Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"Immortal Outlaw," by Lisa Hendrix

The Chick: Matilda Fitzwalter aka "Maud," aka "Marion." Desperate to help her half-brother Robin earn their father's title by solving a series of riddles, she's forced to rely on a hostile stranger for help when Robin injures himself.
The Rub: Said hostile stranger wants to be paid in booty ... and not the pirate kind.
Dream Casting: Zoie Palmer.
The Dude:
Steinarr the Proud, son of Birgir BentLeg. Cursed to live as a man by day and a ferocious lion by night, he's torn between his desire to help Matilda and his vow to her cousin to bring her home by any means necessary.
The Rub: While it's really no contest which side he's choosing, he can't afford to fall too deeply in love with her, for how likely is it that she's just the woman he needs to break his curse?
Dream Casting: Sam Worthington.

The Plot:
Matilda: Sir! We need help on our "pilgrimage"!

Steinarr: Oh really?

Matilda: Yes, it's all about ... *lies, lies and more lies*

Steinarr: Mmmmmmno.

Matilda: Will you do it for a shilling?

Steinarr: Nope.

Matilda: A Klondike Bar?

Steinarr: Tempting, but no.

Matilda: A rousing adventure involving puzzles and religious symbols and a rock that looks a lot like a vagina?

Steinarr: I only heard one word in that whole sentence. Guess which one.

Matilda: Fine. Help me and you can hit it.

Steinarr: DONE.

Adventures: *are had*

Puzzles: *are solved*

SexyTimes: *are performed*

Evil Witch Cwen: *does vague evil witchy things*

Steinarr: If only I were not cursed to be a lion at night, because then we could totally be together forever and ever...

Matilda: Easy now, Simba. Look what I have! *magic lion necklace*

Steinarr: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Big Misunderstanding

1 Accidental Deflowering

1 Evil Cousin

1 Stallion Manfriend

1 Very Bad Dad (Deceased)

1 Evil(ish) Witch

1 Suggestively-Shaped Rock

2 Surprise! Magical Powers

1 Horny Collier

The Word: If you are new to reading Lisa Hendrix' Immortal Brotherhood series, let me give you a quick recap: nine hot Viking Dudes tried to steal a treasure guarded by a canny witch named Cwen. When her son was killed in the fray, she caught our poor Dudes, stole their Symbolic Viking Man Jewellery, and cursed them to live forever as humans for half the day, and wild animals the other half.

Our Dudes were pretty bummed out until, in Immortal Warrior, Ivar Greycloak (who was human by night and an eagle by day) discovered the curse could be broken if one was lucky enough to find his respective Symbolic Viking Man Jewellery and a sexy, willing babe at the same time.

This gave our Dudes hope ... for about two hundred years and then they gave up. Immortal Outlaw takes place in the year 1290, and this novel's Dude, Steinarr, works tag-team style with his fellow Dude Torvald. By day, Steinarr works as a bounty hunter and rides his stallion buddy in a totally platonic, non-erotic equestrian way. Once the sun goes down, Torvald becomes human and keeps Steinarr, who works nights as an uncredited extra for The Lion King, from killing people.

It's a tough life but someone's always got it tougher - as Steinarr discovers when he tries and fails to save an old man from brigands and winds up babysitting two pilgrims named Robin and Marion who are clearly Lying About Everything. They're desperate for protection, but Steinarr can't afford to stay too close and risk hurting them in his lion form once night falls, so when Marion tries a little too hard to bribe him, he scares her off by demanding her virginal goodies in exchange.

In actuality, Marion, real name Matilda, is struggling to protect both herself and her half-brother Robert, the illegitimate son of Lord David Fitzwalter. Now deceased, Lord David left instructions informing Robert that, despite his bastardy, he would be able to inherit his title if he could find a hidden treasure and present it to the king within a set amount of time. The treasure is protected by a heinous trail of difficult riddles, and if Robert can't solve them, the title will go to a skeezy cousin named Guy of Gisbourne - and Guy will do anything to keep Robert from winning. Fortunately, things aren't yet bad enough that Matilda's willing to barter her maidenhead.

