Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"The Last Heiress," by Bertrice Small

Alternate Title: Inglorious (Spineless, Whiny, Badly Characterized) Bastards

The Chick: Elizabeth Meredith. As the mistress of the wealthy estate of Friarsgate, Elizabeth is independent and outspoken, but she still needs an heir if she wants her lands to prosper after she's gone.
The Rub: Of course, Elizabeth is Fiery and Spirited and Strong-Willed, so she will only tolerate a husband who obeys her every whim, won't disagree with her ideas for Friarsgate, and will let her wear pants. In the 1500s. Yeah, good luck with that, lady.
Dream Casting: Claire Danes.

The Dude: Baen McColl. The bastard son of minor Scottish gentry, Baen is sent by his Da to Elizabeth's farm to see if he can purchase some of her famous sheep. He quickly discovers that being bossed around is a real turn-on.
The Rub: Being born on the wrong side of the blanket has left him with Inferiority Issues, and all the spine of a beached jellyfish. At least he's well endowed!
Dream Casting: Gerard Butler.

The Plot:
Rosamund, Elizabeth's Mum: You need an heir!

Elizabeth: NO! I'm 22 and can do what I want! *stomps foot*

Thomas, Elizabeth's Ambiguously Gay Uncle: You need a husband!

Elizabeth: Husbands are for sissies! Love is for sissies! I am WOMAN! And I can do what I want! *tosses hair*

Baen McColl: Hey, you're pretty.

Elizabeth and Baen: *smooch*

Elizabeth: I need a maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.

Thomas: Off to court with you!

After Several Very Boring and Pointless Tudor Court Chapters...

Elizabeth: Baen, let's get married!

Baen: No, I have ISSUES! And I love my Daddy too much!

Elizabeth: Why don't you just ask him if you can get married?

Baen: What? And ruin a perfectly good father-son bond with logic? ARE YOU MAD?

Elizabeth: You're a moron. Don't come back.

Elizabeth: *preggers* SHIT.

Baen: Fine, let's get married.

Elizabeth: NO. I am an angry, hormonal pregnant woman and I can do what I want! *water breaks* Fine, I forgive you.

Baen: Hooray!

Thomas: But wait, wait, wait - book's not over!

More Pointless and Self-Indulgent Tudor Court Chapters...
Anne Boleyn: *dies*

Elizabeth: Hooray! ... wait a minute.

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Fiery, Tempestuous Female Who Can't Be Tamed

1 Bastard Hero with an Inferiority Complex

1 Set of Daddy Issues

1 Ambiguously Gay Uncle

1 Snooty Sister

Half a Book's Worth of Redundant Description

Several Uses of the Word "Love Lance," "Love Passage," and "Love Juice" To Describe the Male Sexual Organ, Female Sexual Organ, and Sexual Bodily Fluids of Both Genders, Respectively

1 Romantically Quite Good Rival (sorry, Flynn!)

Several Historical Personages (watch The Tudors, I'm not catching you up)

1 Surprise! Baby

The Word: When I told my friends and bloggers and fellow Tweeters that I was going to read a Bertrice Small novel, I got a lot of LOLs and smirks. "Can't wait to read the review," they said.

"Can't wait to read what you think of Small," they said.

Well, HA HA HA FRIENDS. Thank you SO MUCH for letting me read this. "Oh no, keep driving AnimeJune, don't worry about the CLIFF of ridiculously bad plotting and asinine characters you're heading towards."

After finally finishing The Last Heiress, I'm tempted to spread my arms and scream, Gladiator-style, "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED??!"

Actually, the start of this book was rather deceptive. See, I could tell from the e-giggles of my Twitter pals that Bertrice Small didn't have the highest reputation for good writing, so I was tentative, perhaps expecting another literary clusterfuck a la Fern Michaels. But no. Bertrice Small's storytelling has many faults that I can't wait to describe at length to you, dear readers, but actual bad writing isn't one of them. I started this book expecting the worst and when the beginning was rather blandly pleasant I was put off my guard.

Sneaky, sneaky Bertrice Small.

The novel starts off harmlessly enough - Elizabeth Meredith, rambunctious Tudor-Era Feminist, is the heiress to Friarsgate, a tidy estate on the border between England and Scotland. She cares only for her sheep and her crops, and we know this because Elizabeth takes every possible opportunity to tell anyone who will listen that she cares about only for her sheep and her crops.

Her mother, Rosamund, and her Ambiguously Gay Uncle Thomas despair over Elizabeth's future - at age 22, she's already an old maid by Tudor standards and Friarsgate needs a proper heir. At last, they decide to send her on a trip to court to see if she can snag a husband.

While preparations are underway, Baen McColl, the bastard son of a Scottish noble interested in Friarsgate's famous wool, arrives at the estate to see if he can buy some of Elizabeth's sheep. While thoroughly charmed by the breathtakingly small scope of Elizabeth's hobbies, interests, and world-knowledge as well as her childish and self-absorbed personality, Baen knows he hasn't got a chance because he's an unlanded bastard.

Despite their unsuitability, Baen and Elizabeth share a few smooches before Elizabeth's packed off to court.

