Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"Stolen Fury," by Elisabeth Naughton

The Chick: Dr. Lisa Maxwell. After years of searching for a rare trio of Greek artefacts, she finds the first of three Furies in a cave and thinks she's finally in the money.
The Rub: Her luck takes a turn for the worse when her Fury is stolen after a botched one-night stand.
Dream Casting: A short-haired Nicole Kidman.

The Dude: Rafe Sullivan. He's willing to do whatever it takes to get his hands on those Furies in order to ensure his mother spends her last months of life in peace - even if it involves seducing, drugging and stealing from a respected archaeologist.
The Rub: When she's not unconscious thanks to the application of his roofies, Lisa's pretty hot stuff.
Dream Casting: Javier Bardem.

The Plot:

Lisa: Hurray! I found an ancient Greek artefact!

Rafe: *drugs her* *steals the Fury* Yoink!

Lisa: CURSES! Give it back!

Rafe: Let's be partners instead!

Lisa: I know he's a thief and a liar, but he's so darn sexy, why not trust him?

Rafe: I want the Furies for myself, but she's so darn sexy, why not let her tag along?

Evil Shady People: We want the Furies too!

Guns: Bang! Bang!

Several Lesser, Shady People: *die*

Lisa: I'm too old for this shit. I don't even want the damn Furies anymore.

Rafe: How about a huge gorgeous engagement ring instead?

Lisa: SCORE! I mean, HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Roguish Thief

1 Intrepid Archaeologist with a Sad Past

Several Lacklustre Romantic Rivals in Various Stages of Health and Skeeziness

2 Annoying Little Brothers

2 Unpleasant Irish Dads

1 Sequel-Baiting BFF

3 Greek Artefacts

1 Use of Roofies

1 Crazy Bitch with an Unreasonable Vendetta

Several Moral Grey Areas

The Plot:
At first, I was just going to centre this review around how boring this book was, how I only wanted to read it as part of my RITA Challenge (it's nominated for both Best Romantic Suspense and Best First Novel), and how I gave in the urge to skim at around page 139. However, as I kept reading, I noticed something else - I was annoyed by the protagonists and their shifty moral attitudes.

Which is pretty odd timing - yesterday, heated debates erupted on Twitter regarding the so called "Moral Brigade" running All About Romance. One of their reviewers gave a negative grade to Victoria Dahl's A Little Bit Wild, taking the author to task for a heroine the reviewer neither liked nor understood because she was brazenly sexual. Which made me question - how do morals fit into fiction, and the reception of fiction?

I mean, how come some authors can totally get away with assassin heroes (Robin Hobb), treasonous and incestuous heroes (George R R Martin), Dukes of Slut heroes (Lisa Kleypas), and prostitute heroines (Mary Balogh) - and yet in books like this one I can't get over the morally ambiguous attitudes of our protagonists? I'll try to explore my reaction as I go.

1. Maybe it's because this was one of the only interesting aspects of Stolen Fury.

This is my first romantic suspense, a genre I wasn't really excited to explore in the first place. Our heroine, Dr. Lisa Maxwell, is on the hunt for the Furies - a near-legendary collection of three Greek reliefs. When she discovers one of the long-lost Furies while spelunking in a Jamaican cave, she thinks she's hit the jackpot. Still buzzing from her victory high, she succumbs to a one-night stand with a sexy Latino stranger.

This sexy Latino stranger, real name Rafe Sullivan, promptly drugs her (after an intense makeout session), and steals the Fury for himself. When an outraged Lisa comes after him, he says the only way she has any hope of getting her first Fury back is to team up with him and help find the third (unbeknownst to Lisa, Rafe already possesses the second). Of course, given the Furies' priceless nature, several nastier people also want to get their hands on the Furies and are willing to do very nasty things to make sure no one gets in their way.

What follows is a story that's 60% plot, and 40% redundant lust speak. There's nothing wrong with establishing the characters are attracted to each other, but you don't have to keep repeating this over and over. It's a romance - attraction is a given. Move on with the plot please!