However, things get worse once Steinarr and the "pilgrims" part ways. Steinarr learns a garbled version of Matilda's story from Guy, who offers him ten pounds to bring Matilda back and eliminate Robert as a threat. Meanwhile, Robert breaks his leg obtaining one of his father's clues. When a much-more-desperate Matilda and Steinarr cross paths again, she accepts his scandalous offer to have sex with him as much as he likes in return for his escort as she attempts to solve her father's riddles herself.

There was so much I wanted to like about this book, but it was unfortunately more than what I actually liked about this book. Most of what I liked about Lisa Hendrix's writing the first time is still here - the lush description, the historical relevancy (including the novel's sly "interpretation" of the Robin Hood myth), the fascinating antihero Cwen. However, a lot of what I thought this novel needed was missing.

Firstly, the pacing. Okay, the whole "riddle plot" seemed a little silly and over-elaborate to me at first, but then I remembered this is a story about a Hot Viking Dude who turns into the MGM mascot after sunset. However, the riddles make the story's pacing very episodic, chopping the story into segments centred around scenes that require so much mechanical and physical detail to make sense that I often felt myself held at a distance from the story. For instance, there's a sequence where Steinarr and Matilda explore a giant, cracked rock that had me so confused as to what was physically going on that I felt completely excluded from the narrative.

Secondly, the paranormal element. This isn't about the hero's curse - rather, this is about the heroine's. Matilda, as we are told at the start, shares an empathic connection with animals, a magical power she's carefully hidden to prevent accusations of witchcraft. Now, I'm down with the ladypowers, I am - when they are used as an actual paranormal element, and not as a plot device.

Matilda's power's main contribution to the narrative is the sudden empathetic connection she develops with Steinarr (because he's half-lion), allowing her to feel first-hand his own repressed emotions - lust in particular. Because of this, she's constantly thrown off her game by induced feelings of horniness and starts to develop sympathy and affection towards Steinarr without Steinarr having to actually do anything to earn it.

But surely that's not all her powers are for. She can commune with animals. That's a pretty big deal. Considering how much time Matilda spends hiking through the woods and struggling to examine tiny things in enclosed spaces, a little animal power could have come in handy. But she doesn't use it. She barely thinks about it. It doesn't seem to affect any part of her lifestyle. It doesn't contribute anything to the riddle solving plot. There is no reason for her to have powers in this book - except to make the romance easier. See that Chekhovian pistol on the mantlepiece? Sorry, it's just a Relationship Cheat Code. This pissed me off to no end.

And is it sad that Immortal Outlaw isn't even the first romance novel I've read that thinks giving a heroine Vague Animal Powers will spice up an otherwise regular historical?

Thirdly - the hero. It's not that Steinarr's a bad character, it's that he's a bit of a noncharacter. I get that he's good and true and likes the ladies, but that could describe all the Dudes. What about his character is supposed to differentiate him from the other Hot Viking Dudes? Throughout the novel, I never got a clear picture of his interests and desires beyond Sexy Cuddling and Not Accidentally Eating People. Moreover, it's not that his internal conflict is weak, it's that it's little more than the same conflict that Ivar from the previous novel had: "I'd totally love her if it weren't for this Stupid Viking Curse. I'm so lonely." There has to be more to it than that - this is only the second book in a nine-book series where every Dude is Cursed and Lonely. Are they all going to share the exact same Angst over the exact same problem?

That being said, the writing and historical detail are excellent, yet again - as are the Supporting Dudes Torvald (stallion by day) and Ari (raven by night). The development of the Robin Hood myth (thanks to Ari's meddling) is a nice comedic counterpoint to the story as Steinarr and Matilda keep running into people who've fallen for the fable hook, line and sinker. Immortal Outlaw has a strong foundation and does build on the series' overall story (although witchy-witch Cwen is relegated to the role of a Peeping Tom for much of the novel), but as a novel in its own right, it's only okay.

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