Okay, so by this point I've realized the characters are a tad simplistic and the writing style veers into Redundencyville, but we've only touched the tip of the iceberg. Once Elizabeth goes to court, we are treated to the most tedious, pointless, self-indulgent segment of the novel. Elizabeth knows it's unlikely she'll find a proper husband at court and that the whole endeavour's doomed to fail - well GUESS WHAT? It does!

But not before we are treated to chapter, after chapter, AFTER CHAPTER of Elizabeth's wanderings around the court that only confirm her suspicions again and again. Meanwhile, the reader is clumsily spoonfed Tudor history as Elizabeth miraculously befriends a sketchily-characterized Anne Boleyn who whines about how life is so hard (tell it to Catherine of Aragon, honey). This entire segment of the novel goes on for way too long and contributes absolutely nothing to the story. I nearly made this novel a DNF by the halfway mark - not because it was heinously bad, but because it was JUST. SO. BORING.

Elizabeth's character isn't affected in the least by her failed introduction at court, and when she returns to Friarsgate, her relationship with Baen is picked up as easily as if she'd only been gone a day. The Tudor court sequence of the novel, which takes up a disastrously large chunk of the book, reeks suspiciously of an author desperate to show off how much historical research she's done, regardless of whether it serves the story or not. I'm sorry, Bertrice Small, but Phillipa Gregory you ain't.

The novel picks up after Elizabeth returns - and by picks up, I mean becomes childish and stupid instead of boring and stupid. So yeah, it's still pretty stupid but at least stuff is going on. Elizabeth comes to the lightning-flash conclusion that Baen is the man of her dreams and decides she'll go to any lengths to get under that kilt. I kind of admire her angst-free love for Baen and her gumption, but her efforts are wasted on Baen, who rejects her advances because he is a coward and a weenie. He loves her too, but thinks he can't marry her because he owes his loyalty to his beloved father. Of course, he never actually bothers to ask his supposedly beloved father if he can marry Elizabeth because that would mean he'd actually have to grow a pair and destroy the only contrived obstacle to their relationship.

So what happens is, they make lots of hot, illicit love (described with creeeepy creepy euphemisms like "love passage," "love lance," and "love juice"), but when Elizabeth asks for a ring, Baen makes a lot of sad mopey faces and rides away. Elizabeth ends up impregnated with his Ultra-Fertile Weenie Male Seed, and even when her male relatives show up to drag Baen to the altar he's all like, "But I can't, I'm just a poor bastard, my loyalty's to my Da" (to Small's credit, Baen's dad is all "WTF. My son is a moron.").

Of course, Baen returns to Friarsgate to marry Elizabeth, who is quite determined to make his life a living hell for having the audacity to come back and help take care of her baby. Once she goes into labour and her Huge-Ass Alpha Male Spawn ends up wedged in her, uh, love passage and Baen has to help it out, Baen quickly apologizes and is just as quickly forgiven. The end? Nope.

Bertrice Small has done so much arduous historical research that she simply can't let us finish the book without making sure we know just how faithfully she watched every episode of The Tudors, so in the final chapters Elizabeth is yanked out of her HEA by a hysterical Anne Boleyn (now pregnant with Queen E) as the plot comes to yet another standstill as we are subjected to pages of pointless description of Anne's coronation that have nothing whatsoever to do with Elizabeth, Baen, or Friarsgate and everything to do with self-indulgent page-padding.

UGH. Not only was the plot a torturous slog, but the romance was paltry, to say the least. Elizabeth and Baen are very childish, simplistically drawn characters who are given exactly ONE motivation each to explain all their illogical, selfish behaviour. Elizabeth loves Friarsgate with an obsessive, all-consuming passion that blinds her to everything else. Her romance doesn't change this - one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes in the novel is when her water breaks and her mother realizes Elizabeth has neglected to prepare any baby clothes or even bring the family cradle out of the dusty attic in the entire nine-month span of her pregnancy because she was just too darn busy with Friarsgate. Bertrice Small's overuse of speech tags only emphasizes Elizabeth's immaturity - she's always wailing, shrieking, sobbing, pouting everything she says.

Baen was just as bad, if not worse. His father is supposedly Scotland's Awesomest Dad who took in his bastard and raised him with love and kindness, so Baen refuses to do anything on his own because he fears his dad will take any independent action on his part as a sign of disloyalty. Elizabeth (quite reasonably) assumes Baen's dad must be a tyrant, but the truth is that Baen is a coward. Baen's given a relationship obstacle that could have been solved with one conversation, and it never made sense why he held out as long as he did. He never even solves his obstacle himself by growing some balls and flat-out asking his dad if he could marry Elizabeth - he has to be dragged kicking and screaming to that conclusion as Elizabeth's male relatives do the asking for him (Baen's father says yes immediately, because he really is Scotland's Awesomest Dad).

Waiting for other people to solve your problems for you doesn't make you romantic protagonist, it makes you a weenie.

Add to that the fact that Baen and Elizabeth don't spend that much time together. Well, "on page" time. The author tells us Baen spends months working for Elizabeth, but throughout the novel Elizabeth spends more pages at court or alone on her estate than she does with Baen.