Neither the plot nor the characters particularly grabbed me either - don't get me wrong, nothing about this book was terribly done, but it all seemed so rote. Like the author hits all the right notes and has all the needed material but there's no life behind it. Everything seemed routine. Damaged heroine who doesn't believe in love? Check. Rakish hero who hides a chewy marshmallow centre? Check. Hot sequel-baiting BFFs and siblings? Check.

2. None of the characters ever really acknowledge or care that what they're doing is wrong, even to the very end.

Maybe that's it. When characters are flawed, I expect a bit of acknowledgment that what they're doing is, well, flawed. It doesn't have to be the characters themselves. Not everyone can be that self-aware, but their interactions with other characters, the dialogue, and the situations should indicate to the reader that this isn't the norm. Or if not, then I like the characters to evolve into an awareness of their actions with the progression of the plot, to the point where they can either continue that way (and become a villain), or improve (remaining a hero).

Throughout the novel, Lisa rails against Rafe for being a thief. She definitely has a reason for this - waking up to a roofie-hangover and an empty safe will do that to a gal. But this supposedly "respected" archaeologist is herself a thief - in fact, in the very first chapter, we read how her acquisition of the first Fury involves trespassing on private property and smuggling the Fury to prevent it from being claimed by the Jamaican government and landing her in jail for ten years. Lisa claims she doesn't take well to "unsolicited advice." What? You mean like federal laws? I kept hearing Indiana Jones growling "It belongs in a museum" in my head.

She demonstrates a continual apathy towards the illegal way she obtained the Fury in the first place, only really acknowledging it's illegal when someone steals it from her and she realizes she can't go to the cops. This really made me question her ethics as an archaeologist - you'd think cultural ownership of antiquities would be a major issue in her line of work. In the end, she relinquishes the Furies, but not because she stole them in the first place. And she doesn't turn her Fury over to Jamaica - she sells it to a gallery owner who has no problem displaying stolen pieces. Um, what?

Yes, Rafe's own thievery is acknowledged, but police officer Hailey, a secondary character (and heroine of Stolen Seduction, the last novel in this trilogy), fills Lisa in on how she caught and arrested Rafe for breaking and entering and then chose to hide the evidence and get Rafe cleared in order to spite her rich, overbearing father. Lisa doesn't bat an eye. Nope, nothing at all wrong about a police officer completely abusing the ethics of her profession and obstructing justice because she has daddy issues! Nothing at all!

3. What acknowledgment there is, is always accompanied by very weak justifications that aren't consistent with the character development.

Whenever the novel really confronts the ambiguity of the characters, it's usually followed by a reason that doesn't really cut it, at least with me. Rafe's main reason for going after the Furies is to get enough cash for his terminally-ill mother to spend her last few months in luxury. I can sort of understand this, but we learn that Rafe isn't exactly in dire financial straights - his business partner is rolling in money.

Furthermore, we soon learn his day job is acquiring rare pieces and antiquities for his BFF's gallery, which involves negotiating with those who are willing to sell and outright stealing pieces from those who aren't. Oh, but Rafe only steals from stupid rich people who don't really care about art and only refuse to sell because they're snobs - and they usually don't even notices the pieces are missing. Sorry, but you have to be pretty darn stupid not to realize that your exceedingly rare and expensive antiquity is missing, so Rafe's "excuse" for his occupation doesn't fly with me. Rafe steals art. He's been stealing art for years. He steals art and then gives it to a gallery for his BFF Peter (hero of the sequel, Stolen Heat) to get disgustingly rich off of. Explain to me the Robin-Hood-esque nature of that, please.

As for Lisa, she spends most of the novel believe she's "earned" the Furies because of the suffering she experienced at the hands of her cold archaeologist boyfriend while he searched for them. I'm sorry, but you're not entitled to violate federal and international laws because your life sucks. To be fair, the novel implicitly suggests her mindset's a little skewed when the deus ex machina villain shows up with almost the exact same motivation.

So how is this different from the other rogues and scoundrels in fantasy and romance literature? And how is this different from the AAR reviewer who disliked A Little Bit Wild because of her own moral reaction to it? I have to say, I don't entirely know. I think my biggest objection is that the characters don't improve or develop off their flaws, nor are they really developed in any real depth in the first place.

