about it in the next paragraph anyway' and cast some subtle shade. 

The two main male characters - Bane and his friend, Admiral Eric Fontaine, who is also Lydia's boss - both treat Lydia abominably. Bane sweet-talks and manipulates her into undertaking actions of questionable legality for his crusade against opium, trading on her desperate need for money, and when Eric discovers this, he promptly fires her, without any thought about what it will mean for her ability to provide for herself. Having got what he wants from her - translations about shipments of opium - Bane drops her like a hot rock, not even paying her the rest of the money he owes her until many months later. So Lydia is forced out of her home, and into a hand-to-mouth existence working in a bakery. Bane's actions are made worse by the fact that Lydia's upbringing in an orphanage has left her with a need for security and ordered surroundings, and she repeatedly makes him aware of how much she fears sliding back into poverty. It read like a penny dreadful, with Lydia as the poor, waifish heroine, whose fall from grace has a moral about consorting with men and being a heathen. Other elements of the plot also reinforce this Gothic vibe, such as - SPOILER ALERT - Lydia's addiction to opium, and her imprisonment in a isolated estate. 

Throughout most of the book, Bane is the one of the two who is supposedly a committed Christian, while Lydia isn't very religiously inclined (of course, the nature of inspirational romance means that Lydia does become Christian). However, in my opinion, neither Bane nor Eric comes off well as an example of Christian charity, or any positive Christian trait. Yes, Bane's desire to end the opium trade is driven by his faith, but it's mostly to absolve himself of his prior involvement in it, rather than any genuine desire to help others. I'm not very religious, but my grandmother is from the 'whatever you did for the least of my followers, you did for me' school of thought, not the 'cause an innocent woman's downfall and a lot of grief for a lot of people, but don't worry about the ramifications of your actions, because you're a self-righteous Christian man' one. But, you know, po-tay-tos, po-tah-tos . 

As though the whole ghosting-the-heroine-for-several-months wasn't enough, Bane also feels the need to constantly lecture the female characters about how they can save their souls. Other male characters also mansplain Christianity, and I came to resent the way that this was presented as a revelation from moral, Christian men (who weren't really that moral), to women, as though women are inherently immoral or need to have men interpret religion and proselytise it to them. However, while both are inherently gendered and adhere to the virgin-whore dichotomy, I did find it interesting to note the difference between the dynamic in Against the Tide and many other inspirational romances I have read, where the heroine is a pure and good Christian, and must teach the hero the error of his ways. 

But, back to my problems with Bane, he was also a bit holier-than-thou about the whole fight against the opium trade, and did this horrible 'I-told-you-so' throughout Lydia's recovery from opium addiction (when he wasn't evangelising).

At this point, you may well be wondering why I've given Against the Tide two stars, since I've just written a huge laundry list of all the things I *didn't* like (here's looking at you, Bane). But there were elements that I liked, or that worked for me. The naval and opium trade and usage aspects were interesting, well-researched and well-integrated into the story. It's always nice to see a historical romance heroine with an occupation, and I appreciated that Lydia was learned, employed and independent, although much of this is, of course, undercut in the course of the story. Similarly, she is an immigrant, she and her family having arrived from Greece when she was a child. I also admired what Camden tried to do here with having an opium-addicted heroine, even if the religious, paternalistic and moralising undertones meant that it didn't always work for me. Despite my problems with it, the story was also compelling, in that way that Gothic and old-school romances often are.

I have a strange relationship with inspirational romance, as I think many romance readers do. For me, this definitely fell into the 'too much inspie' category, and I wouldn't advise reading it unless you are a hardcore inspie-lover and are totally feeling the gender dynamic (although I'm not sure that inspie-loving gender-traditionalists frequent this small-time, rant-y, feminist blog). If you are interested in giving something of Camden's a go, I have previously read and enjoyed Toward the Sunrise and Until the Dawn, which feature all of the strong points of Against the Tide - strong, working heroine, good sense of place and interesting historical tidbits - without nearly as many pitfalls. 

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