On top of that, the book's length was painfully unnecessary. If I could describe Bertrice Small's writing with a single word, it would be "redundant." She writes as if for an audience of goldfish, always reminding us of perfectly obvious things and repeating backstories and descriptions, along with doing an abominable amount of telling over showing - as well as telling and showing, which is even worse. For instance, Elizabeth will have an experience at court, and in the next scene, Elizabeth will meet a secondary character and take up an entire page describing in dialogue exactly what we just read. Bertrice Small's characters also have no sense of privacy or discretion and will happily regurgitate their backstories and personal histories to anyone who will listen. Phillipa, Elizabeth's sister, has her history with Queen Catherine of Aragon repeated no fewer than three times to three different people.

Also, Bertrice Small needs to ease up on her adverbs and speech tags - maybe this is because she is from an older generation of romance writers who used more purple language (like Kathleen E. Woodiwiss *shudder*), but she re-uses the same ones again and again! The words "wickedly" and "candidly" should be removed from her vocabulary because every time she used them, I heard Inigo Montoya's voice saying, "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."

Also - Bertrice Small, I hate to be the one to break the news to you but - boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina. "Love lance" is not an appropriate euphemism for penis. You also use the word "manroot," and I really would prefer you use "manroot" so long as "love lance" is never mentioned again. Same with "love passage" for vagina - you're not going to end up on the other side. You go in and out, that's how sex works. Also, it's called semen, not "love juice." The penis is not a fruit, the vagina is not a juicer, and that is not how you fulfill your daily vitamin C intake.

So there you have it, folks. I read a Bertrice Small novel, and it was repetitive, boring, illogical, simplistic, juvenile, self-indulgent, pointless and silly. That being said, I don't think it quite merits an F grade. Why? Because even though I disliked her novel, Small's style can be pleasant on occasion when the story isn't quite so silly (such as at the beginning) and her historical scenic descriptions do create a sense of atmosphere - unlike Fern Michaels, who can't even write about her own century accurately. And, unlike Susan Mallery, while I found the story stupid, I didn't find it hateful. Frankly, Baen and Elizabeth are both idiots, and deserve each other.



  1. YES! : D
    I am quite happy, in fact to see someone else going through it. I read a different one but you can easily replace the names and it would be the same book.

    OMG the love juices . *shudders* *runs* NEVER again.

  2. "Same with "love passage" for vagina - you're not going to end up on the other side."

    This might be my favorite review ever.

    When I first started reading romance, I went to Small for the sex scenes. Because, yeah, all of the history stuff is as boring as crap when it's not actually a part of the story. So I just flipped through Small's until I found the nookie. And that is how I discovered that, while a hero might tutor the heroine in the ways of the man-lance so that she'll be ready to join a harem, he never takes her up the butt. For that, he just uses a dildo shaped like the sheik's penis.

    It's these little details that make these books so special. *single tear*

  3. Anne Boleyn who whines about how life is so hard (tell it to Catherine of Aragon, honey)

    OMG - the former British history student in me thanks you for the best laugh I've had in ages!

  4. Anonymous3:19 PM

    After finally finishing The Last Heiress, I'm tempted to spread my arms and scream, Gladiator-style, "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED??!"


  5. I've been waiting to see what you thought of Betrice Small ever since I saw you were giving her a read. *g* I'll confess I don't have much experience with her - one doesn't have to to get a picture of her type of writing. One love shaft or love channel will do it. And now that you too have the picture of her type of writing you are off the hook *laughing*
    Hilarious review!!

  6. Ana --> I checked Bertrice Small's backlist on All About Romance - it's all C- and D and Fs. Big surprise.

    Meljean --> Thank you!

    Wow, SO glad I didn't read a sheik novel of hers. *LOLOLOL*

    Wendy --> Yay British history! Yeah, I didn't mention this in my review since it was a personal reaction rather than a flaw in the narrative, but this book was surprisingly pro-Boleyn and anti-Catherine of Aragon in a way that really got on my nerves.

    All the characters kept talking about how "proud, foolish Catherine of Aragon wouldn't take the sensible way out and give her perfectly reasonable husband a divorce! What a twit!" that made me gnash my teeth. Maybe it's because I'm Catholic. Maybe it's because I think after 18 years of marriage Catherine of Aragon got the royal shaft (and not in the good way), or maybe it's because I don't think most of the populace felt this way (Catherine was a well-loved queen).

    Also, Bertrice Small's "Anne Boleyn is good-hearted, therefore Jane Seymour MUST be evil" shtick, even though Anne did THE SAME THING, was pretty ridiculous.

    Anonymous --> *sigh* I try. *LOL*

    Kristie J --> I find it hard to believe ANYONE has a lot of experience with Bertrice Small - wouldn't they all be scared off after the first read??

  7. That thing with the man roots...say you don't mean it. I totally suffered through a Bertrice Small book FILLED with Man-roots (also a love morass - ew!), and it pained me to no end. You can read my (less coherent) reaction to Small here.

    I shouldn't be so amused by your misfortune, but this review was hilariously funny.