Our protagonists, the "good guys," don't reach the end of the novel having learned not to steal art, or to respect the ethical standards of their chosen professions - something that comes across as incredibly out of character. I'd feel the same way about a doctor heroine who dispenses sub-par care to a patient because he's a criminal. This tips this down from a C+ into a flat-out C.
C

8 comments:

  1. Vorkosigrrl2:55 PM

    Good blog. I always enjoy your clear thinking.

    It also strikes me that, if Rafe is well off enough to make his mom comfortable, the moral thing to do would be to actually spend TIME with his terminally ill mother, rather than tearing around chasing down artifacts, i.e., money. Just a small point - MAKE YOUR DYING MOM HAPPY, BOZO, NOT RICH.

    Unless she's just that kinda gal, and has to die with diamonds on her fingers.

    As for the Robin Hobb reference, she lets the reader see Fitz's moral struggles -- e.g., he doesn't like being an assassin, and uses some situations to stick to the letter of the assignment, without actually accomplishing it, such as when he was supposed to assassinate Rurisk.

    Despite Fitz's (many) flaws, he remains a sympathetic character, probably because of the depth of his passions. Talk about throwing your heart over the fence! He flings his entire being into his actions, sometimes with disastrous results, but always from the heart. (Can you tell I'm a big Robin Hobb fan?)

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  2. Vorkosigrrl - dude! I'M a huge Robin Hobb fan! That's what I meant - I adore Fitz and the Fool and Burrich and all those characters, even with their flaws, because Robin Hobb can sell it!

    Sooooo glad Fitz's story continued beyond the Farseer Trilogy. Tawny Man trilogy kicks ass.

    To be fair her Shaman trilogy hasn't wowed me (third book's still on the TBR), but I think after I'm finished with the Shaman, I'll be re-reading the Liveship Traders to prepare for her new trilogy!

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  3. I could almost conjure up some rationale for the heroine's actions. (E.g., change Jamaica to a fictional country where artifacts are routinely commandeered by the corrupt dictator, so only by smuggling the Fury could she ensure it get returned to its rightful owners: the Greek government which will display it.)

    But Naughton clearly needed to watch some Cary Grant caper movies (Charade comes to mind) to see how to rehabilitate a scoundrel hero. Lots of false identities are usually needed.

    About the morality issue in the AAR review -- clearly the reviewer needed to be more explicit about her objections to that particular heroine in that particular book. I read her review as saying that in a romance set in that historical period, a heroine who drinks and acts in an explicitly sexual manner but feels no remorse or even concern for her actions didn't feel right.

    So I thought the issue raised by Emma's review wasn't so much the morality of the heroine's actions as the cultural context of the book those actions occur in. Make it a contemporary, and drunken debauchery might be par for the course. Set it in the Georgian period, and make the heroine already acceptably experienced (a widow, say), and I doubt many eyebrows go up.

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  4. Even before I fully read your review, I was hung up on rake hero DRUGS HER and steals from her. *shakes head*

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  5. Vorkosigrrl11:33 AM

    AnimeJune,

    I totally got that you're a Robin fan -- sorry if I seemed to be in opposition to you. I was just elaborating on your reference, for the sheer joy of talking about her work.

    I wasn't all that into the Soldier Son (Shaman) series, myself, even though I can still admire her craft.

    I just finished Dragon Keeper, which I totally loved, and can't wait to get my hands on Dragon Haven. There's a waiting list at the library, darnit! It's a continuation of the Liveship Traders story, so I think you'll like it.

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  6. Anonymous10:42 PM

    You probably already know this, but just in case you don't -- Robin Hobb used to write as Megan Lindholm, and if you can get your hands on Wizard of the Pigeons, you will not be sorry. -- willaful

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  7. Vorkosigrrl10:33 AM

    willaful - thanks for the recommendation. I've looked for Megan Lindholm in our local libraries, no luck, but maybe I'll find a used one to buy. I think she actually still does write as Megan sometimes.

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  8. Thanks for the review. I saw this book at Borders yesterday, but passed on it. So glad I did. I don't think I would have like it much.

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